Nonprofit strategic planning does not have to be complicated or time consuming.

Yet most people cringe at the thought of doing it.

Probably because we’ve participated in the process at some point – sequestered in a room with our Board and staff, doing exercises on flip charts with sticky notes or dots, and never really getting a clear, finished product that we can understand or use.

Sound familiar?

It’s unfortunate, because the truth is this: if you don’t have a strategic plan, you are very likely to be busy but not effective.

Oh, you’ll find plenty to do, but it may or may not move you toward fulfilling your nonprofit’s mission.

There’s a great scene in “Alice in Wonderland” where Alice meets the Cheshire cat and it goes like this:

Alice: “Which way should I go?”

Cheshire Cat: “Where do you want to get to?”

Alice: “It doesn’t really matter”

Cheshire Cat: “Then any road will take you there.”

That describes a lot of small nonprofits perfectly!

They have no plan, so they’re doing things but not really getting anywhere.

So, let’s fix that.

What strategic planning IS

Strategic planning is the process of deciding where you want to go as an organization and how you’ll get there.

It’s about getting really clear about the programs you want to provide and the impact you’ll make.

Your plan covers the next 3 to 5 years and is usually at a higher level than an annual plan which gets into more detail and action steps about the coming 12 months.

Ideally, a strategic plan should not be a one-time activity. Yes, it might start with a retreat and set the initial course, but unless there’s a regular review of the plan and frequent course correction to stay on track, it’s a waste of time.

Whether your nonprofit is brand new or been around a while, the result is the same – a strategic plan keeps you focused and moving forward.

Let’s get nerdy

Here’s what strategic planning is all about: It sets a destination so you know where you’re going. That focus gives you clarity about the annual, monthly, and weekly tasks that must be accomplished in order to hit the long-range goals.

Your plan starts with your mission, which defines who you’ll serve and the need you’ll meet. In the case of a food pantry, it’s about providing boxes of food to neighbors in need.

From there, your plan should set goals for the coming 3-5 years in the key areas that will help you meet your mission. Those key areas should be around where you’ll find program participants, how you’ll deliver services, and any other resources you’ll need. Our food pantry strategic plan may have goals for the quantity and quality of food they want to provide. They may have a goal for providing fresh produce and another one for delivery of food to the elderly.

Once you have clear goals, you can define strategies for getting there. If the food pantry’s goal is to provide 10 servings of fresh fruits and vegetables in each food box, they may develop a strategy for working with local grocery stores to get produce donated.

A goal is not a good one unless it’s measurable. The final piece here is to set goals you can measure. Our food pantry might set a goal of acquiring 1,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables each week so they can meet their goals.

The final step would be to see where they are now and use that as a baseline. If they’re currently including produce in food boxes once a month or so, they’ve got some work to do.

By making everything specific and measurable, it’s easy to tell when strategies are working and goals have been met.

See how this works?

Strategic planning process

The process of creating a plan doesn’t have to be complicated or time-consuming. But you DO have to commit to it.

1. Long-range goals. What do you want to have accomplished in 3 years? 5 years? In this visioning process, it’s a good idea to include a variety of stakeholders – Board, staff, volunteers, and maybe even program participants, just to get a variety of perspectives.
2. SWOT analysis. Most groups start with a SWOT analysis to determine the organization’s

  • Strengths
  • Weaknesses
  • Opportunities
  • Threats

This exercise is common and helpful in getting the conversation started among participants. It’s helpful to look at internal and external factors that might support or obstruct the nonprofit’s ability to reach its strategic goals.
3. Resources. What do you need to add or subtract to reach your long-range goals? Are there additional programs you need? Programs you need to shut down? The planning process should help you get clear about what you need to make your plan a reality.
4. Short-term goals. What needs to happen in the next 12 months in order to hit your 3-year goals?
5. Action plans. Who will do what and by when so your organization can hit its short-term goals? This is the nitty-gritty of any plan and critical for taking action to move the plan forward.

What to include in your strategic plan

Your strategic plan should address these key areas for each of your long-range goals:

  • Programs. Do you need more participants in your programs? More supplies? Are you trying to grow programs, hold steady, or phase them out?
  • Costs. What will it cost you to reach your programmatic goals? You may be able to gather cost estimates from analyzing current program data or by requesting estimates from vendors.
  • Resources. What money, volunteers, etc., do you have already and what will you need to reach your programmatic goals? How will you get them?
  • Facilities.  Do you have the facilities you need to reach your programmatic goals?
  • Staff. Do you have the staff you need to reach your programmatic goals?

Your strategic plan is a living document meaning it should be changed as needed. That means it will never be “finished” and that’s ok.  The world changes quickly and your nonprofit needs to be able to change with it, adapting to external impacts and taking advantage of new opportunities.

Planning tips

Here are some tips for strategic planning:

  • Use an outside facilitator. It can be super helpful to have someone from outside the organization facilitate the planning process to keep you getting distracted by details and to help you think differently about your goals.
  • Keep it top-of-mind. Once you have a plan in place, it should appear on your Board and staff meeting agendas to keep it front-and-center for everyone.
  • Commit to the process. Set aside some time to work on the plan and later, to review the plan. Your plan will not be very good if you try to gloss over the process, not giving the process the time it deserves.
  • Update it regularly. At the end of each calendar or fiscal year, re-evaluate your strategic plan, adjust as needed, and add another year on the end. That way, you’ll always know what’s coming for the next 3 years (or however many years your plan covers).
  • Ask the hard questions. Don’t be afraid to ask “what if we eliminate this program?” or “are our services still needed?” Also ask “Are we duplicating services that another nonprofit is offering?” “Is there something needed in the community that we could provide?”
  • Involve the stakeholders. Include those who need to approve or implement your strategic plan in the planning process. Involvement creates buy-in and you’ll need that to reach your long-range goals.

Strategic planning is like this: if you set your GPS to go from Kentucky to Atlanta, it will find you the fastest route to your destination. If an accident pops up, the GPS will reroute you.

Your strategic plan should function the same way – identifying the destination and helping you avoid delays along the way so you arrive safely at your goals in the time frame you had in mind.