Strategic planning is a very popular concept with both nonprofit and for-profit organizations (for-profits often refer to it as “business planning”). Very simply, strategic planning gives an organization the power and tools to focus on what it wants to become.
Simple to say, but not simple to do
Personalities, politics, deadlines, lack of information, and all kinds of pressures get in the way.
Some believe strategic planning is a waste of time — either they’ve had a bad experience, or they believe that life is too chaotic for a plan to be relevant for more than five minutes.
If you spend all your time planning, when will you get any work done?
Giving Your Organization a Powerful Presence
Sumption & Wyland can provide the independent viewpoint and experience to challenge assumptions, deal with divergent personalities and priorities, take the time to gather essential information, and guide your organization’s leaders to consensus on your plan for the future.
Meeting Your Individual Needs
Your plan — not ours. No preconceived notions, no “cookie-cutter” goals and objectives, no “one-size-fits-all” action plan. Each client we deal with is different, and each planning process is different. We respect your organization’s independence and individuality. The strategic planning process should result in a plan that your board, management team, and key stakeholders can recognize as theirs — not that of a consultant.
Your plan won’t sit on a shelf gathering dust, either. We provide you with tools to help keep your board and management team focused on the plan’s key elements. We also include follow-up contacts with the board chair and senior management to check on how things are going. Most importantly, it’s your plan. It’s more than a reference — it’s your organization’s roadmap, compass, and yardstick all in one. It integrates all planning and becomes a tool your management staff and board will use all the time.
Before You Plan
We, and the nonprofit sector as a whole, are indebted to the Peter F. Drucker Foundation (now the Leader to Leader Institute) for their continuing work to strengthen and build the capacity of nonprofit organizations.
Strategic Planning Is Critical To An Organization Because It Completes Three Important Functions:
It forces a focus on the mission of the organization. According to the Leader to Leader Institute, eight out of 10 nonprofit organizations are doing work that is outside their mission because they are unable to say “no” when someone comes to them with a good cause. The mission of the organization is its reason for being; an end result of what the organization wants to achieve. By defining clearly what an organization exits to achieve, it meets the ultimate goal of mobilizing staff and volunteers to concentrate their efforts on the right work.
It encourages constructive dissent. A planned process allows the values and views of all stakeholders to be heard. It provides an environment where all participants have access to the same information and resources. A clear description of the facts provides a process for a leadership group having differing views to find consensus on a single defined mission and plan.
Ultimately, the strategic planning process strengthens the organization. It provides a platform for the organization to allocate its human and material resources and it sets the stage for the organization to seek new resources to fulfill its mission.
A Strategic Planning Process Has Five Key Steps
It is important to remember that strategic planning is an ongoing process. A complete planning process usually happens once every three years, with objectives and action planning happening at least annually. However, to be effective, the volunteer leadership and staff of an organization must continually consult the plan, assess progress, make changes as needed, and build all elements of organizational work with the plan as a guide.
It’s common for an organization to set aside time for a strategic planning “tune-up” annually, even when the organization’s board and executive staff are diligent in following progress in implementing the plan regularly.
Cost of Strategic Planning
Whenever we’re asked about our strategic planning services, one of the first questions is about cost. The first answer is always, “It depends.” Every organization contemplating strategic planning approaches the process with different expectations, different needs, different time lines, and different levels of readiness.
It’s very easy to sell an “off-the-shelf” strategic planning solution, but it’s difficult to get such a solution to “fit” all the varied organizational situations we encounter in our practice.
These questions often help to clarify what an organization and its board don’t know and need to know, or what issues need to be addressed in order for any strategic plan to be successful. In fact, there are some organizations that can actually be made worse by strategic planning undertaken in the wrong way, at the wrong time, or for the wrong reasons.
Well Thought-Out Plans
A single facilitated meeting and a consultant-written report rarely cause a transformational change in an organization. These reports are like Mark Twain’s definition of a “classic” — a book everyone praises and nobody reads. These quickie plans often hide more than they reveal and seldom deliver any real value to nonprofit organizations.
