July 1, 2023

How to Use Your Strategic Plan: Give It Workout

Several years ago, I worked with a nonprofit that proudly showed me its strategic plan. It was filled with engaging pictures, stunning graphics, and charts. A remarkable amount of work had gone into it. It was meticulous, detailed, and cleverly laid out. It was an excellent document–but unfortunately, it was useless. The proof? They blew the dust off it as they handed it to me.

A great strategic plan gathers no dust. Instead, it becomes ratty at the edges, messy with notations, and stained from coffee mugs. Doubtlessly, you spent hours creating your plan. Undoubtedly, you want the outcomes the plan describes. But with the pressures of daily life, how can you keep it relevant, much less dust-free? How can you remain energized about a document that makes you weary when you look at all the unfinished work in it? Take these four actions.

1. Assign each task.

The assigned person becomes like a wagon master, bringing a party of wagons over the Great Plains, through the Rockies, and over the Continental Divide to California. The taskmaster focuses on the work ahead, finds the trail, encourages the troops, and insists on discipline to bring the task to fruition. Empower taskmasters to gather the resources, people, and things they need. Add the tasks to job descriptions and evaluations.

The CEO’s focus needs to be on leading the nonprofit. It’s counterintuitive, but assign a few specific tasks to the CEO. Instead, assign the “CEO contacts every elected official that serves the district once per year” to an assistant. The assistant, acting as a taskmaster, creates a list of officials and brings the list to scheduling meetings until the CEO completes the contacts.

2 Everything is not a priority.

Select, from the plan, three critical goals for next year. Assign the key goals to everyone. Choose goals that focus on actions you control.  For instance, membership is essential to your nonprofit. You don’t control how many people will become members; individuals control that. You do control how many invitations you make. Your key goal is “to issue membership invitations to 500 people per month.” To meet this goal, everyone prioritizes invitation-generating activities as they plan their time. Since key objectives take precedence over other tasks, this will leave taskmasters jockeying to find ways to get their assigned tasks done, too. Deciding between two strategic tasks is the kind of challenge you want. Either way, you move toward your vision.

3. Review regularly.

Meet weekly to review the key goals, progress made, and the tasks everyone will do next week. Meet for less than thirty minutes; fifteen is ideal. Once per month, review progress on all tasks.

 4. Written on paper, not in stone.

As I completed a strategic plan with a client, a staff member fearfully said, “We don’t know how much money we will raise at the special event. Do we have to use a dollar figure?” During the planning process, you bravely set goals. Now that you must accomplish them, you’d probably like to find a time machine to go back and reduce them by 90 percent.

Actively avoid enslaving anyone to numbers or words written in the plan.  Nonprofits that penalize people for being optimistic or failing to accurately predict the future end up with fearful staff and stunted visions. After 30 years of helping groups create strategies and plans, I’m sorry to share that most detailed predictions within projects are imprecise. However, the big goals, when consistently pursued, are amazingly accurate.

Therefore, when you meet your three-year goal to increase memberships in three months—celebrate. Then, modestly adjust your membership goals upward and (important!) refresh tasks related to membership renewals so you can keep all of them. On the other hand, if after six months of focused effort, you only increase your membership by 10 percent of your goal, reduce the goal. Overall, hang on to your goals, but flex when the evidence proves they need adjusting. Ambitious, optimistic, and daunting goals become realities because brave people set them.

If you have a strategic plan, pull it out now.

  1. Assign taskmasters.
  2. Pick one to three key goals to focus on this year.
  3. Schedule a weekly progress meeting.
  4. Revise anything that needs an upgrade.

Wear out the pages and achieve your goals.

Karen Eber Davis

Karen Eber Davis provides customized advising and coaching around nonprofit strategy and board development. People leaders hire her to bring clarity to sticky situations, break through barriers that seem insurmountable, and align people for better futures. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.


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