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The Critical Link Between Strategic Thinking and Nonprofit Success

According to the National Council of Nonprofit “A strategic planning process identifies strategies that will best enable a nonprofit to advance its mission. Ideally, as staff and board engage in the process, they commit to measurable goals, approve priorities for implementation, and also make a plan to revisit the strategy on an ongoing basis as the internal and external environments change.”

Recently, SureImpact’s founder & CEO, Sheri Chaney Jones, participated in an NXUnite panel discussion entitled “Strategically Minded: Best Practices for Nonprofit Strategic Planning.” Sheri was joined by Dr. Rob Harter from the Nonprofit Leadership Podcast, lawyer and nonprofit founder, Brooke Richie-Babbage, and nonprofit consultant, Patrick Larkin.

Are you able to be strategic in your nonprofit, or do you feel like you are constantly putting out one fire just in time to tackle the next one? A majority of panel audience members (64%) reported that “Ensuring effective implementation and accountability,” was the hardest part of strategic planning to nail, with another 27% reporting “Setting realistic and measurable goals,” and 9% selecting “Gaining consensus and buy-in from stakeholders.” These challenges are overcome with strategic leadership. A strategic plan gives leadership a guide for prioritizing. Sheri said “When you have strong leadership, a solid strategic plan becomes the guardrail for what you should or shouldn’t be doing. You can decide that a specific activity doesn’t align with what you are trying to accomplish.“

The goal of this blog is to share some of the panelists’ insights and recommendations for using strategic thinking and planning to optimize your organization, drive sustainable growth, and achieve lasting social impact.

Question: What Are Some Key Elements of an Effective Strategic Plan?

After the introductions, the panelists were asked to outline the key elements of effective strategic plans. Brooke noted that she believes a strategic plan can be broken down into three parts; strategic vision, a limited number of priorities, and goals that come out of the priorities.

She stated “It’s important to start with a strategic vision. What is the kind of organization you are building? Where do you want to be in 20 years?” She further explained that leaders frequently want to start with the activities, but they really need to start with the end in mind and have a strategic vision. They can then determine three to five priorities and develop goals for accomplishing those priorities.

Sheri added that “Effective strategic plans are actionable. They must be revisited regularly to understand where your nonprofit is today, what you have and have not accomplished, and what you need to change to get back on track.”

Question: What is the Ideal Time Frame for Strategic Planning?

The panelists were then asked about the ideal time frame for strategic planning. The panelists briefly discussed how historically strategic planning could take a year and a hundred thousand dollars. They agreed that strategic planning has become easier, more flexible, and more accessible to a greater number of nonprofits.

Rob responded that it depends on the size of the nonprofit organization. The bigger the organization, the longer it will take. He recommended an average of a 90-day review process, but also cautioned to make sure to give yourself enough time to gather people’s input.

Brooke works with smaller organizations with under $3 million in revenues and recommends a 4-6 month strategic planning process. She recommended reviewing your leadership’s capacity before determining who will facilitate the strategic planning process. Does your board have time to address strategic planning? Do you need to hire a consultant?

Both Patrick and Sheri pointed out that if you have not already started, the time to start is now.

Sheri recommended the ideal time frame for implementing a strategic plan is a three-year cycle, with one year being limiting and five years being too long.

Question: What Are Some Strategies for Implementing a Stragetic Plan?

Tying to the earlier survey results, the panelists were asked about how to ensure implementation of strategic plans. Sheri explained, “At the beginning of the strategic plan, I recommend that there is a champion for shepherding a specific focus area with associated measurable results. Now you have someone who is responsible for a focus area. Having conversations for whether or not we are on track. When you set measures to it, you are using data to increase accountability. It’s a matter of making the time, energy, and commitment to do it.”

Patrick encouraged nonprofits to bring in external resources to be an “accountability partner and help your organization make the strategic plan a living document that you revisit frequently.”

Rob recommended that “Managers lead with the strategic plan. Everything you do should revolve around the strategic plan.” He also added that you must be honest and talk about why goals have or have not been met.

Brooke shared that leaders need to ensure they have buy-in from the very beginning. She recommends asking yourself “Who needs to buy into these priorities and goals so we implement the plan?”

The Future of Strategic Planning

Each of the panelists shared their views on the future of nonprofit strategic planning. Both Brooke and Patrick discussed how strategic planning is becoming more nimble and flexible. It used to be a long and expensive process but can now pivot with the needs of an organization and the community it serves. Patrick commented “Before the pandemic, I would have never thought nonprofits would have been able to pivot to Zoom as quickly as we did, but we did it.”

Rob highlighted the future of technology as part of the strategic planning process when he explained, “Use technology for good. Make sure it aligns with your mission and values. When you have a clear strategic plan, people who want to fund your organization. But they want to have all of the data to back up your impact story.”

Sheri added “As funders start to allow for more trust-based philanthropy, your strategic plan and the data for how you measure success are going to become more critical. You must be able to show evidence for how you are achieving your strategic goals.”

Are you ready to prove you are accomplishing your strategic goals? SureImpact was designed to simplify the process of collecting, analyzing, and sharing data to prove your impact story. SureImpact’s simple and collaborative case management and outcome tracking tools are designed to help nonprofits manage, measure, and communicate their social impact while also increasing data capacity for their team members and creating a strategic mindset across the organization.


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