There are many approaches to strategic planning. We’ve documented the features and limitations of three popular nonprofit planning models here. In our practice, we’ve used variants of all three models, and others, as indicated by our clients’ particular situations.
Here are some of the questions we ask as we work with the client to determine the scope of services and fee structure:
- How old is your nonprofit organization?
- What is the composition of your board of directors? (Number of members, tenure, board turnover, etc.)
- Does your organization have a current strategic plan? If so:
a) When was it developed?
b) How was it developed?
c) How is it working?
- Does your organization have an established mission statement that reflects the organization now?
- Does the organization have vision and values statements that describe the organization’s direction?
- Would you consider your organization to have stable, diversified funding to deliver your mission?
- What are the key issues facing your organization today?
- What are the current trends in your industry that may affect your organization’s direction?
- Does your organization have a management team (whether a single staff person or a group) that will follow through and make the strategic planning operational through annual work plans and evaluative activities as well as through direct service?
- Are there any special factors, such as government regulation, the presence of a founding board member and/or major contributor on the board, or a crisis situation that affect your organization’s ability to chart its future course?
- What do you want this strategic planning activity to accomplish? What is your definition of “success,” and how will you know when success has been achieved?
Building A Strong Foundation
Asking these questions helps us understand what strategic planning services are needed, what supports are present to make strategic planning successful, and what related services might be required to enable the organization to realize its mission.
Power of a Well-Defined Strategic Plan
Strategic planning is a powerful tool in your organization’s success, and it deserves time, thought, and consideration. Just as strategic planning is important because “prior planning promotes proper performance,” as the saying goes, these questions asked up front, help us work with our clients to assure that the planning process itself is designed to promote proper performance.
Many board members and executives believe that strategic planning happens during a retreat, where leaders meet intensively and come to a consensus on key questions such as mission, vision, values, and strategic direction/priorities/goals. This is only partly correct, and a key reason why some planning processes are doomed to failure.
Good strategic planning includes a board retreat. However, much strategic planning work happens long before the board retreat, and some work includes preparing for a board retreat. Also, much strategic planning work follows a board retreat.
A planning “process” that is, in fact, merely a board retreat, usually results in a written report that is put on a shelf to collect dust. A board retreat isn’t a “process;” it’s an event — an important event that should be an integral part of a larger process.
In fact, the written report isn’t the key outcome (“deliverable”) of successful planning. The key outcome is the success of the process itself — the success of the organization’s leaders’ communication and consensus-building. Building belief and consensus on mission and strategic direction takes a lot more time and communication than a retreat by itself can provide.
Don’t shortchange your organization. Preparation, communication, consensus-building, and execution are all keys to successful strategic planning. Let us show you the way.
The Drucker Model
The Drucker Model is essentially a business model for planning applied to address the unique features of public sector organizations. It presents the five most important questions any nonprofit organization must ask: What is our mission? Who is our customer? What does our customer value? What are our results? What is our plan? The planning model seeks to address the planning process at every stage in the context of what the mission of the organization is and what it should be. It seeks to identify primary customers (those whose lives are changed by the work) and supporting customers (volunteers, partners, donors, and others who must be satisfied). The resulting product is a listing of goals and measurable objectives.
The Drucker Model focuses on results – keeping the “bottom line” of changed lives as its key element of organizational success. It seeks to establish clear measures of commitment and competence and targets performance standards as a measure of success. The “business management” orientation of the model is easy for many volunteer leaders to grasp as it often relates to their business orientation in their professional lives.
The model spends limited time on the analysis of the organizational realities of many nonprofit organizations. While highlighting the customer, it lacks a formal analysis of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of an organization. Critics of the model believe that the intense focus on the customer fails to allow planners to go outside the model to seek creative solutions to unmet needs.
Literature: Drucker, Peter F. The Drucker Foundation Self Assessment Tool, Process and Participant Workbook. The Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management and Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, CA, 1999.
Amherst Wilder Foundation
The Amherst Wilder Foundation planning approach was developed and recognized as one of the first comprehensive planning processes uniquely tailored for public sector organizations. Taken from corporate business planning models that have been in use for over two decades, the model addresses the management processes necessary for organizational survival. The process is very detailed with structured formats provided for each element of the planning process. The outcome report is very detailed and connects fiscal and program resources to detailed operational elements of the plan.
