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Tips from SCORE: Seven questions to ask when strategic planning

Published July 23, 2023

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Most for-profit enterprises have a business plan that sets as its horizon three to five years with assumptions that are continually monitored for change. Nonprofits, on the other hand, use strategic planning as their guide. Today a planning horizon of 18-24 months is about all one can grasp relative to environmental factors that determine the actions needed by most nonprofits to achieve their mission.

According to research by David La Piana, “Sound strategy is at the heart of good nonprofit leadership.” Strategy advances the nonprofit’s mission resulting in financial and organizational sustainability. Asking these questions sets the stage for effective strategic planning:

  • What is our “business”?
  • Who are our “clients”?
  • What are our core competencies?
  • Who are our competitors and how do we compare?
  • What programs should we offer?
  • What is our position in the marketplace?
  • What political, economic, and technological trends will impact us?

These questions are just the beginning of the probing that is necessary to strategically plan the success of your nonprofit. They sound like “business” probes. Well, the only real difference financially between a for-profit and a nonprofit is the tax status. Both types of organizations need to be managed in the same way. The missions are different but the function of managing is very similar.

Strategic planning starts with a value analysis. What are the values that define the nonprofit enterprise? What values determine how decisions are made, what actions are allowable and what are not and how the individuals involved in the nonprofit interact with one another, those that financially support them and those they support? A values analysis asks each member of the board and key staff members what values drive the nonprofit’s brand. Once consensus is reached then all the remaining planning and actions are driven by those values. Some values that are most prominent in nonprofit strategic planning are collaboration, inclusiveness, diversity, equality, integrity, compassion and respect.

The values analysis drives the generation of the nonprofit’s mission. Mission answers the question Why? Why does the nonprofit exist? It defines the problem that the organization is trying to solve and the values and beliefs about what it will take to make the necessary changes. The mission is integral to defining the market in which the nonprofit will function strategically. Consider Housing Assistance Corporation (HAC), a Hyannis-based nonprofit addressing the need for housing – affordable housing. Understanding the Cape Cod housing market drivers from a strategic standpoint is pivotal in creating goals, objectives, action plans and key performance indicators. What key performance indicators can be applied to the strategic actions of the enterprise? Sharing Kindness (A nonprofit that provides suicide prevention, mental health education and grief support programs on Cape Cod) created an action plan to establish facilitated grief sessions. At the end of year two they had 10 functioning peer grief groups. Setting an objective without a metric is a waste of time and resources. Identifying what can be used to determine if the actions taken have achieved the desired results is key to strategically moving the organization forward in addressing its mission. The next step is sometimes the most difficult yet the most important because it puts the operations internally and the environment externally under a microscope so issues can be identified. The SWOT analysis is very straightforward — Strengths (those elements that are strong and the organization needs to keep strong), Weaknesses (those elements that need attention since they are not performing well), Opportunities (situations that offer the ability to expand the operations beyond the current situation) and Threats (those elements that are probably weaknesses and not addressing them might take the organization down). The key is to draw conclusions from the analysis that takes you to the next level in planning. Combine the Threats and Weaknesses to identify the issues that need prioritized action plans. Most nonprofits have limited bandwidth to take on more than three or four issues. They have limited staff and/ or volunteers to tackle the issues. FOCUS on the important ones is key. The ones that will make a difference in achieving the organization’s mission.

In order to move the planning from the present which is known and understood into a period of the “unknown,” planners need to make assumptions about what may or may not happened. These assumptions will impact the ability of the nonprofit to achieve its mission.

Political, economic, social, technological and competitive are the specific areas that planners need to create assumptions upon which their actions will be based. The assumptions that are made become the basis for the annual objectives. And, they need to be SMART objectives. Specific, Measurable, Aggressive, Realistic and Time-based. Be sure to limit the number of objectives to as to fit the bandwidth of the organization.

Supporting the SMART objectives are action plans that include the strategies and tactics that detail how the nonprofit “get where they want to go.” The action plans detail what are the steps that can be taken to address the issues. Who is responsible? When will the action take place and be acted upon? What resources are needed? Don’t forget the metric, what is the expected outcome that will drive the activities in reaching the organization’s mission?

To undertake effective strategic planning an organization (board of directors and key staff) needs to: (1) be committed to the process and expected outcome and (2) have a timeframe in which the planning will take place and be implemented and (3) have a system to “check-in” with process periodically to assure it remains on track and moving towards achieving the organization’s mission. In order for this to take place there needs to be a small team of board/staff/volunteers who take on the planning project, report to the board of directors and get their commitment to execute the planned actions.

Contributed by Marc L. Goldberg, Certified Mentor, SCORE Cape Cod & the Islands., capecodscore@, 508/775--4884. A Paul Bradley, Strategic Planning, The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution, David La Piana.

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Funded, in part, through a Cooperative Agreement with the U.S. Small Business Administration. All opinions, and/or recommendations expressed herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SBA.

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