Nonprofit Strategic Planning 101: Your Guide

People working on nonprofit strategy

If you find strategy hard to grasp and do well you’re not alone.

That’s why I created this overview of the nonprofit strategy to help you develop a strategy for your nonprofit. Whether you’ve been leading your strategic efforts for years or it’s your first time guiding your board.

You’ll find it a thought-provoking tool to create a dust-free strategy that doesn’t sit on a shelf but instead gets worn out with use.

Nonprofit Strategy Planning 101 Contents:

What is a Nonprofit Strategic Plan?

Your nonprofit strategy is your customized-designed master plan to achieve more mission outcomes, grow more supporters, and raise more money.Successful nonprofit strategies:

1) Win

They provide the framework of how you will overcome the critical roadblocks that restrict your nonprofit’s growth.

2) Streamline

Explain your strategy in a tweet-length sentence or two that’s easy to grasp and repeat.

3) Linger

Effective strategies generate “earworms” for decision-making. People ask, “Which option reflects our strategy?”

Test Your Understanding of the Nonprofit Strategy

“Strategy” is one of those words. It’s used frequently and often imprecisely in the sector. Even people active in strategy work misuse it. Watch for the word. Whether you hear it or read it, the odds are greater than 50 percent that the term will be misused.

For example, here are four quotations from articles that mention strategy. Which of the four quotes uses the word accurately?

1. “In their strategy, nonprofits must acknowledge the hardships that people are experiencing and then make fundraising asks from a place of empathy.”

2. “A nonprofit executive leading in times of uncertainty ramps up their stakeholder engagement strategy, providing empathy and selfless help to all around them, while cutting both their burn rate and all nonessential business activities.”

3. “In short, the transition strategy is the best available. “The market is winding down the coal industry, and these workers are going to need jobs to support their families. We can provide good-paying jobs to these skilled workers while restoring the land to productive use . . .”

4. “Needless to say, in reimagining your organization, you’ll need to determine how much it will cost to do what you want, and you’ll need to develop an intentional revenue strategy.”


If you guessed three and four, you’re correct. Congratulations!


In number one, either the word tactic or techniques would be a better word choice. In number two, the sentence would be more precise without the word. Stakeholder engagement is a tactic. The third and fourth correctly reflect an overall game plan to win.

Four Challenges Caused by Using Strategy Incorrectly

Why does misusing the word strategy matter? When you or others misuse it, your nonprofit risks:

  • Looking unprofessional
  • Failing to generate the masterplan to needs to win
  • Confusing donors (When supporters get confused, they don’t make gifts.)
  • Struggling with decisions that you’d quickly resolve if you consulted your strategy

To learn more about strategy language watch:



To learn more about strategy language you can read:

Why Do Nonprofit Strategic Plans Fail?

Your Nonprofit Strategy: How to Cook Up a Success

When Is It Time to Develop a Strategy for Your Nonprofit?

Many nonprofits embark on strategic planning on a routine basis creating a new strategy every two or three years. Others plan only when someone, usually a grant funder or donor, requests it.

No matter if your plan is on your desk front and center or buried in a computer file, review your strategic plan yearly. During your assessment, ask if your strategy:

  • Still provide a masterplan to win,
  • Remains easy to understand,
  • Helps you to decide priorities and tough choices.

If your current strategy meets these criteria, you need a new implementation plan, not a new strategy.

Watch this series: 7 Strategy Mistakes that Make Your Nonprofit Look Unprofessional to learn more about effective strategies.

Do You Even Need a New Strategy?

Many successful nonprofits preserve the same strategy for years to build momentum and simplify operations.

For example, I interviewed Kumar Mahadevan near the end of his 35-year tenure. Under his leadership, Mote Marine Laboratory grew from a small research lab into a major institution.

One secret to Mote’s success he shared was their financial strategy. In the late 1970s, Mote’s leaders realized that Mote needed to obtain individual donations from the community to fund research- the Laboratory’s mission. This realization became the basis of Mote’s strategy for decades.

In the 1970s, Mote began youth programs using this community donation strategy. They developed science education resources and summer camps for local children. In the 1980s, Mote added an aquarium. This facility provided over one million dollars in operating support and 352,000 visitors. Later, using the same master plan, Mote added limited-time exhibits to the aquarium, including visits with penguins and sea lions. While the programs, aquariums, and special exhibits look like mission-earned revenue enterprises, their strategic function is to create and renew relationships with local donors.

Mote’s example brings us back to your strategy. You need a new strategy when your current one doesn’t help you win, can’t be rapidly understood, and fails to help with decisions.

