What's Up with Strategic Planning?

What's Up with Strategic Planning?
March 2013 by Emily Anthony and Julie Edsforth

There’s been an interesting dialogue going on in the nonprofit webosphere about strategic planning, including the notion that it’s no longer relevant in a fast changing world.  In fact, Dana O’Donovan & Noah Rimland Flower‘s recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (definitely worth reading) suggests that the strategic plan is entirely dead.  Certainly, we hear all too often (as perhaps you do, too) the refrain “our strategic plan expires this year. I guess we better write a new one”… or “we haven’t looked at our strategic plan in 2 years!” 

Is Strategic Planning Dead?

It does seem that too many strategic plans have been created to fulfill a real or imagined requirement from the outside that you need to have one, propagated by notions of management best practice or stipulated as part of grant deliverables.  Combine that with the time and money drain of the planning process itself, which can leave board and staff leadership exhausted and needing another 3 to 5 year break before having to do it all over again. , and it’s no wonder that strategic plans are gathering dust. 

Ditch the Jargon and Think for Yourself

But, somehow, this doesn’t cause a massive internal eye roll or leave us feeling that strategic planning is dead.  The opportunity to pause, reflect, think outside the proverbial box and re-assert or re-imagine organizational approach still seems essential to ensuring our nonprofits are actually accomplishing all they can.  But it does lead us to want to ditch the jargon and over-reliance on any one formulaic prescription for how to do strategic planning and instead just think creatively and critically, for ourselves. Step away (at least temporarily) from the SWOT analyses, theories of change, logic models, stakeholder input gathering, strategy screens, success indicators, or any other new, used, or recycled strategic planning sacred cows! We encourage ourselves and our clients to step back and consider some fundamental questions:

  • Has the societal issue we’ve been trying to address changed and is the approach we’ve been using still relevant and effective?
  • Who else is working on this issue and what essential piece do we bring to the table?
  • How do we bring what we’re best at, as well as our values, worldview, our ideology, to the table to serve our clients and communities better?

Getting cogent answers to these questions is (in our humble opinion), perhaps the most important goal of strategic planning.  And there is tremendous latitude on how you go about answering them.  There’s no Sarbanes-Oxley of strategic planning…no nonprofit god in the sky telling you, for example, to spend months input gathering (though sometimes you really should talk to stakeholders to make sure you aren’t working off of grossly inaccurate assumptions) or to articulate a theory of change (though sometimes the exercise can really help illuminate the best path forward).   Custom-designing your own process – considering your own organizational culture, existing knowledge and skill sets, and understanding of the emerging issues and challenges that you face – is the best way to approach strategic planning and gives you the best chance that you’ll emerge from the process with tangibly useful results.

Lead the Charge

Furthermore, we’ve become big believers in supporting and empowering the organization’s leadership (on both board and staff teams) to get in the driver’s seat.  This is not a time for leadership to step-aside and let organizational identity or goal setting be driven by outside consultants or public opinion polls.  While it can seem intuitive to gather lots of information first and then try to sort it all out into a work plan, more and more we are finding that it makes sense to START the process with foundational conversations about organizational identity and desired impact and then launch data gathering specific to areas of inquiry. 

Now, having said all this, we aren’t arguing that all this analytical purpose-aligning planning work should happen without a clear process or structure.   We know that having a solid structure, ideally with outside facilitation, can free up leadership to contribute to analysis and conclusion-drawing and keep everyone from spinning their wheels.  And, more likely than not, some of those tried-and-true strategic planning activities will come in handy – many of them are popular because they have worked and add value to the process.  The point is to think deeply, plan intentionally and own the process and outcome.

