Nonprofit Strategy and Planning: Process and Tools

The continual evolution of non-profits, particularly those in rural areas, can be a struggle given all of the operational development and sustainability planning that is required to make this happen. It takes resources – a lot of them! This leaves nonprofit leaders struggling with maintaining directions by trying to fill in the gaps and in an effort to be all things to all people. This may be why many walk a fine line between hope and despair. (Latham, 2016). Currently, seven percent of nonprofits in the U.S. are technically insolvent (Morris, Roberts, MacIntosh, and Bordone, 2018), with 30% struggling with cash reserves and 50% having less than a month of reserves ready. Funding limitations put the focus on money and not developing the programs so people become too stretched to effectively build capacity. Sustainability then becomes harder to achieve and the value of programming and impact gets lost.

Ongoing strategic planning is a way to establish a road map to success the organization. Business has done this for years but sometimes it escapes the nonprofit world, even though the “product” on nonprofit service is for the greater good. How is that? Big business knows that strategic planning creates a better understanding of the organization and the sector/constituency served, as well as provides ongoing monitoring of the evolving external environment. It provides the clear site lines and vision for the organization and builds the foundations to create, monitor and measure success. Nonprofits have the opportunities but just need the planning and execution done correctly.

There is no one way to complete a strategic plan.  However, all forms of strategic planning involve five primary components. The following outlines each of them, and includes links to tools that you can utilize to complete your plan.

  • Vision Statement: The vision is a critical element of the strategic plan. It clearly defines the future state to be achieved. It should be understood and shared by everyone and broad enough to include a diverse variety of perspectives. It should also be inspiring and uplifting and easy to communicate. Just don’t get it confused with the mission! For this part of the process, an effective visioning exercise is key.
  • Data: Data driven strategic plans are the most effective. Collect as much information as possible to understand your current state and need. Focus on collecting data which defines the current environment (both internal and external), provides evidence of current needs, and quantifies and qualifies the constituency. If possible, provide a baseline of quality levels. For this part of the process data collection sheets, assessments (like MAPP, Rotary, Greater Twin Cities United Way) and infographics can be helpful.
  • Priority Identification: Effective data collection and analysis will reveal the strategic priorities by discovering the themes present in the current environment. Identifying the types of relationships, policies, conditions and decisions affecting the organization or program, as well as identifying what issues are critical to success. In this portion of the process, a SWOT/SOAR, PESTLE, Fishbone Diagram or Boston Matrix can be helpful to identify key areas of focus for your plan.
  • SMART Goals and Objectives Development: Formulate goal statements around the strategic priorities. Utilize data previously collected to clearly define what long term results should be. Again, use the data to establish measurable outcomes, develop goals that are attainable and aligned with the capacity of the organization or program. Don’t forget to establish a realistic timeline to achieve the goals. Some tools to use here include GANTTs and Strategy Maps.
  • Plan Management: After completing each of these steps, there is now a plan. USE IT! Develop a more detailed action item list for each objective, identify the right people to do the work and determine how it will be done. Then, communicate, communicate, COMMUNICATE the plan across the organization. Some tools here include project charters, RAILs(rolling action item lists), and PDCAs(plan, do, check and adjust) documents.

Want to ensure ongoing sustainability for your rural nonprofit? Invest in ongoing planning. Remember, your strategic plan is your roadmap to success! Update it at least every 3-5 years. Build each plan on previous work and align activity reports and report out on it regularly. This will insure to keep the vision and continuous quality improvement alive, as well as ensure the continued growth, development and evolution of your program and organization.

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