When a “strategic plan” is not a strategy, actually

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First in a series

A friend recently showed me a document that was purported to be the strategic plan for a nonprofit association. What it was, actually, was output from a brainstorming session at which the organization’s board picked a bunch of initiatives and actions, titled, “Strategic Plan.”

Discussions, brainstorms and lists of initiatives are useful exercises for nonprofit boards, but they are no substitute for a strategy.

Let me make two flat statements:

  • Very few nonprofits — at least small, local ones — have a plan that rises to the level of being “strategic”
  • Not every nonprofit needs to invest in strategic planning – at least, not right now

What’s wrong with most nonprofit strategic plans?

1) They usually aren’t grounded in an understanding of the changing environment and competition; by competition, I mean anything that addresses the need the nonprofit is concerned about. The “anything” would certainly include other nonprofits but it would also include government and grassroots responses to the need.

2) They rarely drive toward a clear goal and target. Many nonprofits are focused on activity, for example, clients served. Though important and useful, activity measures aren’t adequate to provide direction. If you helped 10,000 people last year, is attempting to serve 15,000 people the following year an adequate goal? This isn’t McDonald’s, and numbers served isn’t an outcome. Most things that pass for goals represent too broad of a focus to help an organization decide how to deploy its resources. If it can’t guide decisions about where to invest staff and resources, then it isn’t adequate as a goal. In other cases, the goal seems to be based on bean-counting: the goal may be to achieve a certain level of revenue, or to produce a certain number of programs, but what’s to say those are the right numbers? That’s the role of a target. Targets should be based on an understanding of what would be good performance for that nonprofit as it chooses what problem it will attack; it can be very helpful to consider what other high-performing nonprofits have been able to achieve in their communities. The right targets can be transformative to an organization.

Some reading this may be thinking, “That’s all well and good for corporations, but nonprofits don’t need real strategic plans.”

I would argue that nonprofits need strategic plans more than for-profit enterprises because their resources are so constrained.

Strategic plans are about choice, thoughtful choice. When you can’t do everything, you have to decide what’s the best thing you can do. That takes understanding your organizational capabilities — both assets and limitations — as well as something about what needs are unfilled. It’s not about the quest for the next new thing.

Why strategic planning isn’t for every nonprofit – at least not right now

As a group of McKinsey authors said in a paper last year, “Strategy is a way of thinking…” (Bradley, Hirt and Smit, “Have you tested your strategy lately?” McKinsey Quarterly, Jan. 2011)

If an organization is in the midst of a crisis, or stretched to the limit, it may be better served by action planning than by strategic planning. Action plans identify the basic steps that have to take place to meet the immediate need. What has to happen to support client services? What block-and-tackling marketing and fundraising activities have to be completed within critical timeframes? What infrastructure has to get fixed or put in place?

It’s a little like farming. Action planning lets a nonprofit subsist off the land, but it may not maximize its productivity. Creating a thriving farming enterprise requires understanding the market for crops, analyzing the soil/climate and what the farm could produce best, perhaps learning and implementing new approaches, and figuring out how to switch from doing things the old way to the new way. It might also involve creating new alliances or partnerships.

But with the annual strategic planning retreat coming up, what’s a nonprofit to do?

To use the time of the Board wisely, think long and hard about what the outcome of the retreat needs to be. Does the nonprofit need to prioritize the most important actions that need to be taken to stay afloat (which includes de-prioritizing some programs or activities that may be sacred cows to some Board members)? If so, then an action planning retreat would serve it best — and call it that, not a strategic planning retreat. Or are operations under control enough to look toward the horizon? Then focus the conversation on how the Board wants to approach the process of strategic planning.

I think there’s a moral imperative for nonprofits to periodically re-examine their direction, even their missions. What can the nonprofit focus upon that really meets a need and is within its potential capabilities? That’s what the strategy should answer.

Next: kicking the tires of the existing strategy/direction

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