For many years, organizations embarking on a strategic planning effort followed an organized, pre-set process that grew out of a desire to justify large capital expenditures to investors. Many books were written on the subject, and a generally accepted process was the norm. Plans were populated with such elements as vision and mission statements, competitive analyses, SWOT analysis, risk assessments, resources analyses, etc. And the plans were developed using similarly structured, replicable and defined processes.
But in today’s world, and especially in the world of nonprofits, more attention must be paid to the specific needs of the organization in designing the process. Unlike in the business world, nonprofits do not have the same set of performance measures such as net income, earnings per share or return on investment. Often the goals are less tangible, boards’ involvement in running the organizations vary, and the dependence on philanthropy makes life very uncertain.
If nonprofits fail, they may well cease to exist – and a societal need may go unmet. There is not a bankruptcy option that will allow you to start over. Thus planning is a necessity, but it must be thoughtful, and tailored to provide exactly what the organization needs.
While there may be no standard approach, we do suggest that a number of questions should be asked prior to any strategic planning effort.
1. What is the time frame for the plan? At one time, five years was the standard. But because we are living in a faster changing world with a less certain picture of the future, projecting that far out may be no more than an academic exercise.
2. Do we start with defining the vision of the organization? Many organizations begin with the mission, define the goals and strategies and then determine where the organization might go in the long run. Nonprofits, in particular, often begin their lives by providing a defined service that fulfills a social need. Once up and running, the question may be asked, “Where can we take this?” Or perhaps the vision is never defined, and the organization sees its role as successfully providing services that are needed, while focusing on ensuring financial sustainability in order to continue providing the service.
3. Is the strategic plan budget-driven, or is the budget a result of an intentional planning process? An organization flush with funding may decide to focus on programs, knowing that it likely will be able to offer those programs as envisioned. An organization that is struggling financially, however, may decide it must redefine itself in order to fund the very basic services it can afford. The planning may range from dreaming of what could be done to determining what is needed to survive.
Before any process is agreed upon, the client and the consultant must intentionally determine what is really needed in the effort, what is the desired outcome and output (yes, they are not the same), who is the audience, and how the plan is to be used. Only then can a sound work plan be developed.