In Defense of Strategic Planning: A Rebuttal

Consultant Mike Allison provides a defense of strategic planning for the nonprofit sector in rebuttal to a prior Blue Avocado article.

In Defense of Strategic Planning: A Rebuttal
9 mins read

Make good decisions about when to use strategic planning.

Mike Allison is one of the leaders who defined strategic planning for the nonprofit sector, and he continues to expand and develop his thinking and practice in the area. We’re delighted to have his rebuttal to the Blue Avocado article Strategic Planning: Failures & Alternatives.

I am an unapologetic advocate of traditional strategic planning.

I have to admit I am not a disinterested party in this debate. As a consultant with nonprofits for the last twenty years, much of my work has been done under the umbrella of strategic planning. I continue to do this work because I believe strategic planning is both necessary and provides a unique contribution to nonprofit organization effectiveness. In this piece and from this perspective, I respond to some of the major complaints about strategic planning that were outlined in Blue Avocado‘s critique.

Strategic planning is made irrelevant by major shifts in the environment.

Funding was cut for some of my clients by 20% to 40% in 2009. In the cases where these clients had recently completed strategic plans, they had frameworks that were incredibly helpful in making a series of very difficult decisions in a short period of time. Why were these frameworks so helpful? Because they had clarity about their most important priorities and values. In some cases it accelerated planned actions, such as closing a program or organization restructuring facilitated by laying off unproductive staff.

In other cases it just helped in making painful decisions that, if resources had remained constant, they would much preferred not to have made.

Strategic planning is pushed by expensive consultants.

My neighbor Sean is a plumber. He is a very good plumber and has never let me down. I have hired bad plumbers and know what that’s like. He is “expensive” in that he charges more than many other plumbers, and certainly more expensive than the out-of-pocket cost of doing it myself. But when I think about the cost in time and money, let alone the hassle and frustration of the job being done wrong (which is often the case when I do it myself), I find that Sean is a very good value.

“Expensive” is a relative term. What defines an “expensive consultant”? Even spending a few months poorly is a very expensive undertaking when one thinks about how scarce the major resource of most organizations is: the time of staff and board members. Alternatively, developing a clear strategic plan that has board and staff energized and focused can help people move mountains.

Strategic planning takes a long time.

I have done strategic planning work with a dozen organizations in the past two years. The cost ranged from $3,600 (where I coached a very sophisticated executive director) to over $60,000 where a great deal of research was required and an unusual amount of stakeholder engagement was desired. The time required ranged from a few months to almost two years.

The $3,600 project took 18 months — in large part because the plan was built around a very large capital campaign and needed a very high level of support from many, many key constituents before the plan could be “approved.” The time it takes to do strategic planning is highly flexible and should be determined by the needs of the organization.

Strategic planning is too often driven by funders.

The role of funders in trying to support improvements in organizational effectiveness is hotly debated. The reason I believe many funders often ask for (and occasionally insist on) a strategic plan is entirely understandable: they want to know what an organization is trying to do and how it plans to do it. They also want to know that the leadership of an organization is intentional about its work and have taken the trouble to engage its constituencies meaningfully in the broader vision and strategy.

A plan in this case is a proxy. (And, if an organization does not have a strategic plan document, but is truly clear about its priorities, strategies, resources, governance, etc., a document can be produced in a matter of days.)

Furthermore, most foundations, including the one funded by two of the richest people in the world (Gates Foundation) take their own medicine. The Gates Foundation requires a highly structured five-year strategic planning cycle for all of its internal program areas. These plans are fine-tuned annually and given a “refresh” at three years to make mid-course corrections. At five years, they begin again with a thorough rethinking of their approach.

Closer to home, the Marin Community Foundation posts on its website very easy-to-understand logic models for each of its major initiatives. Several of my clients have found MCF’s website to be helpful to their own planning and understanding of how well their programs might fit with the foundation’s goals and strategies.

Strategic planning is often used for the wrong purpose.

Jan [Masaoka] writes that strategic planning is used for inappropriate purposes (to deflect criticism, to satisfy funders, to address non-strategic organizational issues including executive performance, racial tension, etc.). I agree that this happens. And I agree that using strategic planning for inappropriate purposes is at best a waste of time and at worst very counterproductive.

But I disagree that this is a problem with strategic planning, as opposed to a problem with the people making the choice to use the process this way. Using a hammer is a good choice to do several things: drive nails, remove nails, pound something into place, and even, as my wife does, tenderize chicken. A hammer can also create a great deal of damage.

Does the fact that I have seen people use hammers in the wrong situation make me blame the hammer? Hardly. So why would I blame the management tool strategic planning for being used inexpertly or in the wrong circumstances?

Strategic planning does not pay enough attention to funding and finances.

I heard that a full 33% of people who buy the personal financial management software program Quicken never open the box and a third rarely use it after purchase. Another third of Quicken purchasers are largely quite satisfied and report that it indeed helps them organize their financial information and make better financial decisions.

One of the keys to sound strategic plans is that they address where financial resources will come from and how they will be allocated. Again, the fact that some people use a tool inexpertly is not a reflection on the tool: if an organization “buys” a strategic planning process and doesn’t open the financial management “module,” the organization has either done itself a disservice or received bad assistance.

