Nonprofit Strategic Planning: 5 Essential Takeaways

By susanlienau | May 29, 2019 | Planning and Feasibility Studies
Create a successful nonprofit strategic plan by following our 5 essential takeaways.

A nonprofit strategic plan is a document intended to provide direction for your organization by laying out actionable goals for realizing your mission. Think of your strategic plan as a way of transforming your nonprofit’s ideals—such as the impact you’d like to have on the community in which you operate—into specific actions that your organization can accomplish within a defined period of time.

Nonprofits typically lay out a strategic plan to guide their actions for the three to five years after the plan’s completion. Increasingly, strategic plans or their components are intended to last one to three years. The shorter time frame provides your organization with more opportunity to respond to changes in the nonprofit sector overall as well as in the communities you serve, and the best nonprofit strategic plans of any length are those that can most effectively adapt to changing environments.

No matter what type of nonprofit you’re a part of, there are a few essential steps in the process of creating your next strategic plan that you’ll want to incorporate as you work with your board and staff members to shape your organization’s future. Today, let’s take a look at how you can:

  1. 1. Collaborate to define your nonprofit strategic planning goals.
  2. 2. Use your strategic planning goals to develop measurable objectives.
  3. 3. Prioritize objectives for your nonprofit strategic plan.
  4. 4. Revisit your strategic plan to make necessary adjustments.
  5. 5. Partner with a consultant for guidance throughout the strategic planning process.

While the most effective strategic plan for a nonprofit is one that is highly flexible, you’ll have the most success when you’re able to define the goals that you have for your organization so that you can develop clear strategies to help you reach them.

Collaborate to define your nonprofit strategic planning goals.

1. Collaborate to define your nonprofit strategic planning goals.

Even shorter nonprofit strategic plans are intended to address many aspects of your organization over relatively long periods of time. As your board members, staff, and other individuals involved with your organization work together in the early stages of the strategic planning process, your first step should be to evaluate your organization’s current standing so that you can define ambitious yet reasonable goals for your strategic plan.

One tried-and-true, highly effective starting place for evaluating your nonprofit and beginning to define your goals for your next strategic plan is an analysis of your strengths, challenges, opportunities, and vulnerabilities.

Identifying your nonprofit's strengths, challenges, opportunities, and vulnerabilities can help you define your initial goals.

The people involved in the various aspects of your organization’s work will each have different and valuable considerations for each category, but they may include:

  • Strengths. What aspects of your nonprofit’s operations, structure, and team have been responsible for your most significant recent successes? Perhaps you have particularly successful programs, a well-connected board, enthusiastic volunteers, or a generous and loyal base of supporters. Perhaps you have all of these strengths, and seek to expand them.
  • Challenges. Just as your nonprofit undoubtedly has unique strengths, it’s likely that you’ve encountered some recurring challenges in your operations. Identifying these can help you set some early goals for your strategic plan to make your organization even better than it already is. Staff retention, a lack of new faces on the board, and flat fundraising might be challenges affecting your nonprofit.
  • Opportunities. Building on your current strengths, brainstorm opportunities for your nonprofit that you can transform into concrete goals. Are there ways to improve communications among your team, for instance, or areas of your community that could benefit from your organization’s work? How can you expand impact? Refresh the board? Raise more money?
  • Vulnerabilities. Not all of the challenges that your nonprofit may have to face are connected to your organization’s operations or structure. If there are external reasons that you may have trouble connecting with your community or reaching your fundraising goals, for instance, you’ll want to address these in your nonprofit strategic plan.

Everyone who plays a role in furthering your nonprofit’s mission should be involved in this initial assessment process and in turning those findings into potential goals to include in your strategic plan. The main groups who will be involved in the strategic planning process are:

  • Your board. Your board members and other individuals involved in your nonprofit’s leadership should use some of their communications and meeting time to work on creating definite goals to include in your strategic plan that help further your mission in the community.
  • Your staff. Your staff members have various roles in your nonprofit’s operations and can thus provide many different perspectives on where you’re already doing well and where you need to improve efforts. Both they and your board members can provide insight into how your organization is perceived by those who benefit from your work and those who support that work.
  • Your consultant. Your nonprofit’s team can develop a strategic plan using your own knowledge as well as resources available online. However, if you would like to incorporate the outside perspective of a consultant, you’ll want them to be involved from the earliest stages of the process so that they can help you create the most effective strategic plan.

