Strategic Planning in the Nonprofit World

Strategic planning is also a tool for changing your mode of functioning from “reactive to proactive.” You can anticipate, plan and create the future. It will stimulate creative thinking about what the future can be. There are many important benefits of the strategic planning process, they include:

  • Team building that is nurtured by the process of inclusion.
  • Stimulate ingenuity and new approaches.
  • Increase everyone’s investment in the organization.
  • Develop a common vision among all stakeholders.
  • Clarify values and beliefs among all stakeholders.
  • Identify opportunities and anticipate possible obstacles.
  • Provide a framework for day to day decisions.
  • Create a marketing and fundraising piece.
  • The plan can be an excellent public relations piece for funders as well as a blueprint for Tumbleweeds growth.
  • To create an efficient well managed organization where all the stakeholders work together to fulfill your mission, vision and values of the organization and are held accountable for their contribution.

How to Get Started

  1. Step One, in order to get a handle on the current situation a questionnaire should be sent out to all your stakeholders, board members, team leaders, community partners and staff ahead of the planning sessions requesting their input on how the organization is doing, what are the current challenges and what are the future opportunities. Questions might include
  • If I were running “your” organization what would I change?
  • What one thing will make “your”  organization succeed?
  • List three things “your”  organization does well?
  • List three things “your”  organization needs to improve upon?
  • List three threats of “your”  organization.
  • List three opportunities of ““your”  organization.

The compiled results of the questionnaires can be sent out to those directly involved in the Strategic Planning meetings and used as the foundation of your discussions.

Step Two, determine who will be involved. Who on the board, staff and executive team need to be involved?  Your entire board, a select few, the executive committee? Selecting who will be involved is as much of an art than a science.  There is a balancing act between getting things done efficiently while at the same time being sure all the stakeholders feel a sense of inclusion.  The risk is planning with too few or taking a top down approach can create a feeling of alienation thus significantly reducing the opportunity for buy-in from board, leadership and staff. Without that all important buy-in, the chances of fulfilling the goals and ultimately being successful are significantly reduced.

I have worked with clients where we brainstormed separately as an entire board, then brainstormed separately with the leadership team and ultimately brought the two groups together for a joint session to discuss differences and create the Mission/Vision/Values statements and Strategic Goals collectively.


There are some logistical questions that need to be answered as well as a few tools that help record and lead the conversations. You will want to know the answer to these questions before you start the process

  • Are you prepared to facilitate change?
  • Who are your planning process champions
  • State your objectives and expectations:
  • Create a timeline for the planning process:
  • How many years ahead is the focus of the strategic plan?  The realization of goals 1-year, 3-years or 5 years are certainly different.
  • How do you intend to keep stakeholders informed of the progress during the project?
  • What is your budget for the meetings and planning?
  • Do you have a format for your strategic & operating plan?
  • Who is ultimately responsible for writing and editing the plan

A few tools that will be helpful when facilitating the meetings are:  

  • Terms document
  • Note taker
  • Flip chart
  • Markers
  • Sticky notes or round stickers
  • Whiteboard

Now that you have sent out your questionnaire, compiled the results, decided who will be involved, and have a plan for the planning process, you are ready to begin meeting and creating your Strategic Plan. These five phases of Strategic Planning will guide you through the planning process and will explain the importance of each one..

Phase One: determining where we are and where we want to go.

When phase one is completed your organization will have completed these important tasks:    

  • Create and/or clarify your mission, vision and value statements. If you don’t have one, now is the time to write one.
  • Determine the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to your organization
  • Create and prioritize the long term strategic goals for your organization.

