A coordinated approach to defining and building a new futureMany organizations confuse strategic thinking with traditional planning protocols, but the two are fundamentally different. Strategic plans are about articulating a vision for the future. They look beyond existing societal programs to imagine an entirely new world. Strong strategic plans then serve as a map for progress by taking into account every part of your organization, including your mission, vision, values and goals.
So how can you develop this strategic view — and how can you encourage staff members to participate?
Start with a SWOT analysis
The industry-standard SWOT analysis — which addresses strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats — is a great way to develop an initial, holistic picture of your organization. What are your challenges? What sorts of opportunities are coming your way? As your organization adapts and grows, a SWOT analysis will help you compare internal factors (strengths and weaknesses) to external factors (opportunities and threats).
Strengths are the characteristics of your nonprofit that are working really well — whether it's people, places, behavior patterns or other factors that push you closer to achieving your social mission. Examples include a well-educated staff and a large pool of volunteers.
To evaluate your organization's strengths, ask:
- What do we do really well? What do people say we do really well?
- Do we have any unique resources, such as intellectual property, skills or institutional memory?
- What makes our work stand out? By extension, how does that make our mission stand out?
Weaknesses are the things your organization could be doing better, faster or at a higher quality. Examples include dips in financial support, lack of staff and poor (or nonexistent) marketing.
To evaluate your organization's weaknesses, ask:
- Is the budget balanced? Do we have extensive debt?
- What are other nonprofits in the same field doing better than we are?
- What could we improve? Could we make processes more efficient? Could we strengthen the efficacy of our programs?
Opportunities are the building blocks that will help you achieve your social mission. These can range from community group partnerships to the chance to launch an extensive marketing campaign.
To evaluate your organization's opportunities, ask:
- What's currently happening outside the walls of our organization? Are there any opportunities to partner with other like-minded organizations?
- What are our funding avenues? Do we have an opportunity to reach a new donor or grassroots base? Could we create such an opportunity?
- Do we have the chance to acquire new assets, perhaps through staff training or the development of intellectual property?
Threats are anything that impedes your mission. Examples include everything from competition in the market (including from other nonprofits) to a sluggish economy that causes a dip in donations.
To evaluate your organization's threats, ask:
- Do we have financial diversity? Could we continue to operate if a major donor stopped supporting our programs?
- What are our competitors doing? How do their programs rank against ours?
- What are our disaster plans? Do we have processes in place to weather crises such as a hacked website or an economic recession?
Motivate your staff to think 'big picture'
Strategic thinking isn't just a process. It's a way to coordinate the way people evaluate, view, define and build a new future for themselves and their community. Everyone in your organization is responsible for the strategic process — not just top managers. Participating in the process requires imagining what the future could be like.
To get your staff on board:
- SWOT everyone. Before getting started, ask team members to complete a SWOT analysis on themselves. This will help build familiarity with the process and illustrate how all these parts can be studied individually while together making up the whole.
- Dig deep. Instead of glossing over issues or generalizing strengths and weaknesses, seek to articulate the root causes. For example, a local free clinic struggling to keep gauze on their shelves will need to identify the deeper problem. Is the issue truly a lack of resources? Or the fact that gauze is used up quickly because there isn't a rationing system? Or does the problem lie with the supplier, whose deliveries are often late? Each of these problems require a different solution.
- Repeat every two to three years. Even the best strategic plans have a shelf life. They should be reexamined after any major social upheaval or within several years. Staff will be more invested in achieving goals if they've participated in the strategic planning process. Regularly visiting — and updating — your strategic vision will ensure that everyone remains committed to the same goals.
Facilitation & Process: Nonprofit strategic thinking and strategic planning by Mark Fulop (2011)
National Council of Nonprofits: Strategic planning for nonprofits
Nonprofit Next Practices: Strategic thinking: Strategy is not planning
Nonprofit Hub: Why most SWOT analyses stink and how you can make SWOT work for you by Lincoln Arneal
The Nonprofit Guru: Send in the SWOT team! Strategic planning process: Gathering data by Renee C. Herrell-Fitzgerald (2010)
Questions to ask during a non-profit SWOT by Rob Berman (2011)
TCC Group: 10 keys to successful strategic planning for nonprofit and foundation leaders by Richard A. Mittenthal (2002)