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How I Learned to Love Strategic Planning

When I was a nonprofit staff member, I disliked the words “strategic planning.” I feared the process would take forever.  Or that the plan would no longer be relevant by the time we were done. Or we would be too busy to implement it. Or worse, we wouldn’t even look at it. Sound familiar to you?

It wasn’t until I went to graduate school that strategic planning came alive for me. I learned to appreciate its purpose. Strategic planning is leaders wrestling with the biggest questions of organizational identity, opportunities, and impact. It’s dynamic, important, and rooted in individual and collective passion for doing good. There’s so much to love here. 

Now, I have the privilege of facilitating strategic plans with organizations in our region and around the nation. No matter the organization, people love strategic planning when we include these three elements:   

Element 1: Invite Board and Staff to Collaborate.

There’s a perception in the nonprofit world that the Board of Directors develops a strategic plan and the staff implements it.  In reality, a great strategic planning process unites the on-the-ground thinking from staff leaders with the big picture thinking of the board.

By including complementary perspectives from Board and staff leaders, the plan can reflect reality at all levels of the organization. Everyone involved is more likely to own what it takes to make the plan happen. Of course, the Board still approves the final plan.

Element 2: Look Around at Your Community.

If your organization has been heads-down on your program delivery for years, it’s time to push back from your desks. We believe every strategic planning process should include a peer analysis: a comparison of your organization against three or four other nonprofits that work in your field. 

I have seen clients experience major “Ah ha!” moments by scanning their peers. Some have pleasant moments of affirmation where they see they are the biggest or best in their field. Others have sobering realizations that another organization is better positioned to meet a community need.

These epiphanies allow you to define the strategic advantages that truly set you apart from every other organization. Then, you can forge a new path based upon your real (not imagined) strengths.

Element 3: Encourage Strategic Thinking.  

In The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution, David LaPiana makes a good case for the importance of strategic thinking. Writing down a bunch of goals is not what he has in mind. He promotes a process that brings organizational leaders together during “protected time” to think strategically about: 1) Who are we as an organization? 2) What is our current impact? and 3) How can we best increase our impact?

At Ostara, our approach to strategic planning reflects LaPiana’s thinking. We create a written plan at the end of the process, but we also strive to leave behind the kind of strategic thinking that will help an organization meet the next big unexpected opportunity or challenge.

In the end, a good strategic planning process should be powerful, not painful. Board and staff should have clarity about the most strategic way to meet community needs and a plan to actually make it happen. Perhaps you will also find a newfound love for strategic planning along the way!


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