Mission/Vision/Values

These three words and their respective statements will guide your organization through its long term strategy, long term goal setting, short term objectives, and how it will conduct its business in order to fulfill the mission and ultimately reach the vision.Your mission, values and vision statements should be:

  • Defined
  • Stated
  • Shared

For more specific information on how to write mission, vision, value statements for your organization you might want to read this post. Mission, Vision, Values

Create the Vision

Companies often stop at their mission statement but the Vision Statement is what the world or organization would look like once the mission is fulfilled. The Vision Statement reflects what your organization ultimately wants to achieve. The Vision Statement can be something that is ultimately achievable or can be a dream that may not be achieved in the current staffing lifetime but is still ultimately worth striving for. Things to consider when you’re either clarifying or creating your vision statement.

  • A visioning session is a time for dreaming.  
  • What do we want this organization to look like in 5, 10 years?
  • Create a headline for a newspaper about the organization ten years from now. What would it say

Make sure the statement is descriptive enough and is measurable to determine progress toward the vision.

Create the Mission

After the vision statement is written, go through a similar exercise to define the organization’s mission.  Remember a mission statement describes “why” the organization exists.  Vision and mission statements are used as a guideline for decision making so it should reflect the importance of what the business is trying to accomplish.

Your mission statement should answer these questions:

  • what is our purpose.
  • what is your reason for being.
  • who and why do we serve.

A Mission Statement should be relatively static and should be the guiding principles as to why the organization exists and why it does what it does. In the nonprofit or 501(C)-(3) world mission statements are often synonymous with the stated purpose in their Articles of Incorporation

Define Your Organizational Values

How do you want to conduct yourselves in your business and personal life. The value statement should be the guiding principle on how leadership conducts themselves in their business dealings, the staff takes into account when making day to day decisions, and is reflective of how the outside community views the organization. Words like honesty, integrity, caring, transparency, knowledgeable are often reflected in value statements.

SWOT, Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities & Threats

In order to fully understand your current situation it will be important to take your organization through an analysis of your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats that are current to your organization, often referred to as a SWOT analysis. You will want to identify how each of these are effected from internal and external influences.

Key questions to address:

  • Strengths and Weaknesses of Leadership Team
  • What changes are impacting your organization
    • Internal
    • External
    • Today
    • Five years from now
  • Critical Issues for the future
  • Opportunities for your organization.? current/future
  • Threats to your organization. current/future
  • Fundraising limitations/opportunities
  • Community engagement
  • What is the role of the board?

Strategic Goals

The last part of phase one is defining your strategic goals. Change is necessary for any organization to sustain itself and compete in today’s marketplace. As a non-profit you may not think you compete for customers or for your programs and services, but you compete everyday with hundreds of other non-profits for funding. Being successful and being able to prove you fulfill your mission with give you the competitive edge to compete for funding which is the lifeblood of any non-profit organization. Your strategic goals should be visionary, they should stretch your operational abilities, and their achievement should ultimately raise your level of success. Your strategic goals should follow these guidelines:

  • What are the five to ten most impactful goals for your organization?
    • In what timeframe can they be achieved?
    • What resources are needed?
    • What are the expected results and how will they impact your organization?

Phase Two: Build the annual operating plan.

When phase two is completed your organization will have defined operational objectives for the following year and defined action plans on how you will achieve these objectives.

Strategic goals set the direction of your organization that will be realized somewhere in the future, usually 3-5 years. The annual operating plan defines the objectives and the action items necessary to fulfill the strategic goals.  Operating objectives will almost always align with one or more of your strategic goals. Your operational objectives should be SMART. Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time Bound.

Your staffs leadership team should spearhead the effort to build your operating plan, Executive Director, Development Director, Finance Director and other your department heads. However, to build a great plan that is ready to be implemented within your organization you must include as many staff members as feasible in its development. Their input will create a more robust plan, allow you to see challenges and opportunities that are not always visible at the upper management level, and most of all readily act on the plan because they feel a sense of inclusion. If the process can address these four questions they will feel a sense of inclusion and will work to achieve your objectives.

  • How does their role impact the mission, vision, and values of your organization?
  • How can they have a greater impact on the outcomes?
  • How can they take personal responsibility to fulfill department objectives?
  • What are their personal goals?

