Thursday March 11th 2010

Why Nonprofit Strategic Planning Usually Fails


One of the great ironies surrounding my work as a nonprofit consultant is that I was one of those who had little use for strategic planning.  In fact, I hated it.  Like many of you, I sat through too many sessions where we were asked (forced?) to brainstorm about the future of our organization, then had to predict how we would spend our time over the next six months trying to bring about this desired vision of the organization.

The first time I was asked as a consultant if I could do strategic planning, I responded with a version of “sort of”.  I knew that I was able to think strategically and could facilitate that type of thinking among a group.  And I knew that I had yet to see an approach to strategic planning that I thought was not simply a plug and play version of the standard model.  What I could not articulate at the time were the reasons that the traditional approach to strategic planning was…shall we say, unfulfilling.

Looking back, it is clear what it was that rubbed me the wrong way all those years about the traditional approach to strategic planning.

  1. Too much planning.  Strategic planning is, at its core, a conversation about what could be.  Too often, however, we get mired in the details about who will do what, by when.  Like jazz, good planning does not stick to the script and makes room for innovation, inspiration, and improvisation.
  2. Not enough strategy. What passes for strategy often is nothing more than a laundry list of organization “to-do’s”.  Real strategy has occurred only if you can add up the tasks and see that they are leading the organization in a discernable direction.
  3. Planning out of context.  Does every organization really need a thorough SWOT analysis?  A strategic planning process should be built around the organization’s anticipated circumstances.  Following the traditional formula may result in a plan that must then be molded to fit your specific needs, rather than the other way around.
  4. Attaching an arbitrary time frame.  How can you estimate how long it will take to get there when, in reality, there is no “there”?  While time lines may be important for implementation plans, the strategic plan should remain current by evolving in step with organizational progress, setbacks, opportunities, and even big hairy audacious ideas.
  5. Viewing it as its own thing.  Everyone has heard the complaint about strategic plans gathering dust on the shelf.  Why is this?  It is my belief that strategic plans too often are added to the board agenda – literally or figuratively —  rather than being used to shape the agenda.  Simply put, if you cannot make the connection between the board activity and the organization’s strategic priorities, one has to wonder why the board is bothering to meet at all.