How long a period should a nonprofit plan cover?

Strategic plans can cover anywhere from 0 to 10 years. The most common is a three-year timeframe, but the final decision depends on your needs. The three-year (or more) timeframe was at one time well-suited to an organization that knew exactly where it was headed and was not likely to be thrown off-course by technological advances or changes in the economy. We know now that very few of those organizations actually exist.

If you determine that the best course of action calls for a malleable plan that responds to in-the-moment needs, then you might be best served by a plan that establishes your vision and defines strategies that enable you to respond to issues in real-time. Such plans evolve constantly over time.

Other factors to consider are anticipated changes in the policy and economic environment in which you’re operating. For example, let’s say it’s 2008 and you run a community health center. In 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (more commonly referred to as the “stimulus”) allocated $2 billion in extra funding for such centers. This was anticipated well in advance. If your organization was a strong candidate for this funding, you would have needed a strategic plan flexible enough to respond to the opportunity.

The larger point is that flexibility is of critical importance to any strategic plan, regardless of the timeframe it covers. There will always be changes that can’t be anticipated – some positive (such as the launch of a large new foundation in your service area) and some negative (such as a rise in unemployment). Likewise, unforeseen opportunities are likely to present themselves (e.g., a speaking invitation at a major conference or a high-profile media request). Your plan must anticipate that some things can’t be anticipated, and offer a system for taking advantage of them.

Also keep in mind that once plans are developed, it’s important to review them regularly to assess your progress, regardless of the timeframe you’ve outlined. Many organizations choose to do this quarterly. For example, you might begin the quarter by reviewing what has been accomplished in the prior 90 days, aligning these developments with your overall goals, and laying out where you expect to be 90 days from now. This information should also be tied to the metrics outlined in your plan so you can assess progress regularly.

Strategic Planning FAQ

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