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!

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 lets 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?