October 13, 2020

Why Do Strategic Plans Fail?

I just completed helping a board develop a strategic plan. As a follow-up, I wanted to help them (and you) prepare for the challenges of executing their new strategy.

Why Do Nonprofit Strategic Plans Fail?

1. Lack of Skills

The assigned person or task force lacks the skills or knowledge to execute the plan and doesn’t know how to obtain the needed skills.

2. Overly Ambitious

Embracing the strategy wanes in the face of reality. The work is more enormous or complex than anyone dreamed. The ideas were “pie in the sky,” not “feet on the ground.” It’s too hard, everyone moans.

3. Planned to Death

Too much preparation: too few actions. The planning process became so cumbersome that it killed the enthusiasm, innovation, and energy the strategy development process created.

4. Too Many Priorities

Most nonprofits can focus on one or two strategic priorities. When Bob Iger took over Disney, he was advised to pick three priorities. You probably lack the resources of Disney. When you have too many priorities, it’s hard to get the momentum to engage.

5. Distractions Triumphed

Every nonprofit has more to do than hours in a day. When the strategy is seen as a nice extra that you’ll get to when you have time, strategies fail.

How Can I Keep Our Nonprofit Strategic Plan from Failing? 

Given these potential challenges, how can you ensure the success of your nonprofit’s strategic plan? Use these solutions:

1. Include Skill Building in the Plan

Assume everyone needs new skills–read, attend workshops, and collect advice from people with excellent track records.

2. Keep a Far-out Perspective

Pace yourselves. Remember, your strategy is designed to serve you for the long term. Anticipate that the outcomes will take time. Progress might even remain invisible at first until you create traction. Identify and celebrate small wins. How are you thinking differently? How long has it been since you actually implemented a tactic? Moving a nonprofit organization isn’t as hard as moving mountains a spoonful at a time. It may just feel like you’ve only got a ladle, not a bulldozer at first.  Some of the best things in life take time.

3. Act Soon

Create pilots or quick actions to test the water. What is the quickest act you can take to make progress? Procrastination burns energy.

4. Focus

A realistic strategic plan identifies one, maybe two, strategic priorities.  It’s a case of do-less to achieve more.

5. Repeat the Goal, Repeat the Goal, Repeat the Goal, and Repeat it Again

Leaders reiterate these musts to the community. No matter the clatter, disturbance, or mayhem, leaders steer toward priorities. It’s a bit like teaching four-year-olds. You keep sharing the goal until people start telling you the goal.

Need more help developing or executing your strategy? Karen is available for a mini-consult or more to help your group find a guiding plan to win. Click here to set a time to chat and learn more.


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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