How To Make Strategic Planning for Nonprofits Easier And More Successful

Many agencies will shortly begin holding planning sessions, or retreats, for 2018. The announcement of these events is usually met with either groans or cheers, depending on how your past sessions have gone.

Regardless of your agency’s previous experience, however, planning for the future should be an exciting experience that unleashes the energy and creativity of your team. Everyone should look forward to a collaborative effort to clarify goals and inspire inventiveness. It should not be a long, boring day in which a few verbose, opinionated people hijack the conversation or flex undue influence.

With this important work ahead of you, I thought I would share some tips I have picked up from my planning experiences. Some I learned the easy way, some…not so much.

Here are three considerations to make strategic planning for nonprofits easier:

Process Considerations

  • Before the session begins, make clear whether the group has actual decision-making authority or only recommendation authority. Do not lead them to believe they have more authority than you are able to offer them.
  • You and your board chair should open the session to set the stage and clarify what might be off limits in discussions, if anything.
  • Reaffirm your agency’s Mission, Vision, and Values. Before getting into any serious discussion, everyone on your team should be able to articulate, understand, and support a shared vision for your agency 3-5 years out. If they cannot achieve this, illuminating agency goals should be your first priority. You can never give clear direction forward if your team is not on the same page.
  • Conduct a short post mortem on the prior year. Review the past year’s activities and results – what worked, what did not, and why.
  • Conducting internal and external scans (usually through a SWOT analysis) helps everyone grasp the realities of what challenges the agency faces and which resources they can utilize to combat them.
  • Don’t try to facilitate the session on your own. You may inadvertently stifle openness or set yourself up for accusations of steering the discussion in a certain direction. Bring in an outside facilitator.
  • Use numbers, metrics, etc. as much as possible. The more data you can include in your discussions, the better your end result.
  • Emphasize the importance of living out the agency’s stated values (for instance, truth, honesty, straight talk, adaptability, etc.) during the discussion.
  • Try to limit the take-away strategies you intend to pursue in the new year to 3-5, maximum.

People Considerations

  • Clearly establish any realistic conversational boundaries participants must use in their discussions: i.e. finances, ongoing expenses, expected income etc.
  • Let the facilitator meet with key participants before the session to build a relationship. They should determine what they may not say in public by asking probing questions.
  • Each department head should present a mini-state of the union address to the group about his/her department to help frame the issues. Transparency is essential in strategic planning for nonprofits. 
  • Be bold and create as inclusive a group of participants as possible to capture the best information available.
  • Participants should be allowed to vote on establishing priorities. Using the sticky colored dots is often the easiest way to identify the group’s top “hot buttons.”
  • Be willing to include current and former board members, key leaders on staff, and even outsiders who have valuable expertise that would richly add to the overall discussions.
  • Give people plenty of time to prepare in advance.
  • Conduct the planning session away from the office, preferable at a board member’s offices, a hotel, etc. Getting people out of their normal environment and away from distractions will add immensely to the quality of discussions and decisions.
  • Even though everyone probably knows each other at some level, it is a good ida to start out with an ice breaker to loosen everyone up and to break any tensions.
  • Get participants up and moving around so they stay sharp and engaged. Try to create movement during the day. If you separate the participants into smaller groups to simultaneously explore several issues, be sure to change up the composition of the smaller groups.

Strategic planning for nonprofits involves many moveable parts and can easily veer off course. It is essential to set up some ground rules to keep the process running smoothly:

    • Ask participants to not get personal, even if discussions become frustrating. Attack the issues, not each other.
    • Remind everyone what the session goals are: i.e. develop a new strategic plan, develop critical success factors, develop underlying key initiatives to achieve goals, etc. 
    • Remind them there is no need to repeat something that has already been said.
    • Tell them no sidebar conversations are permitted. 
    • Encourage them to stay actively engaged, even if things are slowing down (especially after lunch).
    • Remind them everyone has the right to contribute to the discussion and gets a chance to provide feedback.
    • Ask them to remain focused on your task for the day.
    • Remind them to focus on organization’s big picture and avoid getting bogged down in minutia. Leave the small details for later.
    • Ask them to listen closely to everyone and remain open-minded; no hidden agendas.
    • Encourage them to keep discussions fact-based. Opinions are important, but should not be confused with the facts.
    • Tell them respectfully challenging others is fine, but insist they refrain from personal attacks.
    • Remind them that if need be, you may have to agree to disagree to keep the conversations moving forward. Do not waste time when it is clear agreement on a topic is not possible.
    • Remind them to place their phones on vibrate, or off.

There is no one way to host a successful planning session, but there are several best practices you can employ to help achieve desirable results. Give these tips a try and let me know how they worked for you.

These tips will improve strategic planning for nonprofits; I have seen it happen. They will help you build your 2018 road map so you can quickly begin the new year with focus, energy, and alignment of resources. Don’t let January slip away from you. Start out strong right in the first week!

If you have questions please contact me and I will share my thoughts with you.

Learn how to create an effective strategic plan with achievable results, clear accountability and better outcomes!