A last thought about the actual written plan itself

We all know that the world we operate in changes at a rapid pace.  How relevant can a 10-point 5-year plan that drills down to timelines and milestones be, beyond about year one?  On the other hand, without some concrete and measurable action-planning, how can we possibly ever reach big ambitious goals over time?    Some things we try to do:

  • Set a small enough number of meaningful big goals (like, maybe 3) that people can keep them in their head without having to reference a document.  When everyone on the board and staff can immediately name the top 3 goals the organization is working on, they are less likely to get lost in the shuffle.
  • Integrate work plans into existing structures and norms, making them contextually relevant to the teams of people who will be doing the work.
  • Build plans that allow leaders at all levels of the organization to be nimble and strategic in the face of challenges that come their way as well as opportunities that fall in their laps.
  • Regularly carve out time for teams to convene and re-assess, considering strategies more like grand experiments that are constantly giving us feedback if only we took the time to notice. 

We want to hear what you think. Is strategic planning really dead? What’s worked well for you?  Please comment below.


I'll be the first to admit I have zero experience in the non-profit space, but that won't stop me from having an opinion. In health care I've experienced myriad strategic planning efforts - and they for the most part suffer from the notion of “We haven’t looked at our strategic plan in 2 years!” In short, the perceived goal is to have a plan as opposed to (actively, continuously and iteratively) planning. Not all that different from writing a mission/vision/values statement that goes on the wall of the lobby and is then promptly forgotten. Now that I spend all my time thinking about teaching and learning, what also strikes me is your comment, "...just think creatively and critically...". Actively, continuously, iteratively planning requires, both as you suggest. As an novice educator, I've come to understand that every educational program is confident they teach critical thinking, but precious few of them can actually define it (or at least, agree on what it is.) We do send a number of our graduates from the university out to work in your world - hopefully productively. My challenge is to better understand how to teach our grads to think both creatively and critically. What, exactly, do those look like? How can you tell if/when you leaders and your staff are actually doing them? Oh, and speaking of the box... http://goo.gl/aGxMA

Non-profits are businesses. Just like for-profits. Therefore, non-profits need business plans. To maximize revenue. Because more revenue=more mission. Right? Therefore, business planning is business planning. Doesn't matter what you do with the profits. Just maximize them. And the best practices around for-profit business planning are well established. And constantly evolving. The most effective, scalable non-profits use the same toolkit (value prop, strategic advantage, market, team, financial forecast, value prop, etc.). Look at the VCs for example: http://resolute.vc/author/mike2/page/2/ Non-profits need a business model and a slide deck. No contest. Anybody who thinks non-profits shouldn't be maximizing their revenue (in mission and values consonant ways, just like for-profits) is confused about what it takes to solve problems. I argue it is nothing short of muddled, erroneous thinking that posits non-profit business models as a "special case" deserving unique treatment. They are actually more complex because there are more ways to make money. The margins are a lot higher. The irrefutable fact that fewer than 50 non-profits have scaled over 10M since 1970 shows how poor the sector's business practices have been. To our great, collective detriment.

Thanks Donald - great to have your perspective. No doubt there could/should be more cross-fertilization between the non-profit and for-profit sectors. Seems like that's happening more. While I'm a fan of Dan Pallotta and the conclusion that we're grossly under-resourcing our nonprofit sector, I don't share your belief that having more revenue necessarily equals more mission in any particular nonprofit organization. And, for that matter, that more of either of those necessarily leads to more positive social, civic or environmental impact. It's not that it can't, it just doesn't play out as simply as that...for me, anyway. Some of the biggest revenue nonprofits are high impact and some are low impact. That's of course true in the for-profit sector as well (we can probably all find examples of great $20M businesses along side great micro-enterprises). But who decides which is more successful and by what measure? It's certainly a complex multi-faceted situation (not "quaint") that requires us to be asking questions deeper than how to maximize revenue. Just because donors find it easier to make funding decisions when there are fewer nonprofits and a simplified nonprofit landscape, is not a reason to build our sector around those parameters. Food for thought can be found at a past Blue Avocado post: http://www.blueavocado.org/content/too-many-nonprofits-no-there-arent-en... What do others think?

Thanks for an insightful article! We're just getting started in the process and it's clear there's so many ways to approach this. I agree with you on the key ingredients; outside facilitation, leadership driving the process and big conversations on identity and impact.