The planning process is very thorough, concentrating on the development of organizational readiness, taking stock of current climate and future issues identification, offers multiple planning approaches, and a process to evaluate and refine the plan once it is in place. The process offers three different strategies which can be used to approach the plan. These include the scenario approach where planning participants develop possible scenarios based on identified issues and structure a plan of action to meet an agree-upon scene of the future; the critical issues approach where planning participants address planning from the perspective of each identified critical issue identified addressing key actions, finances, and administrative needs necessary to meet these issues; and goal approach which seeks to have participants set a few key goals that they seek to achieve along with strategies to get them to these goals.
The Amherst Wilder Model for strategic planning is often criticized because of its strong attention to detail. Critics identify these types of plans as the ones that end up in a drawer only drug out every three years when it’s planning time. The elements of the planning process are valuable; however, the resulting plans often are so detailed as to appear prohibitive for management to implement. The process requires a detailed assessment and redesign process many organizations are unable to fit into their ongoing work, resulting in an out-of-date plan with little prospect of providing leadership and direction for the organization.
Literature: Amherst Wilder Foundation. Strategic Planning Workbook for Nonprofit Organizations.Publishing Center for Cultural Resources, New York, NY, 1987.
Strategic Change Cycle Model
The ten-step process developed by Bryson provides a thorough sequential process to complete organizational assessment and a quality strategic plan. Its key uniqueness is its connection of the mission to organizational mandates, making this model especially effective with organizations that deliver services and products heavily subscribed with governmental resources (health care, youth services covered by Medicaid or Medicaid waiver, etc.). The plan development process is simple and straightforward, with the outcome of the plan providing maximum room for ongoing assessment and adjustment of strategies based on emerging issues and needs.
The key benefit of the planning process is its flexibility. It allows organizations to come into the planning process at whatever stage they are in their organizational maturity. The process is easily adaptable for organizations both big and small and allows for the development of the level of planning detail that is comfortable for the organization to implement. It offers maximum stakeholder participation and spends significant time on identifying and assessing stakeholders’ needs and wishes. The resulting plan development is detailed enough to set the course for an organization yet has the flexibility to allow for ongoing modification based on emerging issues.
The planning process is heavily weighted with organizational mandates as a precursor to mission development. This can have the effect of lessening the sense of vision and innovativeness in meeting the needs of the target populations to be served. A strong facilitator is needed to assure that mission and vision are not weighted too heavily by the regulatory burdens which are often a consideration of nonprofit organizations attempting to do good work.
Literature: Bryson, John M. Strategic Planning for Public and Nonprofit Organizations, A Guide to Strengthening and Sustaining Organizational Achievement. Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, CA, 1995.
Bryson, John M. and Alston, Farnum K., Creating and Implementing Your Strategic Plan, A Workbook for Public and Nonprofit Organizations. Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, CA, 1996.
LaPiana "Real-Time Strategic Planning" Model
David LaPiana’s model is based on the premise that change is constant and happens at a rapid pace, making traditional strategic planning models too rigid. One key to LaPiana’s model is to focus examination on a nonprofit’s tangible and intangible assets as a way to prepare to react to sudden market opportunities to change existing programs and services or start new programs and services quickly.
The key benefit of the planning process is its design to make it easier for nonprofits to make quick decisions that affect their program and service mix, new initiatives, etc. Having an “inventory” of assets and capabilities on hand and agreed to by leaders and key stakeholders, the nonprofit doesn’t need nearly as much time to assess whether a change is a feasible or good idea. This allows the nonprofit to be nimble in responding to market conditions and take advantage of appropriate opportunities with less worry about being tied to existing resource allocations.
LaPiana’s design is heavily weighted toward actions taken by staff leaders, in two key ways: 1) the model is designed to facilitate implementation decisions, which are usually staff-led decisions; and 2) the model assumes that vision, mission, and goals/initiatives are pretty well-defined and are addressed by inference, not directly. On a related note, the index of LaPiana’s book does not have “board” as an entry, so board-level considerations are not explored.