Strategic planning is done so frequently because having a strategy and developing plans to make explicit what an organization’s goals are, and how those goals are to be achieved, is a requirement of good management.

Now I know that the National Rifle Association (NRA) says that guns don’t kill people, people do. I suppose I could be accused of saying: “Strategic planning doesn’t waste a lot of time and money, people do.” Unless we decide to license the use of strategic planning, we are going to have to trust nonprofit leaders to make good decisions about when to use the strategic planning tool and to find the help they need to do it well.

Fortunately, we also have resources like Blue Avocodo to warn people of the dangers of carrying a loaded strategic planning process: it could get into the wrong hands!

See also:

About the Author

Mike Allison worked with Jan Masaoka for 15 years as the Director of Consulting and Research at CompassPoint Nonprofit Services. With Jude Kaye he co-authored Strategic Planning for Nonprofit Organizations, 2nd Edition, which continues to be a bestseller for publisher John Wiley & Sons. He is now an independent nonprofit management consultant based in Oakland, California, who has found to his great surprise that strategic planning seldom comes in handy living with two teenage daughters.  He can be reached at Mike at or through his website.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

16 thoughts on “In Defense of Strategic Planning: A Rebuttal

  1. Hear! Hear! Strategic planning can certainly be poorly done – but that can’t be an excuse for not doing it. The trick is figuring out how to do it well.

  2. Hear! Hear! Strategic planning can certainly be poorly done – but that can’t be an excuse for not doing it. The trick is figuring out how to do it well.

  3. I never cease to be amazed/mortified/confused as to how many seemingly intelligent nonprofit management staff and/or board fail to see the value of Strategic Planning. How can you get anywhere if you don’t know where you’re going or how you plan to travel?

    1. Michelle – I wholeheartedly agree with your comment as well as the “Rebuttal.” It’s hard to know if you’re getting off-course if you don’t have a destination.

  4. I agree with Cecil in that I don’t "do" anyone’s strategic plan. My job as a consultant is to help construct a process that will help the board and staff of a nonprofit create a strategic plan. I know a lot about strategic planning and a lot about nonprofit management but I am not a decision maker. I give input and challenge people to make clear and compelling decisions. I’ve never seen a plan that people were really committed to not get implemented.

  5. Hi Mike, I was glad to see your rebuttle. I couldn’t figure out how I knew your name until I saw the picture of the book. I purchased this book and used it as a guide to work with my Board to develop our first strategic plan. I should mention that they had undertaken strategic planning many times before – on their own, with a consultant and with students, but never actually developed the plan or didn’t implement what was developed. Your book was a great resource and the worksheets were simple and effective. Our strategic plan is in year 4 of 5 and we’ve achieved 80% of our performance indicators so far. I’m looking forward to our next strategic planning cycle. Lori Prospero Executive Director Owl Child Care Services Kitchener, Ontario

    1. Thank you so much Lori for your kind words. Jude and I continue to take great satisfaction from hearing that the book has been helpful to people. And congratulations on the accomplishments you set out to achieve in your plan!

  6. Both Jan and Mike are right in some ways. While the strategic planning process is often highly flawed, so is the reality that way too many nonprofits have no real strategic clarity behind what they do. If “doing a strategic plan” at least causes Boards and ED’s to pretend to have a meaningful talk about strategy, then more power to the process. There are some organizations that are run by true strategic thinkers, and they operate from a perspective of strategic clarity whether or not they go through the formal planning process. The rest should do the work–but keep it simple, and don’t get hung up on the small stuff.

  7. The comment above "I agree with Cecil…" is also from me – I’m not sure what step I missed to have it labeled Anonymous. A few comments about "implementation." I think there are two issues here. The first is that if a strategic planning process (or any other vehicle for that matter) genuinely builds commitment to a shared vision, then that is what people spend their time and energy on – whether or not they ever look at the plan again (yes even if it is stored on the proverbial shelf). In my opinion this is success, and implementation is in the doing, not the monitoring of the plan. The second point goes to discipline in execution. Plans that lay out fairly specific courses of action (which I almost always find helpful) do require regular attention to the plan itself – this is about management discipline. I most often find that if a strategic plan "isn’t being implemented" that no other "plans" including the plan in the language of numbers (aka the budget) are being used to guide day to day work in a proactive way. Finally, as a consultant I find it helpful when the big ideas that emerge in a planning process begin to be put into action even before the formal plan is adopted. For one thing this means that the big ideas have legs – they are relevant and actionable. The other reason this is helpful has to do with managing implementation. It provides an opportunity to reflect with the group on how it puts ideas into action, what level of plans are most helpful, how intra-organization coordination takes place and how external communications are managed.

  8. You raise some excellent points. I believe strategic planning, when well done, can be a powerful tool to make good choices. Strategy is after all, a word that derives from the ancient Greek and related to guiding an army. It meant defining goals, choosing a particular path, and using resources to reach the goal. Making hard choices is the essence of planning …. no organization can do everything because resources are always limited, so even though the organization’s leadership may see lots of needs that they might address, they ultimately have to make choices, just as the ancient Greek general had to choose where to send how much of his army and for what purpose.

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