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Strategic Planning – 8 things you need to know to set yourself up for success

Your organization has decided to do a strategic plan and you have been tasked with leading the process, but you’re not quite sure what you need to know to start or run the process. Maybe you have done this before, but it’s been a while. Or, maybe strategic planning is new territory for you and you need a little guidance.

As you get started or think about getting started, there are 8 things you need to know to set yourself up for success.


Know what a strategic plan is.

A strategic plan is a flexible guide linking your nonprofit’s mission and values with its actions and lays out a set of measurable goals, objectives and tactics to help you achieve its long-range vision. It serves as a bridge between your annual goals and long-range plans and helps you prioritize initiatives over two-to-three years. Note, strategic plans are not substitutes for annual plans and are meant to create connections between your organization’s current reality and what/where you aspire to be.

Successful strategic plans are meant to be living, breathing documents that are talked about often and have buy in from your entire organization. They are board and leadership-driven but involve individuals at all levels within your organization. They are adaptable as needed, talked about often and are written to be achievable and measurable.


Know what a strategic plan includes.

There are different methods for developing strategic plans which means there is inconsistency in what is included in them. I have found that successfully implemented plans include:

SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, timely).

These are clear and detailed metrics that everyone understands are key to your plan’s success. SMART goals will show your organization where you want to go, how you will get there and by when.

Clear action plans.

These are your guiding documents that outline your initiatives, responsibilities and measurement tools. They must be clear, concise and talked about often with board and staff.

A timeline for completion.

If you don’t set a target completion date for the plan, it will likely never get finished. Many organizations find that a good strategic plan covers about three years.

Defined accountability.

The plan isn’t just the responsibility of the executive director or management. Board and staff should play a critical role too. Assign team leads to accomplish key initiatives, be clear on expectations and make teams accountable for accomplishing goals.

Measurement tools.

How do you know if you’re successful if you don’t measure? Know how you want to measure success and make that clear in the plan.


Know why you need a strategic plan.

You may question the need for a strategic plan. It’s an investment of time and money from your organization and you may have resistance from your board and staff for doing one. So before you start to develop one, you need to know why you need it.

Strategic plans may be needed for a variety of reasons and those reasons are unique to your organization. Maybe your organization has seen a shift in the people it serves or you are struggling to connect your long-range vision with the way you are currently doing things.


Know if you have the capacity to do the strategic work.

Strategic plans by design are meant to help your nonprofit focus on initiatives outside of the day-to-day work. If your team is already beyond its work capacity doing that work, there will be little chance of reaching your strategic goals.

Look at how much time your team can devote to a plan outside of its normal responsibilities. Consider if additional staff or outside consultants are needed to help you complete strategic work. Task your board with leading key components of the plan. (This should be the case anyhow, but many organizations rely on staff to lead and complete strategic work.)


Know your goals for the plan and what success would look like for your organization once it is completed.

Before you start, it is important to have a clear understanding of what success will look like when you are done. Maybe it’s clarity on your organization’s path going forward. Maybe you want to see sustainable increases in dollars raised. Or it could be to complete a facility master plan or rollout of a new service or program.

The more you and your board can clarify some key areas you want to address BEFORE you start the plan, the more likely you are to focus on the strategic initiatives that are most important and avoid including things that aren’t as important.


Know who you want to include.

This is a question we often get from clients. “Who should we include in this process?” The answer really depends on what you want to accomplish, the size of your organization, the engagement of your board and the goals you set at the beginning of the strategic planning process.

Not everyone needs to be involved the entire time. Some may only need to participate in a focus group-type setting or through surveying. Others will be critical to the in-person discussions where strategic initiatives and action plans are developed.

Some general guidelines.

  • Include a diverse representation of background and thought. Often some of the best insight comes from the people you least expect.
  • Represent key constituencies.
  • Involve partners when appropriate.
  • Identify staff (leadership team and others) who will likely be impacted or need to do work on the initiatives.
  • Engage your board.

Ultimately, you can’t (and shouldn’t) include everyone. When you include too many people in the process, the plan becomes more about building consensus than being strategic. The right number of participants gives your organization the information and strategic guidance it needs, while allowing you to effectively manage the process and build an actionable plan.


Know what “not” to do.

As I mentioned before, strategic plans are living, breathing documents. But they aren’t always treated that way. So after your plan is done, there are several things you should “not” do with it.

Don’t avoid making changes.

The world changes, funding changes, personnel changes. There are times when you need to alter course.

Don’t limit your plan to board and leadership team.

Strategic plans are most successful when they are talked about at ALL levels of the organization. It helps people understand the bigger picture and their potential role in it.

Don’t try to accomplish too much at once.

Avoid creating too many strategic initiatives and spread the initiatives out over time. Your team will get overwhelmed and the likelihood of plan completion goes down.

Avoid irregular plan review.

Talk about your plan at every staff meeting. Review milestones. Ask for progress reports. This keeps the plan front and center.

Don’t keep success to yourself or the board.

Celebrate strategic successes with the team and share the findings.


Know how you are going to get to the finish line. 

We all have different work styles. But when it comes to implementing a strategic plan, there are often projects that require teams who usually don’t work together. Therefore, you must have a clear implementation plan.

Getting to the finish line requires structure and discipline. Hopefully your consultant will provide you with a structured plan that includes clearly written high-level goals, key objectives, board/staff leads, deadlines and measurement tools. Everyone should be working off of the same documents and key strategic planning deadlines should be worked into your annual goals and timelines. Meet quarterly with your strategic planning team to review progress and have strategic planning discussions as a regular agenda item for your board meetings.

Much of the strategic planning process comes long before you even set foot in a room with a consultant to discuss your high-level goals and long after that consultant leaves. Knowing what to expect and what is involved in the process is just as important as the work you do to develop your plan. And when you have a clear understanding of everything involved, you will likely have a strategic planning process that is powerful and transformational for your organization.

Have questions or want to learn more? Contact us to discuss how our strategic planning services can assist your organization. 


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