Nonprofit Strategic Planning, 101

You Said Strategy, Is That What You Really Meant?

If you find strategy a bit hard to grasp, you’re not alone. Here’s an overview of the nonprofit strategy and Karen’s Guidelines on how to create a dust-free, rust-free strategy that doesn’t sit on a shelf.

What Do People Get Wrong About Nonprofit Strategic Planning?What is a Nonprofit Strategic Plan?

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

1) Win

They explain how you will overcome the critical roadblock that restricts your nonprofit’s growth.


2) Streamline

You can explain your strategy in a tweet-length phrase that’s easy to grasp and repeat.


3) Linger

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

Test Your Understanding of the Nonprofit Strategy

Strategy is one of those words. It’s used frequently and often imprecisely in the sector. Watch for the word; whether you hear it or read it, the odds are greater than 50 percent that the term will be misused.


Here are four quotations from articles about nonprofits using the word 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!


Either the word tactic or techniques would be a better word choice in Example One. In Number Two, the sentence would be more precise without the word strategy. 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 a master plan to win
    • Confusing donors (When supporters get confused, they hold off on making gifts.)
    • Struggling with decisions that you’d quickly resolve if you consulted your strategy

To learn more about strategy language:

Watch 1. Amateur Language | 7 Strategy Mistakes that Make Your Nonprofit Look Unprofessional

Read Why Do Nonprofit Strategic Plans Fail?

Read Your Nonprofit Strategy: How to Cook Up a Success

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

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

·      Is still leading you to win,

·      Remains easy to understand,

·      Still helps you to make decisions.

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

To learn more about effective strategies, watch this series: 7 Strategy Mistakes that Make Your Nonprofit Look Unprofessional.

Many successful nonprofits preserve the same strategy for years. 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 to fund research—the Laboratory’s mission—Mote needed to obtain individual donations from the community. This realization became the basis of Mote’s strategy for decades.

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

This 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?

women listening at meeting

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

1. ASAP, If You Lack an Effective Strategy Even if You Just Finished Creating One

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

You might even need to create a strategy even if you just completed one. A new CEO in an arts organization called me. His predecessor, as one of his last acts, invested in a strategic planning process. The result was a list of platitudes applicable to any organization— it 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. To make the investment more palatable, we gave the process a new name and incorporated the previous work. 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. (A good process can be completed in a week. Ninety days is ideal.) However, four months allow you time to ramp up, include lots of stakeholders, and be ready to implement when your old plan expires. Just as leaving for the airport early facilitates staying calm through traffic and security line delays, starting four months out promotes thoughtfulness, flexibility, and reduced 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 strategy development process is useful to unclog efforts. 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 be used to identify missing steps and move you from stuck to flow.

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

Okay, you’ve decided your organization needs a new strategy. Whom should you invite to help develop it? The following people can help you identify potential 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 whom 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 an understanding of 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 this video.

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

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