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6 Ways To Improve Your Nonprofit Strategic Planning

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The thing about nonprofit professionals is that they are “doers” by nature.  

They see a problem, break it down, roll up their sleeves and get to work.  That’s not to say they don’t have the ability to strategize and think high-level, but from my experience, nonprofit professionals have a low tolerance for “analysis paralysis.”  They are inherently problem-solvers and work with a sense of urgency.  This is exactly why they are trusted to be on the “front-lines” of solving our nation’s most pressing problems.

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As a strategy consultant for nonprofits though, that makes my job tough :)  Few of the nonprofit professionals I work with have the patience to sit through hours of workshops rehashing their mission and vision or re-asking themselves why they do the work they do? But at the same time, I find this exercise (if facilitated well) can be a powerful one. While getting lost in the day-to-day operational struggles, fundraising challenges, and the immense pressure to demonstrate results, it is essential for nonprofit organizations to step back, reflect, check-in with the values that inspired them to do the work in the first place and re-focus on the problem they intended to solve. It may lead to a reprioritization of activities, a confirmation of the current direction, or perhaps a discovery that they are working on the wrong things altogether.

As meaningful an exercise this can be, time is limited and resources are already constrained...so here’s some suggestions on making the most out of your nonprofit’s strategy planning session:

1. Seats at the table.  While some nonprofits feel only board members should participate in strategic planning, OneTenth encourages engaging a small group of stakeholders at the table for part or all of the sessions - staff, volunteers, donors, advocates, advisory board members, beneficiaries etc.  Even if board members are the only ones who approve the plan, getting a diverse and comprehensive perspective on strategic priorities, especially from your key stakeholders, can be really eye-opening.

2. Give homework.  Let’s face it, with grant deadlines approaching and fundraising targets looming, it is tough to switch gears and think about the organizational direction more broadly. Rather than force participants to answer a series of reflective questions on the spot they may not be ready for, send questions in advance as homework (and not 50 pages no one will read).  This will allow participants to get in the right mindset as they arrive. Without this, the most prepared person in the group (sometimes the facilitator) will carry most of the conversation and you’ll find yourself in groupthink mode just to make it through the day.

3. Don’t take shortcuts.  Revisiting your mission and vision can be a grueling process.  Often times there is a desire to go straight from there to building out activities to meet that vision.  It is easier (and less friction) to talk through things really high-level and really granular. But doing so skips the important step in the middle - your goals.  How do you intend to work toward you mission/vision this year?  What measurable goals do you plan to put in place to make sure you are achieving it?  What goals will you tie your operational activities to? In the strategic planning process, defining and prioritizing goals is where the rubber meets the road.  This is where the participants bring their perspectives and priorities to the table and it gets weighed and analyzed against everything else. It is where you see people’s passions and emotions surface.  So deal with it head-on!  Embrace the difficult conversations, avoid comments like “we’re essentially saying the same thing” when you’re really not.  As challenging as it is, these uncomfortable conversations are a necessary step to ensure the organization is clear and aligned with its top priorities.  Unless they’re discussed candidly and clearly documented, you will find yourself walking on eggshells the whole year rather than moving forward with confidence.

4. Be clear on your focus.  Inevitably, some projects will be de-prioritized, deferred, or canceled altogether.  Just as it is important to be clear on what the organization is working on, it’s equally important to be clear on what you’re not working on.  So document it, review it, and communicate it out! Otherwise, things are left to interpretation, and can end up re-surfacing later only to rehash the same discussions and eat up valuable time.

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5. Allow room.  As much as I am a stickler for sticking to the strategic plan, it’s important not to overload it.  Things will come up, you’ll need to adapt. Whether it’s a grant you never expected, an amazing resource who becomes available, or just the world changing around us...things happen.  Rather than always having to make tough trade-offs, leave a little room in your strategic plan to accommodate the “unexpected.”

6. Ask for help.  Although it's perfectly acceptable for an ED or board member to run your strategic session (there are plenty of models and templates out there), engaging an outside consultant will allow participants to feel that it’s more of an objective and unbiased activity.  Secondly, experienced consultants know what pitfalls to avoid in these discussions, and can leverage ideas and activities that have worked at similar organizations. But most of all, a fresh perspective can raise questions or provide insight that may not have been otherwise uncovered.   Just like a surgeon shouldn’t operate on him/herself, similarly nonprofits often need an objective diagnosis and can benefit from an unbiased professional who has solved similar problems dozens of times before. It may require a small investment upfront, but a sound and focused plan that everyone is aligned with will save you money in the long-run and ensure your time and efforts are focused most efficiently toward achieving your mission. ~

Rubin Singh is the CEO of OneTenth Consulting.  OneTenth empowers nonprofits by aligning their organizational, fundraising, and technology strategies, providing the tools and insight they need to meet their goals and achieve their mission.

OneTenth has extensive experience in leading strategy sessions for nonprofits of all sizes.  Give us a call for a free consultation. Let us build a program, adapted to your nonprofit’s needs and culture, to move your organization forward.