When Is the Best Time to Begin the Strategic Planning Process?

at its heart strategic planning is about listening

When should you start? Here are three ideal times to begin a strategic planning process:

1. ASAP, If You Lack an Effective Strategy 

Running an organization without an effective strategy is like randomly walking thru Chicago O’Hare Airport, looking for your gate without checking the concourse and gate board. If you lack an effective strategy, create one now.

You might need one even if you just created one.

You might even need to create a strategy even if you just completed one. A new nonprofit arts organization CEO called. His predecessor invested in a strategic planning process as his last act.

The result was a list of platitudes applicable to any organization. The strategy wasn’t helpful for decision-making. It failed to outline how the organization would win, and everyone was confused about what to do.

Even though the board fussed at the expense, the CEO invested in creating a master plan. We gave the process a new name and incorporated the previous work to make the investment more palatable. The new strategy empowered the nonprofit to double its revenue in two years.

2. Four Months Before the Plan for Your Current Strategy “Runs Out.”

Whether you engage in a complete strategic planning process or an update, start the process four months before your current implementation plan ends. You will not need all this time. (You can complete a good process in a week. Ninety days is ideal.) However, four months allow you time to ramp up. It includes time for lots of stakeholders to engage. You can have it ready to implement before your old plan expires. Just as leaving early for the airport reduces stress in traffic and security line delays, starting four or even six months out promotes thoughtfulness, flexibility, and less stress.

3. When Your Stuck, Confused, or Experience Conflict

At times, instead of moving forward, nonprofits get stuck. Even if your strategy is sound and implementation tasks remain undone, the creation process blows up roadblocks and provides clarity. At its heart, the strategic planning process is about listening. The experience can clarify if conflicting visions exist or if the disagreement is about tactics. The process can identify missing steps and move you from stuck to flow.

Who Should You Invite to Participate in a Strategic Planning Process?

Okay, you’ve decided your organization needs a new strategy or a revved-up implementation plan. Whom should you invite to help develop it? The following people can help you identify ways to win and see your organization’s potential with new clarity.

1. The Usual Suspects

The usual suspects include your board members, major donors, founders, staff, volunteers, and customers.

2. Your Nonprofits Friends and Partners

Leaders from these entities often provide insights, recommendations, and trend updates. To find this set of individuals, consider inviting:

  • Members of your organization’s friends and network
  • Representatives from organizations to whom you send and receive customers
  • Partners in cooperative endeavors
  • Representatives of your industry association
  • Vendors, such as bankers, CPAs, and graphic artists, especially if they service multiple nonprofits.

3. Past and Future Connections

Look back and forward to identify other individuals to engage. Invite people with who you would like to remain in a relationship or build a stronger relationship. Looking back, you might reach out to retired and former leaders, including executive directors and board members. Looking forward, you contact prospective board members, donors, and funders. For example, one of my clients reached out to a former Ford Foundation executive to gain insight into the Foundation’s mindset.

You will not, of course, engage these individuals at the same level. Some individuals will receive a telephone call, others an invitation to join a focus group, and others a survey. In any case, cast a wide net.


Why is engaging a lot of people worth the effort? Your organization will receive ideas, buy-in, positive branding, and understand how others see your nonprofit. Most importantly, you gain clarity about how your nonprofit might win and wisdom to insert into your strategy and implementation plans.

To learn more about casting a wide net, watch: Failing to Cast a Wide Net.



Who Should Pick Your Nonprofit’s Strategy? 

During the information-gathering phase, you’ll want to ask many people to participate in your strategy process. You don’t, however, need a crowd to pick your strategy. For this activity, you need key stakeholders, especially those with strategic thinking skills.

Your board is the most logical group to select your strategy. However, another option is a task force comprised of community, staff, and board members. For community efforts, invite leaders with a stake in the outcome who demonstrate strong analytical thinking skills. This invitation list includes a collection of business, civic, foundation, nonprofit, and government leaders for most communities.

How Do You Prepare for Your Nonprofit Strategy Decision Session?

You’ve hunted for ways to win by asking your community for advice. You’ve gathered insights on how your organization excels and collected ideas of what would make your work even better and options to get there. Before your strategy session, you’ll want to organize what you learned into broad categories of strategic alternatives. So that you don’t overwhelm your stakeholders and still provide adequate choices, share no fewer than five and no more than seven options.

How do you choose five to seven options when you’ve gathered so many ideas? This decision is where your analysis and sorting skills come into play. Many ideas gathered will be variations on a theme or through-line. You combine them. For example, different individuals recommended partnering with design schools, creating a school, and a public university partnership to support existing and emerging artists during one strategy project. All became examples of ways to provide emerging and seasoned artists’ education.

