The Before, During, and After of Strategic Planning

During the course of my career, I have had the opportunity to lead or be part of strategic planning initiatives ranging from local health services and groups all the way up to international endeavors such as the Global Workspace Association and the Special Olympics World Games.

My experience has taught me a plan is only as good as its ability to be successfully implemented. I have uncovered three key common denominators that I have found essential to ensure your strategic plan transcends from concept to reality:

The Before: A Culture of Accountability

Unless your organization has some sort of project management software in place and has established a culture of accountability, deliverables, and outcomes, your strategic plan has the foundation crumbling underneath it before you have even begun construction. Choose the one that is right for your size, staff, capacity, and workflow, but choose something! Asana,, MS Project, Basecamp, Trello, Airtable, and Hubspot all are among the ones I have used in the past. Investigate and compare but make this part of the organizational culture before you assemble participants for a strategic planning endeavor.

The During: Right People in the Room

Many a strategic plan has gone awry when the dynamic of the people in the room cannot produce strategic thought, a vision for the future, necessary knowledge or information needed, or a keen sense of what the market needs. Many nonprofit boards are composed of bright, thoughtful, action-oriented people with a passion for the organization’s mission—that’s what makes them great board members! When it comes to charting a course for the future, though, these same people don’t always know exactly what goes on day-to-day in the nonprofit they serve and sometimes do not have deep knowledge of core service delivery areas. A strategic planning team composed only of board members often is destined for failure. Nonprofit management staff are essential as a resource but ensure that they are strategically minded and do not drown themselves in tactical considerations. Likewise, having 2-3 stakeholders (e.g., clients, community partners, funding sources, etc.) helps to round out strategy so that your nonprofit brand identity addresses true needs and demand.

The After: Channel Alignment

Sometimes you get these bright people in a room, develop great strategies, pat yourselves on the back, and then say, “Wait a minute! What do we do with this now? Who is going to carry this out and make it happen?” Therein lies the strategic plan that sits on the shelf and gathers dust. I have found that alignment of channels for implementation makes all the difference. It’s a simple as discussing Development as a strategic issue, having a Development Committee of the board, involving the Development Director in the discussion, and the creating a pathway from the board to the committee to the director for transitioning the strategy into tactics for implementation. No need to delve into tactics for a successful strategic plan during a retreat, but you certainly better have the simple, natural channel established to drive it home.

Put the Before, During and After in place, and a rewarding new chapter for your nonprofit will follow.

David Middleton is a Senior Advisor with Armstrong McGuire who specializes in staff and board development, strategic planning, organizational growth, and interim management. Learn more about David in his bio.

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