Premature Death of Strategic Planning Would Hurt Nonprofits

Daily, maybe hourly, someone declares strategic planning dead—a waste of time and money for organizations. I just can’t reconcile these pronouncements with my repeated experiences of nonprofit and association leaders using strategic planning to get powerful results.

Roger L. Martin took a recent swipe at strategic planning proclaiming “The Big Lie of Strategic Planning” in the January/February 2014 Harvard Business Review. He makes some good points in his criticism of strategic planning as it is practiced in the corporate world. But his damning assessment is only part right about nonprofits and associations.  “Planning typically isn’t explicit about what the organization chooses not to do and why.  It does not question assumptions. And its dominant logic is affordability; the plan consists of whichever initiatives fit the company’s resources.”

Associations and nonprofits do have a difficult time saying what they will not do for complex reasons that deserve separate analysis in some future blog post; however, I have seen many association leaders use their strategic plans to beat back incessant demands to say yes to everything. I completely disagree with Martin’s indictment that people don’t question assumptions in strategic planning. In my strategic planning projects, we start with those questions, and I find association and nonprofit boards welcome this probing.  And nonprofit leaders who care deeply about their profession, industry or cause rarely limit their aspirations by what they can afford. They pack their aspirations into their vision and goals. I encourage them to break those big ambitions down into pragmatic and do-able steps through the objectives they set for the near-term.

My strategic planning experience squares better with research conducted by the Association of Strategic Planning and the University of Arkansas. In this 2013 survey and analysis, 93% of successful (self-reported) nonprofits view strategic planning as having “some to critical” impact on their overall success. While this research found high-performers engage in a “consistent, periodic process”, my counsel would be to replace “periodic” with “continuous”.  Even strategic plans developed through intensive processes at 2-3 year intervals need constant monitoring and updating to remain relevant and effective.      

This study confirmed that high performing nonprofits are more likely in their strategic planning to:

  • Scan the external environment for trends and issues and benchmark what others are doing to be successful. In my experience organizations that scan create bolder and more future-focused plans.  

  • Engage in vision & mission discussions. I’ve found that nonprofits with a distinctive sense of their identity, value and impact are more than halfway to a great strategic plan.      

  • Conduct stakeholder interviews, surveys and focus groups.  I have seen board members rethink their understanding of what needs to happen many times when they take steps to truly listen to their stakeholders.

  • Conduct program analysis/assessment. This step may well be the secret to making sure even the most visionary strategic plan is grounded in a good set of pragmatic and actionable objectives. This is the reality check.      

  • Define organizational performance outcomes. Setting performance metrics is becoming an integral part of strategic planning.  

In the past five years, I’ve had to get very creative to work within the time and resource constraints that many nonprofits have for strategic planning. Budgets have been tight and board members can’t give their organizations enough time for extensive processes. This research confirms that having sufficient time and money for strategic planning is the norm.   

In his HBR article, Martin advises corporations to have succinct strategy statements that answer just two questions: where-to-play (which customers to target) and how-to-win (how to create a compelling value proposition).  He says, “there’s no reason why a company’s strategy choices can’t be summarized in one page with simple words and concepts.” Now that’s an approach I endorse. I am finding nonprofits love the one-page strategic plan.  And the ASP research confirms that concise goals, objective and other core text are the way to go.  I believe this brevity keeps nonprofits focused on their strategy yet gives them the space to improvise in changing conditions and emerging opportunities. There’s openness in a succinct strategic framework that invites initiative and innovation that lengthy, prescriptive plans preclude.

The ASP researchers conclude their report with a call for a “culture of planning” in nonprofits. I would argue instead that what we really need is a “culture of strategic conversation”.  Strategic planning gets results because it regularly forces strategic conversation onto the agenda in busy nonprofits.  Until nonprofits adopt a culture of strategic conversation, we cannot risk letting strategic planning die prematurely. Doing so would be a true waste of time and money.