Monday, October 22, 2012

Strategic Planning - Positioning Your Nonprofit for Growth

Ah, the much-maligned and often discarded strategic plan. Why would I write about that, you ask?
Probably no other topic gets more groans and eye rolling when I propose it to my clients. I get comments like “Total waste of time and money”  “Ineffective gobbledygook” and “too confining”, along with a few less printable comments.  
I get it, I really do. When I was an employee of a nonprofit, the board once decided we would have a retreat and come up with a “plan”. The retreat was held at a board member's mountain cabin, set in a lovely forest area. There were a few glitches.
First, I had to drive 92 miles through an Idaho snowstorm on poorly maintained secondary roads to get there. Not too bad, if you were used to it, and had a four-wheel drive, but I wouldn’t say I arrived in a relaxed and upbeat frame of mind. Second, the format was to have everyone write down their wish list for the agency, and put them in a hat. The moderator (a board member) would pull them out, read them and ask for a show of hands as to whether it should be included in the plan (for real…I couldn’t make this up). The suggestions dealing with budgets and controls didn’t get many votes. The result was that there was a lot of emphasis on the “warm fuzzies”, marketing, getting grants, and events. The results were expanded and put into a nice little report cover containing about three pages, and that was the strategic plan. I don’t think anyone ever looked at it again, and a couple of years later, it was thrown away.
Then there was the client who wanted to hire me to write “a two page executive summary for our strategic plan”. Great, glad to help. When I asked for the plan so I could summarize it, he responded, “Oh we don’t have a plan, we just need to have a summary for a grant”. I pointed out that I couldn’t summarize something that didn’t exist, whereupon he told me “never mind, we can throw something together.” Yikes!
Neither of these scenarios have anything at all in common with an effective strategic plan. First, these should span a minimum of five years, and should be forward-looking, with a specific goal. It should contain financial projections and the SWOT analysis I mentioned in the last post. The plan is constructed to develop methods and measurements to evaluate progress in achieving that goal. Second, there has to be a review of the plan annually. What were the first year goals? Were they accomplished, and if not what is being done to get back on track? Does this review necessitate modifying the five-year plan? If at any point, the plan goal has gone completely off track, should the original the plan be rewritten with more a realistic goal?  Ideally, the plan evolves as each year is completed, and a new five-year plan emerges for the next five-year period almost automatically.
Strategic plans, by their very nature, should not be static. Look at the name. Strategic means have a strategy (goal, plan and method) to get somewhere or accomplish something specific. Imagine what would have happened in WWII at the Normandy landing, if Eisenhower had just had all the generals throw their battle plans in a hat and took the ones with the most votes to implement. I imagine the native tongue of the United States would now be German.
Strategic plans have to begin with the desired end result or goal for that time period, and then develop methods to achieve that goal, include recognition of, and contingency planning for, the inevitable obstacles, and they must be dynamic. They are the road map for your agency. That means that your destination must be defined, and while you may have to take a detour, you still know what your arrival point is going to be, and you still follow the basic direction for getting there. The road is not a concrete channel, and a detour is not a reason to abandon the journey. If you are a group applying for 501(c)(3) status, the strategic plan will make the application much, much easier to complete, and if done well, will probably prevent the dreaded “need more information” letter from the IRS.
Don’t ignore or dismiss the value of the strategic plan. When properly constructed and monitored, it does have value, and may ultimately save you far more time and money than it cost to develop. If you need help feel free to contact me at, or on my Cloudlancer Writing Services Facebook page.  
© 2012 Rebecca Lee Baisch   All rights reserved.

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