Once your team has worked together to identify some of the internal and external strengths and challenges that will shape your strategic plan and used them to set some preliminary goals, you can begin the process of defining those goals in measurable terms.

Use your strategic planning goals to develop measurable objectives.

2. Use your strategic planning goals to develop measurable objectives.

No matter what your nonprofit’s specific goals and objectives are, you’ll benefit from identifying ways to reach them through the process of capacity building. Capacity building activities and projects are those that facilitate the deepening of your nonprofit’s mission and impact and allow you to maintain the good work you’re already doing.

Transforming broader goals derived from your mission into specific and measurable objectives is an important part of the strategic planning process. Whether you’re partnering with a nonprofit fundraising consultant to identify opportunities for capacity building or using your team’s knowledge and resources, your strategic plan will benefit from the inclusion of specific projects intended to help you reach your goals through actionable steps.

Capacity building projects are an important component of your nonprofit strategic planning process.

Examples of capacity building projects like those that your organization may incorporate into your strategic plan include:

  • Mapping out the future of your organization’s leadership. When your current executives move up in your organization or choose to take advantage of other opportunities, who will succeed them? Reevaluating and more clearly defining the structure of your nonprofit’s leadership can be beneficial to your organization’s efficacy.
  • Investing in new technology. Staying connected with your supporters online is increasingly important for building your nonprofit’s brand recognition and encouraging giving. Upgrading your organization’s technology is a capacity building project that can benefit both your supporters and your team members.
  • Recruiting more volunteers. Without the dedication and hard work of your volunteers, your nonprofit couldn’t accomplish all of the good work you do for the communities you serve. Especially if one of your goals is to extend your reach to include new communities or new means of serving them, recruiting volunteers is an important capacity building project.
  • Developing a board candidate pipeline. Your board is your organization’s leadership group. Good governance dictates adherence to term limits and an active disciplined nominations function.

The process of capacity building helps your nonprofit obtain the resources you need to serve your community more effectively. After you’ve transformed large-scale goals into measurable objectives and know that you have the resources and structure to achieve those objectives, prioritize your efforts to begin enacting your strategic plan efficiently.

Prioritize objectives for the effective implementation of your nonprofit strategic plan.

3. Prioritize objectives for your nonprofit strategic plan.

The nonprofit strategic planning process is a collaborative effort involving your board and staff that will require continuous reevaluation throughout the years in which your plan is in effect. Prioritizing the objectives contained within your strategic plan ensures that you work efficiently and make more progress toward achieving your goals.

When it comes to prioritizing objectives, every organization’s needs are different. However, any nonprofit can benefit from categorizing these objectives to better understand how they fit together within your organization’s operations and your overall strategic plan. To help with organizing and prioritizing your objectives, think of them in categories such as:

  • Leadership objectives. Most of the responsibilities for these objectives will be carried out by your board members. Ensure that individual steps in each process are clearly assigned to different leaders and members and that the board communicates frequently to stay updated on their progress.
  • Operations objectives. Carried out in large part by your staff and your volunteers, operations objectives could include improvements to your organization’s internal processes, for example, or more effective means of carrying out your work in the communities you serve.
  • Fundraising objectives. Your organization’s leadership, board members, staff, volunteers, and any fundraising consultants you’ve chosen to partner with will all play important roles in creating and meeting fundraising objectives. These may include finding ways to encourage recurring contributions, increasing giving to your annual fund, or offering supporters new giving methods.

One of the largest fundraising objectives your organization may choose to address is a plan for your next capital campaign. Like the other objectives contained within your plan, this undertaking can be accomplished most efficiently when you break each component of the campaign into steps. Preliminary planning efforts such as the creation of a gift range chart are extremely helpful in facilitating the breakdown and eventual achievement of your goals.

