Originally posted at facilitation & process, LLC
On more than one occasion, nonprofit leaders have asked me “when does it make sense to invest the time, energy, and other resources to create a strategic plan?” I can empathize — money is tight, time is stretched thin, and your days often end with pressing demands that carryover until tomorrow. In this reality, it is understandable that investing the hours and weeks to create a strategic plan often keeps strategic planning on the list of “things to do” that never quite gets checked off as done. So it is a fair question: When should an agency consider developing a strategic plan? In this post, I would like to offer six core strategic questions as a way to help your agency think about when to develop a strategic plan.
1. What is motivating us to plan? The most fundamental question that you need ask yourself is “why now?” In my opinion, strategic planning motivation must have a little more energy than following an established calendar – “Yep. Five years, time for a strategic plan.” The motivation for strategic planning needs to be driven by, well, strategy. Defining the motivation helps a team focus attention on a process that is meaningful. Planning from a calendar is uninspiring but planning for growth (see here), innovation (see here) or because of a changing social ecology (see here) can give energy focus and life to a strategic planning process.
2. Why Now? The second question relates to the urgency and is often a different answer than the motivation driving a strategic planning process. In an ideal world there is both a motivation and a sense of “now.” The sense of now can be driven by a number of scenarios, for example, a retrospective look at data suggesting downward trends in the fiscal or program indicators, or bringing new leadership to the agency or board may also compel the “now.” Thinking about the “now” may also have more pragmatic origins such as a particular time of year having a down cycle for program activities (e.g., summer time for an afterschool program).
One “why now” answer that is sometimes heard is “because we just ________ ” (fill in the blank with a crisis). We just lost our major funder. Our executive director just quit. We were just named in an employee lawsuit. While all of these “crisis scenarios” deserve planning, crisis planning is not the same as strategic planning. Strategic planning may follow the successful completion of a crisis plan or, hopefully, strategic planning is far enough ahead of the curve to prevent the crisis in the first place. Yet in terms of the motivation and urgency, responding to a crisis is not the same as a strategic plan.
3. What impact do we hope to achieve? The third relevant planning question forces an organization of get specific and measurable. What impact will you use to measure the strategic planning process? Two typical outcomes for strategic planning include improve performance (see here) or demonstrating more compelling program outcomes. (see here & here). In some ways, all strategic planning is about efficiency, effectiveness and scale. Are we creating the most compelling outcomes based on the limited resources we have at our disposal? This impact question becomes the heart and soul of any strategic planning process.
4. What are the consequences of doing nothing? The fourth question is to consider the trajectory of inertia. If we did not engage in strategic planning, what would happen? In a rare case, an agency might answer the question with the response of “very little.” There are times when incumbency, size, or a resource differential truly allows an agency to cruise on autopilot. However, more often, the current environment of scarce and/or redistributed resources coupled with increased service demands makes the status quo an untenable long-term scenario of success. However, as part of strategic planning, considering the timing of “why now” and what are the risks of “not now” should be part of the planning calculus.
5. What resources are available? The last two planning questions are more pragmatic in nature. The first of these is the question of resources. At this point, I will harken back to the old truism of “time, money, done correctly – choose two.” If “done correctly” is one of your two non-negotiable strategic planning variables, it is generally true that the planning process will be a balance between the money and time you have to devote to the task. At the absurd extreme, I once worked on a grant-funded project, where a strategic planning consultant priced his firm’s strategic planning proposal in the low six figures claiming that the firm would deliver a “turn-key” plan. At the other end of the spectrum, are nonprofit organizations wanting to “bootstrap” a strategic plan with virtually no resources. For most organizations, the truth about allocating resources for planning lies somewhere in between the two extremes — tho nearer to the bootstrap than six figures end of the spectrum (more here). The point is that thinking about strategic planning includes adequately thinking about resourcing the process, whether you use a consultant or not.
6. What can we do to avoid a worse case scenario? The last outcome that your organization needs when embarking on strategic planning is to end the process with an incomplete or mediocre plan. There are literally dozens of books and manuals on nonprofit strategic planning that outline the elements of successful strategic planning. Here it is sufficient to say that before embarking on strategic planning your organization needs to think about a) the framework you will use, b) the guidance you will seek, c) the timeline you will adhere to, d) the decision making process and e) the progress markers that will serve as planning guideposts. Planning to plan helps to ensure success.
Nonprofits often get stuck managing the day-to-day and put off thinking about strategies. Perhaps your agency can be numbered among the many who have asked me, “how do I know when its time to plan?” The thoughtful consideration of these six questions is designed to help you move from the conceptual to the specific. These questions can serve as the decision-making sequence for strategic planning. Working though each can help you, your staff and board decide when the time is right to resource a strategic planning process.
As always, your thoughts are welcome.
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