Realities of Strategic Planning for Nonprofits

Books on nonprofit strategic positioning and planning are plentiful. All claim to have the secret sauce and many like to disparage approaches other than their own even though they are actually quite similar. Authors attack the tools of strategy development. The classic S.W.O.T. analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) is misleading and wrongheaded, says one author. Another retorts, "No, just rearrange the letters and look at the opportunities and threats first." Call it T.O.W.S instead.

They opine that nonprofits don't use data enough and don't really charge hard to understand their competitive advantage. There are those who maintain that strategic positioning is higher order thinking done by the smartest and best thinkers. It is not, god forbid, the predictable step-by-step ordering of small thoughts by middle managers. Strategy, they say is about defining a vision in the larger world and making hard choices about priorities and directions to get there, and this special task needs to be done by the board charged with governance and policy making, aided by the executive.

I have been guiding strategy development and planning for public and nonprofit organizations large and small for twenty-odd years and my experience on the ground tells me that all tools and approaches must be on the table for public and nonprofit sector organizations that have limited resources and a statutory responsibility to serve the public good. These entities have multiple constituencies that must be served and strategy is only as good as the consensus and buy-in that is achieved through the planning and engagement process.

Meaningful strategic planning requires analysis, reflection and decision-making processes tailored to the needs of each organization. Every time I work with a client, I have to assess the strength, quality and commitment of the leadership as well as the time and money they have to put towards the process. For example, some organizations have more substantial resources to put towards research on the environmental forces that will influence their future. They can afford to orchestrate broad-based constituency involvement and organize surveys, focus groups and interviews. For others, time and money are at a premium and this robust level of inquiry is not possible. In these cases, we mine the data we have, guide intentional discussions based on stakeholders' experience and leverage their wisdom about the fields in which they operate. 

Generally, we are able to do the information gathering, incisive thinking, and exploration of strategic alternatives that help organizations move forward. In almost all cases, excitement and buy-in by key stakeholders is achieved. No one has ever told me that engaging in strategic planning has been a waste of time. Is this make-do approach the perfect response? Probably not, but it is what is possible in an era of scarcity for the nonprofit and public sectors.

Some of our recent strategic planning engagements include: Advocates for the Osteopathic Association, American Congenital Heart Association, Casa Central, Jewish Child and Family Services, Parenthesis Parent Center and the USO of Illinois.