Wise Strategic Planning Drives Impact and Resilience
A well-run nonprofit organization delivers on its mission through a visionary strategic plan. That plan aligns board, staff and resources around goals that are ambitious but achievable.
In today’s world, nonprofit organizations face a vast number of considerable challenges, making solid strategic planning more urgent than ever. Arts and cultural institutions do not know when they can welcome patrons back in large numbers. Hunger relief organizations are unsure when volunteers can safely return to pack and distribute food. Needs fluctuate with stay-at-home orders and civil unrest.
Paul Johnson, CFA’s founder and president, working in collaboration with our strategic partner Kathy Graves of the strategic planning and communications firm Parenteau Graves, has good news: facing all of these challenges does not mean you have to change your vision. And, if you incorporate solid scenario planning into your process, your plan should be flexible enough to help you adjust to whatever the future presents.
The Strategic Planning Process Is Vital
“Strategic planning must first articulate an organization’s mission, vision, and values,” Paul says. “Your strategic plan then becomes the lens through which the organization does its work. Your plan isn’t the work that you do at the end of the day when your ‘other’ work is done or in advance of a quarterly check-in with your Strategic Planning Committee. Rather, it is at the center of your daily actions.”
CFA’s strategic planning process begins by helping clients agree on what good they are doing, and for whom. Then we ask, “What’s your north star?” Organizations need to agree where they are headed and what’s guiding them. Only then can you set your priorities.
Paul and Kathy agree that it can be challenging to keep the focus on vision. “People tend to get really tactical because many of us are concrete operational thinkers,” Kathy says. In their strategic planning sessions, they use exercises that probe vision, distinction, community need and impact before an organization establishes its near-term goals and the roadmap to help staff and board put a plan into action.
In their work with organizations of all sizes across the country, Paul and Kathy often find nonprofits have become a collection of programs instead of a vision. “Nonprofits tend to add and never delete,” says Kathy. “Strategic planning, when done well, helps organizations shed old ways of thinking and generate new possibilities for impact.”
Reflecting Diversity, Equity, Inclusion (DEI) and Access in Strategic Plans
The topics of justice and equity are rightfully permeating conversations, especially in light of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Nonprofits are asking pointed questions about the diversity of their boards and staff, about structures and systems that privilege white people, and about how they can be places of inclusion and access. “Nonprofits must show how they are relevant,” Kathy says. “Making an action-oriented commitment to justice and equity is central to relevance and impact. This is not about shifting quotas on a board or simply adding a siloed diversity, equity and inclusion goal to a plan; it’s about much deeper work organization-wide. It must be a lens through which strategic planning is done.”
Paul notes that the conversations around access and equity are opening organizations up to new ideas about how they serve their communities and how they define their space. “One nature center we work with is looking at sending buses out into the community to bring the outdoors to them rather than limiting access to kids at schools that can afford buses,” he says. “An arts organization has used this moment to assess its DEI policies and create a more intentional roadmap to broaden its offerings and make them more accessible. That might mean putting its collection online for the first time.”
Strategic Plans and Fundraising
Why would a strategic plan matter to donors? Paul has discovered that a good plan helps fundraisers in two ways. “Strategic plans often lead people to develop interesting programs or capital projects, and those exciting and ambitious ideas can generate campaign or fundraising programs,” he explains. “Importantly, a smart plan helps a fundraiser articulate a case for support that is aligned with an organization’s mission, vision and values, one that is focused on maximizing impact.”
Kathy agrees. “People give to need, but they really give to impact,” she says.
Future Proofing The Strategic Plan: Scenario Planning
Early in the pandemic, Kathy, Paul, and CFA colleagues spoke with many organizations that required help adjusting their plans and operations. “People needed to figure out how to pivot to shorter-term plans,” Kathy says. “We helped them adjust and stabilize. Then they were able to look up and see that their north star was still there — they were still headed in the right direction. We always build in flexibility so that an organization can be resilient in turbulent and smooth waters.”
To create that flexibility, Kathy and Paul employ scenario planning, which allows boards and staff to envision various paths. As Paul points out, “Scenario planning helps organizations ponder, ‘What if we don’t raise as much as we thought we would? What if we raise more? What if we’re not able to open our doors or welcome volunteers for three months? What if it’s nine months? What would happen if we sold our building or renovated it?’ Taking time to map possibilities in the planning process is a tremendous help for organizations.”
Ultimately, strategic planning can be the best tool to build organizational resilience. “The last seven words of a dying organization are ‘Because we’ve always done it that way,’” says Paul. “Strategic planning allows a board and leadership team to step back, to take stock, and to use their creative and analytical powers to plan a wise path.”