Nonprofit Strategic Planning

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Strategic planning is fundamentally about making choices.  While that sounds easy, it is often challenging to do.  Planning committees or executive teams must identify and agree upon what their organization will do as well as what it will not do. In a world of limited resources (e.g., money, staff, time) organizations can’t afford to try and be all things to all people.  This is particularly true in the nonprofit sector where resources are always tight and donors are, and should be, vigilant about how their money is used.

Step 1: Set both Goals and Objectives

The first step in developing a strategic plan is setting the organization’s goals.  Goals are statements about what the organization is trying to achieve.  The more specific you can be the better.

Nonprofit Strategic PlanningFor example, one local organization had a goal “to help people fight poverty”.  It did a great job of fundraising and allocated over $1 million every year to local charities serving the poor.  The grant committee found so many organizations needing help that they donated to over ninety-five each year across the spectrum of education, food services, shelters, addiction programs, and more.  There was such a need, that they were giving a small amount of money to almost every charity that applied.  They didn’t have specific goals in place to evaluate A) which types of charities they should be funding and B) what impact they were looking to achieve.

After conducting a strategic planning process, they honed their goal to “reducing poverty by finding and funding programs that seek lasting change”.  This more specific goal enabled the committee to develop more actionable objectives.

Clear objectives are measurable and guide the organization’s activities. The Planning Committee took their goal and was able to define their objectives.  Their goal now had criteria in it –“reducing poverty” and “lasting change”.  To accomplish this, the committee decided to focus its granting in three main areas:

  1. Provide basic needs such as food and shelter
  2. Help stabilize people and get them on a path to be self-sufficient by helping gain sustainable housing and work
  3. Support early childhood intervention and education

The committee then put numerical targets on each area to track progress year over year.  The organization was making real strategic choices about what it would do and what it wouldn’t do.  These objectives also helped focus their discussions with major donors, grant-seeking agencies and new volunteers.  As a result, donors better understood where their money was going.  Grant-seeking agencies didn’t waste their time applying if they didn’t fit into these three areas.  Volunteers could target a key area and track their impact each year.

Step 2: Define your Target Customer and What You Want Them to Do

The second major step in strategic planning is to define your target audiences and specify what you want them to do.  Again, this requires an organization to make choices.  Does the all-boys school in town target every boy between the ages of 4 and 18?  Does the Episcopalian Church target all Christians in the area?  Does the Breast Cancer Center target all women?  Seeing as all Christians don’t act the same and neither do all boys or all women, this would be difficult.

Furthermore, targeting an audience that you can’t actually support doesn’t make sense either.  For example, a local church wanted more young families to join the congregation.  It hosted outreach events in schools and marketed heavily to families who attended a nearby pre-school but weren’t members of the church.  The church Board couldn’t figure out why it couldn’t attract more families.  Finally, a committee member looked closely at where the church was spending its money.  The top three investment areas were:

  1. Adult music programs
  2. Adult education
  3. Outreach

The church wanted more families but didn’t invest against the needs of that audience.  Hence, those families joined churches that spent resources on Sunday School, Youth Group Programs and Family Mission Projects.

When choosing target audiences its important to have a deep understanding of who they are:

  1. What are their behaviors and beliefs
  2. Where do they spend their time
  3. Who are they influenced by

Next, you need to be very clear about what you want them to do (desired behavior).  Do you want them to volunteer? Donate? Spread the word?  Educate?

Nonprofit Strategic Planning Finally, you need to determine whether “who they are” matches with “what you want them to do”?

For example, a diabetes organization’s target audience was kids who have Type 1 diabetes.  And, the organization wanted these kids to help spread awareness about how difficult it is to live with diabetes.  By doing so, the organization believed more people would donate to find a cure. Sounds easy, however, this assumes that kids with Type 1 diabetes want to talk about it and want to draw more attention to it.  The diabetes organization needs to understand what they believe, how they behave and what motivates them.

Step 3: How Are You Going to Engage, Convince, and Excite Your Targets?

Now that you have identified target audiences and their desired behavior, you’re ready to make choices about how to reach them.  Which channels will you use?  What messages will you deliver through each channel?  Will that reach them and activate them?  Again, start with their behavior.  If you are targeting an older demographic then investing in a strong social media presence may not be the best use of resources. You’ll want to find out where they spend their time, where they get information and news and who they trust.

Step 4: Align Your Resources to the Plan

Once you’ve completed Steps 1-3, you will need to map resources against the plan.

  1. What skills and capabilities are there in-house to deliver
  2. What are the budget requirements
  3. What partnership opportunities are available
  4. What processes need to be in place if they aren’t already

For example, if part of your plan is to target major donors, then you’ll want to invest in having someone on the team who qualifies as a Major Gifts Officer.  They will know what processes to build, how to cultivate relationships and how to build a communication strategy.

Alternatively, if your plan is to target young professionals through a major social media campaign, then actively surround yourself with people who deeply understand different social media outlets, how they are used and what types of programs are most effective.

Step 5: Objectively Assess Your Plan

Most of us in the nonprofit space are extremely passionate about what we do and what we want to accomplish.  This can be a huge asset. Many organizations in the for-profit space wish their employees could be as passionate about the goods, services or ideas they create as those in the nonprofit sector.  Passion can also be a liability when it overshadows pragmatic decision-making. The most successful nonprofits have found the right balance between passion and business rigor.

As such, it’s very important to review your strategic plan with several people who A) have expertise you don’t have and B) don’t have a vested interest in your success.  While humbling, this effort will make you and your plan more successful.  It will force you to think about things you may have missed or address inconsistencies you are too close to see.  Ultimately, nonprofits are stewards of other people’s money in an attempt to accomplish a goal or provide a good or service.  A well thought-out strategic plan will ensure this is accomplished as effectively as possible.




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About Elise Bates

Elise Bates is the co-founder of End Allergies Together (E.A.T.).  She has twelve years of for-profit marketing and strategy consulting experience at Mainspring (now IBM), Digitas, and Monitor Company (now Deloitte). She spent the majority of her time with clients in the Retail Industry (Hallmark, Kraft Foods) and the Pharmaceutical/Medical Devices Industries (Boston Scientific, Merck, Pharmacia). After having her two children, Elise spent eight years on several local non-profit Boards, including President of the Fairfield Women’s Exchange. Further, she led the strategic planning process for Near & Far Aid as well as the Westport Library. Elise earned a bachelor’s degree from Colgate University and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

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