Strategic Planning for Nonprofits: Just Do It!

by Joan Garry

Here’s an approach to strategic planning for your nonprofit that won’t break the bank and an achievable process that can get you where you need to go.

You just groaned, didn’t you?

It’s been on your to-do list but you’re ignoring it, hoping it will go away. You’re overwhelmed. You don’t have a great handle on how to do it well without spending an arm and a leg.

First things first. Snap out of it.

Focus for a few minutes on the huge benefits. You know them but you’re procrastinating so I’ll refresh your memory.

It’s a forced opportunity to get out of the weeds and head to the forest – to see your organization in its sector. To make sure that each and every donor dollar is spent wisely in the service of a unique and powerful mission. To develop an exciting vision for your organization’s work that not only excites donors but excites you!

It’s OK. I’ve been there. You know it’s important. You know you have to do it.

But you have all these questions that all start with the word “how.”

  • How do I do it?
  • How can I afford it?
  • How do I engage my board in a productive way?
  • How can I possibly make the time?

Here’s an approach to strategic planning for your nonprofit that won’t break the bank and a process you can follow that can get you where you need to go.

First things first. I think it’s very tough to do strategy work without an outside perspective and/or an outside driver. Two simple reasons. 1) You live in the organization and are biased. Objectivity is critical to do this well and 2) Your cup already runneth over. Without an outside driver, this process will not get the attention it deserves.

Does that mean money? Probably. Maybe. But maybe not.

True story. At GLAAD, we persuaded McKinsey’s media practice group to buy a table at our event. A worthy cause. Media big wigs in the room.

After the event, while we were still apologizing to disgruntled folks about their seating, I got a call from McKinsey. Can they help us with strategy work?

Hell yes. One month later they offered $1.5 million and a dedicated team of three in pro bono resources for a six-month process. Holy cow!

Scale this to suit your organization. Six months out, think about your organization’s sphere of influence. A volunteer? A board member with strategy experience?

But the bottom line is you’ll have to come up with some money. The following three approaches come with increasing levels of organizational investment.


1) Hire A Traffic Director. Clearly some organizations can’t (or won’t) invest in much more than a facilitator to direct traffic.

2) Invest modestly but keep it largely in-house. This is kind of the “DIY version” of nonprofit strategic planning. Establish a working group – board and staff. Tap someone on the board or a volunteer with this expertise to help construct and guide the process and monitor drive. This individual is likely to be the chair of the strategic planning committee. It’s labor intensive, but if you have strategic planning expertise leading the group, it can be successful.

3) Full Investment. You hire an outside consultant or firm and they drive the process, often with a working group of both board and staff. The consultant becomes a full partner with your strategic planning committee and does the heavy lifting.


What should a good strategic plan include? Here’s a checklist.

  1. A SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) to see where you are today as an organization and how you’re perceived by both internal and external stakeholders. Why external? You get clearer and more interesting results when this is done with an outside set of eyes and ears.
  2. An environmental scan – where does your organization fit within your sector? Does it fill a unique gap? Could it?
  3. Development of key strategic questions the organization must answer before it can build, grow, or add any programmatic initiatives.
  4. A formal process for the discussion and further exploration of these questions. Give this the time it deserves.
  5. A presentation from the committee or consultant of Plan A, Plan B and Plan C. You typically don’t buy the first suit you try on, right? You need to compare and contrast. Same here.


A few more pieces of advice:

  1. Don’t let the group off the hook. Beware of treating your three options like an a la carte menu. They weren’t developed in that way and that’s basically making no decisions at all.
  2. Go There. Ask the tough questions. Some good ones I use: “What would be missing if this organization disappeared?” or “Is this organization an acquisition target for any other organization?” or When I spoke with 30 people I got 20 different mission statements. Why?” Be tough.
  3. Remember Implementation. What will your current organization need to do in order to head toward the selected path? Include your board in this. They too will need a list.
  4. Market Your Plan. If you are smart and thorough (3 year budget, org chart and visionary language), you can paint a picture and sell it to donors. Our plan with McKinsey became a successful platform for multi-year gifts.
  5. Monitor As You Go. And I’m not talking about conversations in the weeds about to do lists. I’m talking higher level. You picked a visionary destination and maybe there are 25 scenic overlooks, each better and better before you get where you’re going. Ask yourself: are we getting closer and closer?

Maybe you’ve just read this and are feeling mighty good. Some of you might be thinking that I need my head examined to lay out such a labor intensive set of elements. Some of you wonder how in the wide world of sports you can fit a process like this into your already ridiculous workload. And I suppose some of you may disagree with my steps.

Speak up! Comment below. I don’t have all the answers. I reserve the right to be wrong. And if history has taught me anything, I know that each of you benefits from the good thinking of each other.

Let the good thinking begin!

14 thoughts on “Strategic Planning for Nonprofits: Just Do It!”

  1. Joan thanks for this. We’ve been thinking about some strategic planning, so this is timely. Do you have a favorite book on strategic planning that can provide us more guidance? We want to do more the DIY version, possibly with some kind of outside facilitator, so I want all the in-house guidance I can get.

  2. Joan, I appreciate your weekly notes. I have participated in SWOT analysis. I am currently proposing to a client that we consider using SOAR (Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, Results) as presented in “The Thin Book of SOAR: Building Strengths-Based Strategy” by Jacqueline M. Stavros, et al. I have heard many positive outcomes from this technique. Joe

  3. I second the request for reading material! I am planning to apply for the open executive director position in my community development corporation, and strategic planning is a clear and immediate need. Our mission statement is two run on sentences that nobody knows (including me, and I’ve worked for the organization for a year!), we have no vision or clear goals, board members have no understanding of responsibilities and obligations, and no one in the community knows what we do. I plan to find resources so that we can undergo a full, outsourced process, but would like to read up on the current best practices, different methods and processes, etc, so I’m not going in blind. Thanks in advance!

  4. Fran. Thanks for writing. I don’t have a book I love (one of the reasons I write a weekly blog :). But let me hunt a bit and see what I can find. In the meantime, another reader weighed in, recommending “The Thin Book of Soar: Building Strengths-Based Strategy” by Jacqueline Stavros. Have not read myself but I will poke around and post a comment with some options.

  5. There is a great outfit in the Bay Area that has a ton of great resources – It’s called Compass Point. My board hired them to guide and lead them through my transition out of the CEO role. The folks there are terrific. I asked them to recommend something and they quickly responded. A book written by two of their folks. They tell me it is is good for start up, small, medium nonprofits. Does not presume you have resources galore. A good guide for DIY. It’s called (wait for it!) Strategic Planning for Nonprofit Organizations. Here’s the Amazon link:

  6. Thank you for being so responsive! Yes, but there’s nothing that can’t be changed given the right guidance and tools. And I actually printed that article last week and have it hanging above my desk so that I would remember to refer to it often. Your site had been a tremendous resource to me so far.

  7. Comments like these are exactly why I write. An opportunity to be of value to people all around the country (the world actually) in very actionable ways. I didn’t see anyone else out there doing that and so here I am! So very glad my writing has been helpful to you.

  8. Thanks for your quick reply, Joan. I’ll look forward to learning what your find and in the meantime will check out the Stavros book. Appreciate your blog and your real-life examples.

  9. I have used David La Piana’s book, The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution: Real Time Strategic Planning (or something very much like that) successfully withy my organization. I just purchased the book mentioned below and look forward to reading it.

  10. Excellent book. I’ve been using it for years. The latest edition actually embraces some of the ideas from the La Piana book. I must say that in doing that, I think they’ve complicated the analysis of SWOTs for an organization that may lack strategic planning experience.

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