When defining your operational objectives they should include:

  • What resources are necessary to complete the objective
  • Who is responsible,
  • The anticipated completion date
  • The financial impact on the organization, revenue or cost.
  • What key success indicators can be monitored.

In addition to the operating objectives an annual operating plan almost always includes:

  • Organizational chart
  • Current job descriptions/responsibilities
  • Budget(s)

The following format is one I’ve used in the past and might work for you as well.

Strategic Goal

<<List one strategic goal>>

Objective 1: <<Define objective>>

  • Action Item 1:

–    Responsible Person(s):

–    Desired Completion Date:

–    Estimated Cost/Savings:

–    Resource(s):

–    Key Success Indicators:

–    Expected results:

Phase Three: Communication with Stakeholders

It’s great you have a plan, now what? Share the plan with those that need to know. Both the strategic plan, annual operating plan, and budget should be approved by the board, after all, they are responsible for the organization’s financial well being and its overall success.  It should be shared with the staff as they are responsible for executing the day to day objectives of the operating plan and fulfilling the mission. And finally outside stakeholders. Current and potential donors will appreciate the Strategic Planning you did and knowing where you are going. If your organization is large enough to be on the radar of local, regional or national press, your vision and strategic goals are newsworthy, especially if they impact the lives of the community you serve. If you work closely with community partners share your strategic goals with them and explain how they can impact these goals, it will only lead to improved working relationships. Here is the list of groups your plan should be shared with:

  • Board, Official adoption
  • Leadership Team
  • STAFF
  • Outside Stakeholders
    • Press
    • Donors
    • Community Partners

Phase FOUR: Ongoing Monitoring

In order to bring your strategic and operational plans to life they must be monitored and measured on an ongoing basis. Are you making progress against the goals of your plan within the defined timeframes? That is the ultimate question. Measuring the progress of your objectives will hold people accountable for their commitments and for its execution. Everyone wants to know what the score is and how their job performance will be measured, job descriptions are a good tool for understanding what is required of in order to fulfill the responsibilities of your job, but it is ultimately the achievement of your goals that measures your success.

In these reviews it is also important to ensure the relevancy of the goals and objectives. Has there been a change, either externally or internally, that might make you question the importance of a particular goal and/or objective. Additionally something may be impacting the organization that creates the need for an additional strategic goal or operational objective(s).

These periodic reviews can be conducted monthly or quarterly based on the demands of your organization. They should start within departments and then roll up to the leadership team and ultimately the board. There should also be a plan to review the performance of the board however this might occur annually.

  • Goals/Objectives Review
    • Are our objectives still relevant?
    • Are you progressing towards goals?
    • What has changed and/or is affecting our business?
    • Are there new goals that should be considered?

As you have read and possibly done it, strategic and operational planning are not rocket science however they require discipline, hard work and a commitment to work the plan. If you take the time to think about the future and then put in place the steps and practices necessary to fulfill that future, your organization will reach new heights, your staff will be excited about coming to work each day to fulfill your mission, and you’ll be surprised at how much easier it is to attract funding. Good luck, I hope this you found this information helpful.

Maybe there is someone in your organization that can lead your organization through the Strategic Planning process, however often it can be beneficial and much more impactful to hire an outside facilitator to help you. An outside facilitator that is worth his or her salt will:

  • Work with leadership to plan the process and define the timeline.
  • Help drive the process without influencing the content.
  • Ask questions on behalf of the leadership team, board, or staff that an insider might not be comfortable asking.
  • Plan each meeting’s agenda, and ensure the group and the planning process stays on track.

Beartooth Business Consulting are professional facilitators and can help your organization create or refine your strategic plan. Give us a call we’d love to talk with you and learn how we can impact your non-profit organization. 406-690-5988, mike@beartoothbiz.com. 

Beartooth Business Consulting is a member of the MNA, Montana Non-Profit Association

Strategic Planning in the Nonprofit World
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