Yes, You Really Need One - Why Strategic Planning Matters and How to do it Better

During a recent call with a leader of a nonprofit organization, he asked a question I've been getting more and more. "Do we really need a strategic plan?"

He continued, "It seems like a lot of work for some pie-in-the-sky document that rarely gets used." If done the wrong way, strategic planning can be exactly that: a lot of work for very little result. However, done well, a strategic plan based on an inspiring vision and thoughtful mission, can significantly improve a nonprofit's impact.

Below are four recommendations that will radically improve your strategic planning process:

Invest the time up front

Many organizations attempt to jump directly to the strategy portion of the plan. Busy executive directors and output-oriented board members often mistakenly believe that getting quickly to the finished product is the goal. But spending time thinking about the problems you are trying to address and how they affect, and possibly change, your vision and mission is time well spent. It was Einstein who said, "If I had only one hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about the solution." Take time to consider what change you are trying to make in the world before you begin making your plans.

Increase your impact by developing your theory of change

The "theory of change" describes a process of planning social impact. It seeks to understand the assumptions that underpin a process of social change, and it forces the participants or planners to articulate the links between a strategy or action and the intended impact or desired change. For nonprofit organizations conducting strategic planning, developing a theory of change encourages a deep level of engagement, conversation, and agreement around key questions. Creating a theory of change helps organizations focus on areas where they can have the greatest influence. It encourages the planners to define their niche or target zone. In doing so, individuals within organizations are forced to acknowledge an irrefutable reality-that resources are finite while needs often are not.

Get serious about resource allocation

While strategic planning is not a time for detailed budget writing, it is a time to think about current and future resources. As Jim Collins described in his book, Good to Great, the greatest success a company can have is by optimizing the intersection of its skill, passion and economic engine. For nonprofits, that can easily be understood as the sweet spot where your expertise, your mission, and your resources overlap. By using Collins' Hedgehog Concept, nonprofits can understand the balance they should strike between the tried-and-true work of the organization, and new initiatives that are untested for their mission impact. The Hedgehog Concept helps both board and staff stay focused on not only what they want to do, but also what has the greatest chance of success. That helps them allocate resources accordingly.

Bring People Along Every Step of the Way

While it is time consuming, bringing all stakeholders along every step of the way is a wise choice. Board, staff, customers, funders, and community partners might all have something valuable to add to the process. In reality, not every stakeholder is going to have the investment in the strategic planning process that the board and staff leadership should have, but they will all probably have some influence at how successfully the plan is implemented. Therefore, it is always beneficial to create venues--both formal and informal--for stakeholder input.

Perhaps most importantly, create a board level strategic planning committee. This committee of board members and staff should be deeply committed to the strategic planning process. Their involvement will lead to a better plan that is more easily understood by the broader community and potential new funders. Additionally, their engagement will lead to more productive board meetings as they consider how decisions at the board level will assist in the fulfillment of goals outlined in the strategic plan.

I will admit that creating a strategic plan can be challenging and time consuming. But it is not nearly as difficult as trying to run an organization that creates true impact without a strategic plan. To quote a Japanese proverb, "Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare."

Happy strategic planning!

Xan Blake is president and founder of the Blake Partnership, Inc. She can be contacted at on LinkedIn or visit their website.

Comments (6)

  • An interesting article Ms. Blake. Thanks for sharing. Many small, local nonprofits are established to address specific local problems, not necessarily to effect social change. What portion of the nonprofits with which you work have articulated a theory of change, and is based on any particular feature of the organization (e.g. size, mission, resources)?

    Jun 01, 2017
  • Hi Lloyd:

    Thanks so much for your comment. Articulating a theory of change is hard work for all nonprofits. Smaller nonprofits which were formed to address a specific need can struggle even more. But it is still worthwhile work. If I am understanding your question, impact generally originates from assessing the current environment and focusing in on the organization's ability to mobilize its resources and expertise to create the greatest amount of change. Nonprofits need to be careful not to assume that their current environment is the same as the environment in which they were founded. Many of the environments in which nonprofits operate--health care, food inequity, education, etc.--have changed, or our understanding of them has changed, significantly over the past decade. So I would encourage all nonprofits to take the time to look at their environment, as part of their planning. The International Network of Strategic Philanthropy has some great resources that might help.


    Jun 06, 2017
  • In my practice I encourage and facilitate the development or review of an organization's Theory of Change that answers 3 questions:
    what do we believe/understand about the problem to be solved; what is the approach or intervention we think will address the problem; and, what will be success? I believe that the volunteers who come together as a board at a point in time are in the position of developing their Theory of Change as the foundation for strategic planning.

    Jun 02, 2017
  • Xan - great to see you here! Terrific piece.

    Jun 06, 2017
  • Thanks, Nina!

    Jun 07, 2017
  • Very informative and insightful article, thank you for sharing your thoughts! Strategic planning is undoubtedly essential, it helps create a more cohesive and effective team effort towards achieving short and long term goals. Bringing the entire team on board is essential so that everyone understands the aims and how they can conduct their role most efficiently to help reach those aims.

    Jun 07, 2017

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