You Said Strategy, Is That What You Really Meant?
To learn more about strategy language:
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 should you start? Here are three ideal times to begin a strategic planning process:
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.
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.
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.
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.
The usual suspects include your board members, major donors, founders, staff, volunteers, and customers.
Leaders from these entities often provide insights, recommendations, and trend updates. To find this set of individuals, consider inviting:
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