Strategic Planning 101

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strateic plan pyramid representing growth

Strategic planning is a core business practice employed widely by nonprofits to re-examine and refresh the programs and services they provide within the context of a clear vision for the impact they wish to have as they fulfill their mission. Strategic planning helps align the board and staff around key goals and objectives, so they work, in concert, towards a common aim.

Mission and Vision

What’s the difference between mission and vision?

A mission is the business of an organization, the purpose for which it exists. Yours was formed to address a problem or meet a need that is either not currently addressed, or not addressed effectively. Mission statements don’t change that often.

A vision describes the impact you intend to have after a specific period of time through the programs or services you offer. A vision statement should be written or refreshed each time you begin a new strategic planning process. Vision statements drive the plan.

A strategic plan is designed to support your mission and to realize your vision.

Nomenclature may differ from plan to plan, from consultant to consultant, but the structure should be similar from one to another: with mission at the nonprofit’s core, a vision is realized through a small set of goals (statements of expected outcomes) that keeps the board and staff focused on implementing the plan.  Those goals, in turn, are accomplished through a realistic set of objectives (strategies or initiatives) that may be assigned to departments or groups or individuals.  An effective strategic plan should be both aspirational and practical; it should inspire stakeholders to support the organization’s vision, while giving them confidence that the organization has the capacity to execute against the plan’s promises.

Engaging Stakeholders

Who participates in strategic planning?

A strategic plan is hardly strategic if you haven’t engaged the people who need to feel some ownership for its success and will carry out its goals (e.g. board, staff, faculty, clergy…). Your strategic plan can feel out of touch if you haven’t asked the communities or audiences you serve (e.g. students, patients, clients, visitors, borrowers, campers, funders, regulators…) about their needs and requirements and responded through the plan’s goals. All of these constituents are “stakeholders.”

A good strategic planning process begins by identifying your nonprofit’s universe of stakeholders and finds a way to engage each group. Start by composing a steering committee for the entire process with representatives of the board and staff leadership. Seven-to-nine individuals is about right, each a recognizable representative of a larger faction – e.g. long-time board member, new board member, administrator, and program staff. Make sure you’ve got different ages and genders represented and you’ve welcomed many points of view. Sometimes an outside stakeholder on the steering committee – a knowledgeable funder or community leader – can aid the process by asking good questions that challenge assumptions or can help win support for implementing the plan later on. In the end, every stakeholder should recognize that someone representing their point of view has a seat at the table.

A good strategic planning process requires research: gathering data from respected sources and engaging stakeholders from beyond the steering committee. Interviews, surveys, focus groups, environmental scans and roundtable conversations are common tools for gathering data. The trick is ensuring that a balanced range of voices is heard, and a full range of issues and opportunities is surfaced.

Conducting Research

How does data drive vision?

Your steering committee should begin by articulating the key questions that the strategic plan needs to answer about who your nonprofit serves, how programs and services are delivered, the availability of resources, and changes in the external environment that might encourage or challenge your work.

Interviews, surveys, focus groups and roundtable conversations can be used to gather data to help answer these questions. So too can demographic research, a review of topical literature, and a close look at similar or competing nonprofits, their programs, services, organizational and financial structures. By sifting through and analyzing the collected data, a series of themes should emerge, as well as challenges and opportunities to which the strategic plan should respond.

Using SWOT as a summarizing tool.

A SWOT analysis is a good place to start in summarizing the data you’ve collected. A four-quadrant grid listing Strengths and Weaknesses (internal), Opportunities and Threats (External) – five-to-ten of each – helps make sense of what you’ve learned, highlighting the areas to which your plan’s goals and objectives should respond. In short, your plan should build on strengths, address weaknesses, take advantage of opportunities, and mitigate threats. The SWOT is first used during the research portion of the planning process, and gets reintroduced at the end as a kind of “checklist” to make sure the plan responds directly to the research findings.

Formulating a Vision

How is a vision formulated?

Visioning is a weighty task since your vision statement becomes a kind of headline for your entire strategic plan. If “mission” is the reason you are in business, think of “vision” as the impact you wish to have on your audience or the population that you serve.

The art of visioning is the art of finding common ground among many voices including board and staff, administrators and program providers.

