The Hard Spade Work of Strategic Planning

[Fifth in a series.]

In May, I reported that the strategic planning process I was facilitating for a small local nonprofit was right on track. After engaging the Board in identifying three possible directions, following a discussion of the environment and potential outcomes, the time came to dig in.

As Patrick Bell, who teaches the Non Profit Resource Center’s “Board Leadership: The Essentials” workshop tells Board members, a Board should provide input for long-range goals and the strategic plan and forge a strong partnership with staff in leading the organization.

That “strong partnership” has to respect the fact that the nonprofit’s leader is the one in day-to-day contact with clients and constituents. Staff should be in the best position to understand the operational challenges of potential directions. And, of course, they are going to be the ones held accountable for achieving the desired results.

This summer, I’ve been helping the staff of a small nonprofit explore three potential directions. By the end of August, we hope to be in a position to cue up the options so that the executive director can choose the best course, and prepare to recommend a five-year strategy.

Here’s a peek at the streams of work that have been underway:

  • Deep diving into outcomes: According to some studies, organizations that commit to outcomes* and evaluate them actually perform better than organizations with a looser sense of impact. Most nonprofits (especially those that operate in the sector that this one does) do not have true outcome goals. They measure output (for example, clients served), but not outcome. The “deep dive” has included interviewing several well-run local nonprofits, investigating the literature about outcomes related to this sector, meeting with a top national academician on the topic, surveying 20 nonprofits in the same sector in similar-sized communities, and collecting feedback from existing clients. The survey of 20 nonprofits (based on public sources) turned up a fourth direction that is now being considered.
  • Investigating targets: Successful for profit companies recognize that they have to be as good as competitors, or their lunch will be eaten. Nonprofits compete, too. They compete to be deserving of funders’ and donors’ confidence. They would benefit from knowing how their “competitive set” is performing with respect to indicators like administrative efficiency and contribution to overhead (total revenues minus total expenses, divided by total revenues). My hope is that this nonprofit will not only land on a couple of indicators that will help them to assess how they are doing, but set specific targets for where they need to be as part of the metrics related to strategic plan progress. A nonprofit, for example, can’t break even. It must be “profitable” enough to fund basics like IT infrastructure (increasingly expensive and critical) and program development. An emerging (but still debated) measure for nonprofits is the amount of funds contributed by social enterprise; McKinsey’s capability model (see link in next paragraph) assumes that nonprofits should develop sources of revenue beyond grants and donations. The survey of 20 organizations revealed a net “profit” ranging from -10% to over 10%, so it’s going to be interesting to figure out the right target for this organization! (One approach would be to decide which organization they most want to be like “when they grow up.”)
  • Assessing capability: We identified several helpful tools to help the organization assess its strength across every aspect of its management, from the Board through operations through communications and fundraising. Here are a couple of resources worth checking out: McKinsey’s tool adapted from its extensive work in the commercial sector, and United Way of Minneapolis’ tool posted on managementhelp.org.
  • Qualitative research into the possible directions: We’ve been out talking to nonprofits serving related clients as well as holding focus groups with people facing the kinds of problems that we hope to alleviate. There is no substitute for going straight to the horses’ mouths, and there have been some surprising insights that have come from this work.

Along the way, our understanding of the external environment has greatly expanded, insights that we’re weaving into the partially completed strategic plan document. When we’re done, the executive director should be in a position to put in front of the Board a well-researched recommendation and plan that answers the questions:

  • Where are we now?
  • What are we trying to do?
  • What will have to change?
  • How will we get there?
  • What do we expect to happen when we get there?
  • What are the risks and how can we mitigate them?

McKinsey, in a recent article entitled “How Strategists Lead,” did a great job of describing what we’re trying to build: “A great strategy, in short, is not a dream or a lofty idea, but rather the bridge between the economics of a market, the ideas at the core of a business, and action. To be sound, that bridge must rest on a foundation of clarity and realism, and it also needs a real operating sensibility.”

* Outcomes are defined as, “Socially meaningful changes for those served by a program, generally defined in terms of expected changes in knowledge, skills, attitudes, behavior, condition, or status. These changes should be measured, be monitored as part of an organization’s work, link directly to the efforts of the program, and serve as the basis for accountability.” – adapted from the Glossary of Terms of the Shaping Outcomes Initiative of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, Indiana University and Purdue University Indianapolis; The Nonprofit outcomes Toolbox: A Complete Guide to Program Effectiveness, Performance Measurement, and Results by Robert Penna; and the Framework for Managing Programme Performance Information of the South African government. As published in “Leap of Reason: Managing to Outcomes in an Era of Scarcity, Venture Philanthropy Partners

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