An approach to strategy for nonprofits

Photo credit: kevulike/flickr under CC license

As many who follow this blog know, I retired from my professional life as a marketing and strategy executive to care for my now 95-year-old father and have used the hiatus to support nonprofits. That’s a long way of saying that most of the work I do by choice is pro bono, for causes I care about. I use this blog to share what I’m doing in the hopes it may support other nonprofits as they strive to fulfill their missions. In this post, I’ll share an agenda that I used last fall and describe the results.

In my first post in this series, I suggested that nonprofits have a greater need for real strategy than larger organizations. But, up against the press of reality, it may make more sense for a nonprofit to focus on action planning rather than strategic planning, and call it that.

Most nonprofit organizations also don’t have the resources to do what large corporations do: either task a staff department to draft a new strategy, or hire a smart consulting firm to develop a strategy under the supervision of management. One takes six months to a year, and the other, many thousands of dollars.

Last fall, I worked with a nonprofit to figure out: did it really need to focus on operational planning, or strategic planning? This particular organization is recovering from a crisis, making it very difficult to think beyond day-to-day challenges. But with operations normalizing, the Board felt ready to start talking about the organization’s future direction.

Below, I’ve pasted in a copy of the agenda for the 6 hour discussion I facilitated last fall. You’re looking at two paths the Board could have gone down. The left hand (blue) approach implies, “Hey, we’re doing important work. We just need to stay focused on doing what we’re doing well. Let’s stay the course.” The right hand column, which was the one the Board chose, meant, “Now that we have our heads above water, let’s take a fresh look. Let’s think about need and imagine if we were designing this nonprofit from the outset. What’s needed today?”

The group didn’t have that conversation with some grounding in reality. The agenda included a review of the environment, which included an inventory of local organizations addressing the same need. I developed a high level environmental assessment with categories that made sense: charitable giving trends, underlying issues having to do with need of the population served, trends in poverty/unemployment/economy, related trends in the retail/service environment, trends affecting the government’s role in addressing the problem, nonprofit trends including administrative cost pressures, and social/political/cultural trends. (For some organizations, it may also be important to consider technological trends – and, of course, changing demographics are a biggie.)

Given the constraints of volunteer Board members’ time (a Harris Poll found that Americans lost an average of 20 percent of their available leisure time from 2007-2008, as reported in Grassroots Fundraising Journal), I thought the group might want to divide and conquer by chartering some mini-teams to explore several new/different overall approaches to fulfilling the mission and reporting back to the full group. Instead, they established a series of full-group mini-retreats — extended 3 hour meetings — at which they will identify and explore options as a group. The first of those meetings is next month.

At that meeting, the group will attempt to achieve these outcomes:

1) Discuss/establish one or more long term goals as a stretch target or direction.  Long term goals will have a longer horizon such as something we would hope to achieve in 5-10 years.

2) Brainstorm ideas for alternatives or initiatives.  A limited number (1-3) will be selected for further exploration.

3)  Assign teams to develop concept proposals based on guidelines established by the Board.  Teams might be asked to gather data or input from community experts or leaders, draft a refined concept, estimate costs to develop, identify risks, and identify potential benefits and funding sources.

Stay tuned!

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