Identifying a collection of options is like choosing how you will travel to your vacation destination. Will you drive, fly, walk, bike, or even take a boat? Each choice points to specific and different activities. If you decide to bike to your destination, you’ll grab your helmet, bike shoes, and strap-on water bottle. If you select your car, you get your cooler and, if you’re like me, half your kitchen because you of the room in the trunk.

All the options you select outline how your organization will win, meet its mission, raise revenue, and gather supporters.

If identifying options sounds like hard work, you’re correct. It’s also skilled work. It’s why nonprofits that want a strategy that helps them win gather experts to lead a strategy process. Other groups hire facilitators to conduct the strategy meeting. Session facilitators create quality meeting processes, but they rarely produce effective strategic plans. That’s because identifying winning strategic options emerges from listening, analysis, and lots of dialog throughout the strategic process.

Failing to create viable and distinct options is one of seven common errors that nonprofits make. So, take extra care here. For more about the challenges of creating strategic options, watch Too Few Options.

What Must You Accomplish in Your Nonprofit Strategy Session?

You’ve gathered the stakeholders to meet. What work must everyone do at the session?

Karen’s Six Tasks to Manage at Your Nonprofit Strategy Session

Here are the six recommended steps to include in your nonprofit strategy sessions:

1. Review Your Mission, Vision, and Values

To help your attendees understand the work at hand, ensure everyone is clear on who you are, where you want to go, and your operating parameters. In short, review your mission, vision, and values.

2. What You Learned Listening to the Community 

You’ve been busy listening to the community. Your stakeholders will be eager to know what you learned. Share the highlights of your discoveries.

3. Understand The Strategic Options 

Present your collection of strategic options that will help fulfill your mission, move you toward your vision, and allow you to win.

4. Establish Evaluation Criteria

All of the options you presented are likely to generate discussions. Before your stakeholders dig in, establish your criteria for measuring success.

5. Evaluate the Options and Select a Strategy 

Ask the group to evaluate the strategic options with your criteria in hand. Which options meet the requirements? Which do not? During this step, many stakeholders merge options to obtain more benefits. This combining is like flying to Atlanta, driving to the Smoky Mountains, and hiking to your campsite.

6. Assign Next Steps 

Before you close out your session, ask your group to draft some initial goals and methods to get your strategy underway. Establish the next steps and ask for help fleshing out your strategy and creating a one-year implementation plan, so all of your hard work doesn’t go to waste.

Karen’s Six Steps focus on selecting a strategy. Of course, you’ll incorporate a welcome, introductions, relationship-building opportunities, breaks, and gratitude in the session.

The Biggest Nonprofit Strategy Hazard

Failure to Solve the Key Roadblock

A client called me to partner with their organization to create a community-wide strategy. The underlying driver for the process was underfunding—as is often the case. I frequently heard how previous funding strategies failed throughout the community listening phase. While the group desperately wanted to solve the challenge, they focused on what didn’t work. Over time, by reframing their thinking, the community leaders understood that they had discovered hundreds of ways that didn’t work, like Edison before the light bulb worked. Together, building on these lessons, we generated new approaches. The refreshed thinking and the new approaches helped them change their organization’s revenue trajectory and increase it threefold.

If you leave your strategy session with a clear direction that solves the critical roadblock, you’ve succeeded. If not, you created a strategy that will collect dust bunnies and, worse, breed cynicism in your supporters about future strategy efforts.

Reduce this risk. Run your proposed strategy through the three tests:

  1. Will we win?
  2. Is it succinct?
  3. Is it an earworm?

For more, watch: Not Solving the Nonprofit’s Key Roadblock.



If you want to know even more about nonprofit strategy, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I’d love to help you create a dynamic strategy to help your nonprofit thrive. Schedule a time for a free discovery chat here. -Karen

Karen Eber Davis

Before founding her firm, Karen Eber Davis developed the Sarasota County Community Development Block Grant Program. Under her leadership, this infant program received the National Association of Counties National Affordable Housing Award for the Down Payment Assistance Program. To date, the program helped over 1,800 families realize their dreams of homeownership. She also worked with the City of Ft. Lauderdale and the Florida Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs, where she developed the division’s first audit program. In an earlier position at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Tampa, she organized senior, youth, and children groups plus family activities. Her youth staffing work with the Florida Synod of the Lutheran Church in America supported youth ministries in 120 congregations in Florida.