July 17, 2023

Is Your Strategic Plan a Keeper or a Tosser?

Does your nonprofit strategic plan pass the smell tests?

If not, your plan may be junk. Effective strategic plans generate alignment and both a unique strategy and a master plan to use it. Many NGOs and nonprofits’ plans fail because they lack these and other must ingredients.

Do you know if your strategic plan passes muster?

Let’s find out.

Each statement below describes a strategic plan problem followed by a smell test. Read the statement to discover if you’ve got trash or a treasure, then do the “test.”

1. It’s not you. Your strategic plan doesn’t reflect your gifts, challenges, and uniqueness. 

Smell test: Replace your nonprofit’s name with your competitor’s. Does it work? You seek an effective strategy customized to your time, place, strengths, and needs. If your strategic plan is generic, use it as a starting place for your plan or deep-six it.

2.    The strategy’s MIA (Missing in Action)—it’s a fancy to-do list.

Smell test: Can you cite the strategic plan’s “key strategic idea” without reading the document? If not, it’s dumpster time.

Why is this important? The key strategic idea is the strategy in a nutshell or an earworm you want in everyone’s heads.

Need more clarification about what the words key strategic idea mean? Here are examples:

  • Focus on building homes (and phase out rental development and other projects)
  • Enhance Collaboration, focus resources on agencies when they work with others (vs. agency-specific efforts)
  • Amplify existing humanities activities (instead of creating new ones)
  • Ensure Hillsborough County citizens have equitable access to arts and culture. 

3.   It energizes no one.

Smell tests:

Your management team and nonprofit board don’t reference it. Funders and donors don’t get jazzed. And admit it, privately, you think it’s just okay. Continue with the remaining tests. If your plan fails others, it’s garbage. However, if lack of energy is its only flaw, consult an advisor to find out if there’s a remnant or more you can save.  

4.   It fails to address the intractable challenge that plagues your nonprofit.

Smell test: 

Every nonprofit has one (or more) significant challenges that are part of its DNA. Perhaps your Achilles heel is visibility, competitors, your board, physical site, etc. (Hint: your big challenge is not money, that’s a symptom.) Keeper strategic plans erase or lessen this challenge. Again, continue taking the tests. Scrap the plan if it fails another. If it doesn’t, a fix might be possible. Check with an advisor to discover if you can weave a fix into it.

 5.   You don’t use it daily as a decision-making tool.

Smell test:

The document is not on your desktop or in easy reach. Also, you can’t recall a single time you used it in the last week. If you’re not using it, it’s goodbye. Strategic plans worthy of the name ease decision-making and grant you the confidence to make quick decisions.

The concept that a strategic plan is a decision tool may be foreign to you if you’ve never used an effective one. Consider the following examples of how plans work every day.

  1. You face two options. Only one choice fits the strategy. You select it.
  2. The staff shares three alternatives. Strategy-wise, each works, so you consider your big challenge and pick the one that makes the most progress.

An effective strategic plan is among the best labor-saving devices and confidence projecting tools ever created for executives. Not only do execs arrive at their desk knowing where they’re going and how to get there, this confidence cascades throughout the organization.

Too many strategic plans are rubbish, and nobody knows it. You’ve taken the smell tests and discovered that your not-for-profit’s strategic plan is a treasure. Congratulations! If not, know that better strategic plans exist and use the list to avoid common pitfalls. You and your cause deserve it.

What other fatal strategic planning flaws can you add to this list? 


You can keep up with me –subscribe to my twice-monthly newsletter, Karen’s CEO Solutions. 

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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