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Team planning

How to prepare for your nonprofit strategic plan

You’ve made the decision to do it. Your board has agreed it’s a good idea and now you are headed down the road to create a new nonprofit strategic plan.

If you have been through the process before, you know it takes work. So, before you gather everyone together and start talking strategy around the table, take the time to prepare. Just following these simple steps prior to getting started will ultimately help you achieve better results and a better finished plan.  

Make sure everyone knows what a strategic plan is - and isn’t.

This may sound basic, but I am surprised how many people really don’t understand where a strategic plan fits into the organization. I have on many occasions asked board and staff members if they have been involved in nonprofit strategic planning before and a majority have no experience or knowledge of the process.

A strategic plan is a bridge between annual goals and long-range vision that aligns with your mission and values. It’s not an annual operational plan, but a plan that is designed to cover larger, more specific initiatives that take place over a period of years (often three-to-five). It has specific goals, objectives and tactics. It is a living, breathing document that is open to change depending on the environment. And it is process-driven with achievable, measurable goals with beginning and end dates. It is not meant to sit on a shelf and is regularly discussed with the board and staff.

Understand the costs of strategic planning and set a budget.

Developing a strategic plan is an investment you are making in your organization. But there is more at stake than just the cost of hiring a consultant to do the plan (though that is a consideration for sure.)

  • Time – The process requires additional time from leadership, your board and your team. Be realistic about everyone’s capacity and ability to take on more work. Not only does developing the plan take time, implementing the plan does too!
  • Facilitator – You are likely going to hire a consultant/facilitator to help you with your plan. If you don’t have money budgeted ($10,000+ is the minimum going rate depending on the size of your organization) you will need to secure that funding from somewhere.
  • Additional research – You may have a large organization that requires specialized focus groups, surveying and other data collection. If this is something you want, it is often not covered in regular consultant fees.
  • Meals, space, lodging and travel– You are going to need to feed people if you have them in a room working for a ½ day or a day. You may have board members, guests or a facilitator that needs lodging and travel covered.
  • Strategic initiatives budget – Consider that some of your strategic initiatives may have their own budget requirements. You may want to have a separate budget just for implementing strategic initiatives.

Set goals for your strategic planning process.

Before you even start the plan, ask yourself, your board and your leadership team what you want to achieve during the process.

  • Do you want to address capital projects?
  • Do you need to have better alignment of your mission, vision and values?
  • Do you need to develop succession plans for key leaders/founders?
  • Are there environmental changes (competition, funding, regulatory) that will change the way your organization operates?

Understanding much of the “why” going into your strategic plan will give your facilitator important guidance when working with your team. And, it will help you and your board manage expectations during the planning and implementation phases.


Define what a successful strategic plan will look like for your organization.

I have always liked the Stephen Covey habit “begin with the end in mind.” It applies perfectly to strategic planning. Many nonprofits have expectations of what the ongoing process and/or final product will look like with their plan yet are often disappointed when they don’t get what they expect.

Success could include:

  • Buy-in from all parties.
  • Mission, vision and values alignment.
  • Direction for the next few years.
  • Clear goals, completed action plans and success measurement tools.

Make sure your team, board and facilitator have discussed and agree on what success looks like for you, so you can manage expectations along the way.


Think about who you want to include on your core team and strategic planning group.

Each organization should have a core strategic planning team made up of 5-10 people who are guiding the process for the organization. This team is typically made up of board members, key staff, the executive director and possibly key volunteers. This team is responsible for helping pick a consultant to facilitate the plan, set the goals for the planning process and help define what success looks like.

The strategic planning group is a larger group (often 20-30 people) that encompasses the board, representatives of key constituencies, staff and outside individuals who have specialties in key business or service areas.

A few things to remember:

  • Not everyone can be a part of your strategic planning group, but they can still be part of the process through focus groups, surveys and one-on-one conversations with a facilitator.
  • Choose participants who will challenge thinking and be active members of the process.
  • Be careful to avoid adding people who will overly disrupt the discussions and keep others from actively participating.
  • Don’t build a group with a goal of building consensus. That will never happen. Look for group members who are willing to contribute ideas and listen to the ideas of others. The goal is achieving buy-in.

Set a timeline for completion and be flexible.

Many organizations want plans to launch their strategic plans around specific timelines – a new calendar year, a new fiscal year, a transition in leadership or other event. This makes sense and helps guide the process to keep everyone on track.

A typical strategic plan, depending on the organization’s size and footprint, can take six months to a year to complete, and that’s assuming a very aggressive schedule. But there are many things that can throw off even the most well-planned schedule. That’s why I suggest having time built in for:

  • Unexpected events - Bad weather, illness, travel problems and other unexpected events can lead to delays and require rescheduling of planning sessions a month or two later.
  • Holidays and vacations – You always will have to plan around them. Avoid meetings during heavy vacation and holiday times.
  • Busy schedules – People are busy. You may have to schedule evening or weekend sessions to get things done.
  • Ebbs and flows in your nonprofit work – Consider the workload of your internal team. Do you have certain times of year that are busier than others?

Know what you are looking for in a facilitator and in a consultant.

Different consultants have different ways of facilitating strategic plans. And depending on your budget, you may have to give up some things you really would like to have. As you go through the consultant vetting process, you should ask yourself and your team questions such as:

  • Are you looking for someone to drive the process for you? Or do you want to control most of the coordination?
  • Does the firm or consultant have experience developing strategic plans? Can they provide referrals?
  • What kind of consultant do we need to effectively manage our team, board and staff?
  • What does the project fee get us? A $5,000 engagement may only include a retreat facilitation and a simple dashboard. A $25,000 strategic plan may include the retreat plus staff planning sessions, enhanced dashboards and ongoing accountability work.
  • Do we want to work with a solo consultant or a company with more available resources?
  • Do we need/want ongoing implementation help and does the consultant have the capacity to do it?

Preparing for the strategic planning process is just as important as the process itself. So, take the time to set and manage expectations up front to ensure you have the best chance of achieving the strategic plan your organization wants and needs.


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