What is the best way to do strategic planning for a nonprofit?

There is no single right way to do strategic planning. The best way to do it is the way that suits or will best serve your organization. That’s going to depend on your resources, internal capacity, engagement of your staff and board, and the goals of your organization.

That said, it’s important to approach strategic planning as a collaborative process. Your board and high-level staff should be actively engaged in the development of your plan. This generates buy-in, ensures diversity of thought and involves them in fundamental choices about the direction of the organization.

The scale and scope of ways to involve your board and staff vary drastically – from completing interviews and questionnaires, to retreats facilitated by an outside consultant, and board committees dedicated to driving the process. What works for you will depend on your organizational culture and resources. As you begin to define your process, we recommend sharing it with key team members for feedback. This will allow you to gauge how realistic it is as it relates to available time, and begin to set expectations with those who will be involved.

Carter McNamara, MBA, Ph.D., author of the Field Guide to Nonprofit Strategic Planning and Facilitation, has developed a useful summary of the basic steps of a strategic planning process, which includes:

  • Identifying your mission.
  • Clarifying the goals that must be achieved to realize your mission
  • Identifying the strategies necessary to achieve each goal
  • Creating action plans needed to implement each goal
  • Monitoring and updating your plan.

McNamara also suggests that many organizations evolve from these basics to conduct strategic planning that’s based on issues an organization faces, or its specific goals. Such an approach would require an assessment of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (better known as a SWOT analysis), an effort that’s recommended by many strategic planning professionals.

In recent years, some strategic planners have proposed alternatives to the widely used approach described above. They argue that the traditional strategic planning process takes too much time and is no longer responsive to our rapidly changing world.

For example, in the book The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution, author David La Piana proposes that strategy development is a constantly evolving process that neither requires, nor benefits from, an isolated strategic planning process. The author proposes a model that, among other things, identifies criteria that are evaluated in real time to determine whether a particular strategy will be implemented.

The point is, there’s no right or wrong way to plan. The most important thing is to take a look at the available options and figure out what approach offers the best match with your organizational culture and resources.

Strategic Planning FAQ

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