A gift range chart breaks down the overall fundraising goal of a capital campaign into actionable pieces.

While every nonprofit’s goals, objectives, and strategic planning processes are unique, reflecting different missions, priorities, and organizational structures, at least one aspect of the process is common to all organizations: the need for revision as you carry out your plan.

Revisit your strategic plan to make necessary adjustments.

4. Revisit your strategic plan to make necessary adjustments.

As your nonprofit continues pursuing your good work in the communities you serve over time, conditions in these communities and at your organization are bound to shift and change. Your work itself will be responsible for some of these effects, as will external circumstances beyond your organization’s control. Capacity building is important because it leaves your nonprofit with an improved structure and tools that make you capable of maintaining your positive impact even when the details of your strategic plan have to change.

While your organization can’t predict all possible changes as you create your strategic plan, you can take steps throughout the strategic planning process to help ensure that the plan you create will be flexible enough to handle unexpected shifts. These steps include:

  • Developing a theory of change. Especially in the earliest stages of your nonprofit strategic planning process, envisioning and discussing a theory of change—beginning with your mission-based goals and working backward to identify potential paths toward reaching them—is an effective approach to the process. It helps ensure that everyone involved in the planning process has a clear understanding of your overarching goals, even if the paths have to change.
  • Communicating regularly with everyone involved. Nonprofit strategic planning is a team effort, as is realizing the objectives and goals outlined in the plan. Effective communication among all the various participants and components of your organization is essential to keeping your plan updated as circumstances change.
  • Revise your plan as needed. The need for revisions doesn’t mean that your original strategic plan was flawed or lacking—it just means that aspects of your organization or of the communities you serve have changed over time and their needs can be best met in new ways.
Revising your nonprofit strategic plan as needed is an essential component of the process.

With effective collaboration, efficient communication, and a willingness to be adaptable, your nonprofit’s team is capable of creating and updating a successful strategic plan on your own. However, if you think your planning process may benefit from an external perspective or professional expertise, you may want to consider partnering with a consultant.

Partner with a professional for additional guidance throughout the strategic planning process.

5. Partner with a consultant for guidance throughout the strategic planning process.

The nonprofit strategic planning process requires you to examine each aspect of your organization—the roles of your team members, the procedures under which you operate, and the work you do for the communities you serve—closely and thoroughly. Doing so objectively can be difficult for your organization’s team. You may benefit from the external guidance of a nonprofit strategic planning consultant.

Defining your goals is a collaborative process that happens among your board members, your staff, and your strategic planning consultant.

If your organization is planning to partner with a consultant to create your next strategic plan, it’s important that you put in the necessary research to choose the best consultant to suit your specific needs. As you consider your options, ensure that you’re working to select a consultant who:

  • Understands your mission and needs. While the consultant you hire will help you develop overarching goals and measurable objectives during the strategic planning process, you’ll want to select someone who understands your mission and has a good idea of the work you do even before you begin your collaboration.
  • Matches your nonprofit’s size and experience level. You’ll have the most success with a consultant that helps your organization build your capacity by first meeting you where you are. The projects that you develop under the guidance of your consultant should help your nonprofit grow without extending beyond reasonable limits.
  • Is prepared to be included in each step of the strategic planning process. The nonprofit strategic planning process isn’t complete once a final draft of the first document is drawn up and circulated among your team members. The best strategic planning consultant for your organization is one who understands that revisions will inevitably occur and who will help you make these decisions as the need for them arises.

Collaboration is the key to a successful nonprofit strategic plan. When everyone involved in the process—your board, your staff, your volunteers, your consultant, and members of the communities you serve—understand your goals and the steps you’re taking to reach them, your strategic plan will guide your nonprofit to new levels of success.

Creating a new strategic plan for your nonprofit is an exciting time for your organization, and you’ll be most productive and successful when you’ve done the necessary research in advance. The following additional resources offer more guidance on aspects of strategic and campaign planning so that your organization is sure to be prepared:

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