In formulating a vision, the aim is to keep in mind everything learned from the research conducted and imagine a compelling future for your nonprofit and the population you serve which the strategic plan will be designed to realize.

It can be hard to find agreement on word choices when a group tries to write a vision statement. It is easier to find common ground around the big ideas that will animate your work over the period covered by the strategic plan. A discussion or exercise can help you reach consensus around the big ideas; then task a small, representative group with writing or wordsmithing the vision statement itself.

Have the steering committee endorse the vision statement and take a moment for self-congratulation; you’ve accomplished something together that moves everyone in the same direction.

Setting Goals and Objectives

Goals and objectives are the building blocks of strategic planning.

Goals. In strategic planning, a vision can and should be bold. The small number of goals that give your board and staff their “marching orders” can also be ambitious. Drafting them can be the trickiest part of making a realizable plan. How big? How bold? How many?

Start by thinking through what has to happen, at the highest organizational level. What does your program need to accomplish in order to realize the vision? What does your leadership need to look like? What are the financial requirements? And how should your nonprofit be recognized in the world? Here’s one example: say your nonprofit’s vision is to dramatically improve the quality of education for a group of underserved youth; your goals might focus on: a) the development of a promising curriculum, b) effective recruitment of students, c) enhanced organizational infrastructure and resources to provide the programs, and d) a robust set of tools to measure the program’s effectiveness.

Goals should be written to move in two directions. They should aim up in support of the vision, and they should filter down to inform the objectives (the actual work you will do) to implement the strategic plan.

Objectives. Objectives are the practical steps you take to achieve each goal. This is where a plan’s building blocks get practical and tactical. Objectives are actions and initiatives with measurable outcomes that can be assigned to or undertaken by a department, a group or an individual over a period of time, using specific resources. For each major goal in the plan, a small number of objectives should be committed to by the managers, departments, work groups or board committees responsible for them. Each objective should be clearly-worded, realistic and contain these elements:

  1. Target of change (a population, condition, organizational practice…)
  2. Desired outcomes (they must be measurable)
  3. Implementation steps (task-by-task)
  4. Timeline (for implementation and results)
  5. Financial implications (and the funding source)
  6. Evaluation criteria (and what is the current baseline?)
  7. Responsible party (for implementation and measurement)


Once the full Strategic Plan is drafted, make sure that everyone who needs to implement it is “on board” at every level. Fuel interest in the plan amongst staff and board with periodic updates for stakeholders on progress (e.g., approval of a vision statement; agreement on key goals). When the final plan is approved, there should be little surprise about its direction.

Your board should endorse the strategic plan; but their purview is just the vision, the goals designed to realize the vision and the objectives that animate the goals. Another complementary document, for staff only, should contain your tactical plans – the step-by-step roadmap for your nonprofit’s work to implement each objective, year by year. Make sure you’ve spread responsibility for implementation across your organization so everyone has a stake in the strategic plan’s success.

Estimate the financial resources you’ll need and identify potential sources before the plan is finalized (e.g., operating budget, operating surplus, one-time board gifts, new grant funds, etc.). Your strategic plan should dovetail with your projected annual operating budget and include related fundraising goals so your board, executive leadership and fundraising staff understand the work ahead.

Plans are made to be changed!

Strategic plans should never be “set in stone.” Good plans are living documents, designed to be amended over time.

Strategic plans are “built” from vision on down, in part to allow for flexibility in execution. Your vision and the major goals that follow are the “constants” over the life of a plan. Together they signal where you intend to go as an institution or organization over the period of the plan.

But the specific objectives and tactics that you need to reach your goals (and to realize your vision) can be amended over time. In fact, they inevitably will. Opportunities arise and circumstances change. Your vision and goals – the constants – help you decide when to say “yes” and when to say “no” to opportunity. And they help you to focus on your priorities in times of adversity or change.

Here are ten events in the lifecycle of a nonprofit that can impact your strategic plan: a leader departs, board composition alters, funding declines, a new program succeeds beyond expectations…or fails, a bequest comes your way, legislation is passed, new staff bring new ideas, a merger becomes possible, the political environment shifts, the economic outlook changes. Your plan can be adjusted to reflect any of these events.

Here’s one way to do it: Keep your planning committee intact and schedule periodic meetings to review progress and consider amendments. Or designate the senior management team or a new board and staff committee to take on this responsibility.