The Missing Success Factor in Strategic Planning: Accountability

The majority of nonprofits have strategic plans, but they aren’t living up to their expectations for following their plans, monitoring performance and impact, or focusing on strategy and policy in  board meetings, according to the 2014 BoardSource national index of board practices.

Maybe I need to be more forceful when I end every strategic planning retreat. I always advise my clients to continually monitor and update their plan, use meaningful metrics to track progress, and hold regular strategic conversations. I’ve done this because I didn’t want to see all their good intentions fall away once the retreat ends. But I see BoardSource chose an apt title for this year’s index, Leading with Intent.

In this annual survey of nonprofits within its network, BoardSource found boards underperforming in adopting and following a strategic plan.  Only 20% gave themselves an A, while 45% gave a B, 23% a C and 12% a D or F.  Since 89% reported having a strategic plan and 81% said they approved the final plan, they must be downgrading themselves for failure to follow the plan once adopted. That makes sense because BoardSource also found nonprofit boards underperformed in monitoring organizational performance and impact. Only 13% earned an A while 49% earned a B, 29% a C and 9% a D or F.

After working intensely with a board, the last thing I want to believe is that everyone’s hard work and enthusiasm in creating a plan will not lead to great results. At least these nonprofits responding to the survey are owning up to their accountability problem. I had this problem confirmed when the president-elect at my last strategic planning retreat invited me back next year to make sure the association will do what the board planned.

Knowing I have a return engagement with a client I enjoyed is great, but I shouldn’t be the enforcer. I would rather return to celebrate their successes and help plan the next steps toward their vision.

Instead nonprofits should take a few practical steps instead to build more accountability for their strategic plans:  

  • Communicate to members, donors and other stakeholders what you expect to achieve
  • Set meaningful metrics for your goals even if you have to set up new ways to measure success
  • Align your board meeting agenda to reflect your strategic plan
  • Share the plan with committees and task forces and charge them with specific objectives
  • Annually review and update the plan’s objectives to respond to changes and new priorities