Strategic Planning Sucks the Life Out of Nonprofits

by Joan Garry

The strategic planning process at nonprofits is often fatally flawed. Here are 4 ways to make strategic planning useful at your organization.

**First published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy on Oct 23, 2019**

It’s time for some truth-telling. The nonprofit sector has created a culture in which strategic work is seen as a necessary evil, a process to endure, something to suffer through. Executives often enter the process begrudgingly. They may insist there is no time, money, or support. They may say that the board adds little value, that a bold and expensive vision will be hard to “sell” to a board that must raise money. It’s pretty easy to see how an executive director could have an attitude problem.

When it comes to strategic planning, chief executives often feel sure they know the right answer and already have a sense of what needs to get done in the next few years. Board members will tell you their voices aren’t heard or valued. Precious few board members find making plans invigorating or enriching, nor are they excited to promote a new strategy to potential donors.

How Planning Processes Are Flawed

Here are some of the strategic-planning problems I see again and again. They are the core ingredients of a flawed process.

  • The absence of tough questions. A great process tackles the elephants in the room (every organization has at least one) and allows participants to dream big.
  • Most processes do not involve the right people at the right altitude. I’m talking about people on the inside (board and staff) and on the outside.
  • Boards are not fully and authentically engaged in the process. A good process — an opportunity for trustees to dig into an organization’s challenges and opportunities and to voice opinions — creates a sense of ownership. The alternative: a group of flawed ambassadors who feel unable to market the plan enthusiastically because it is hard to promote something they didn’t help create or shape.
  • Lack of trustee buy-in. Let’s say you create a bold new vision for your organization — exciting for the staff and some members of the board. Let’s say you have a collaborative process, and it results in an exciting new vision (we’ll call it “B”). But most board members join boards thinking that things are great the way they are (“A”). When the board votes on the plan, the “A” board members vote to water down the vision, so it is no longer bold. Plan A — the way things are — is less exciting and harder to rally folks around. Your CEO is deflated and, in the worst-case scenario, begins to plan an exit.

Why Strategic Planning Is So Often Flawed

Nonprofit leaders are not encouraged to take risks: to invest in something new or pilot a new program, for example. Nonprofit leaders rarely uses the words “What if?” with a sense of joy and conviction. Executive directors can’t bear the thought of failure, and boards are just plain risk-averse, with a hyper-focus on what things cost and how much money must be raised.

Boards do not engage in high-level strategic thinking. Check your last few board-meeting agendas. Do you see any substantive time allocated to a discussion of a meaty issue in which board members expressed opinions openly? We don’t allow our trustees to exercise those muscles, so when we move into a strategic-planning process, they are in uncharted territory.

Boards don’t see themselves as leaders (owners) of the organization. The result? Organizational leaders do not own the process from the start, so they have no emotional attachment to the vision.

The focus of the strategic process is far too often on solving organizational problems. It’s what I call the “uh oh” plan. Uh oh, our revenue numbers are falling. Uh oh, 80 percent of our revenue comes from one donor. Uh oh, it’s an election year. Uh oh, our founder said she’d leave in a year. A great process encourages a plan’s developers to approach it from a place of abundance. Ask, “What does our organization do better than any other?” Own that and develop your plan around it, sharing it with more people.

Leaders mistake growth as strategy. If I see one more plan with a strategy to “grow” revenue by 5 or 10 percent year over year, I’ll scream. Fundraising is a tool. A tool! Growth is all about impact. I have clients with annual operating budgets below $500,000 that are more effective than others with a $70-million budget. If your process focuses on how to raise more money rather than on tackling big questions and identifying the resources needed to address them, it’s time to shift your focus.

Self-preservation prevents leaders from taking on big questions. One of the first lessons you learn parenting teenagers: Don’t ask questions you don’t want to know the answers to. Rarely do nonprofit leaders ponder questions like, “Should we merge?” or “Is our mission accomplished?” We are afraid of big questions as part of our process because we don’t want to accept the answers even when they are spot on.

Ways to Improve Strategic Planning

Because I facilitate planning sessions for nonprofits, I see some solutions to these challenges. Here are a few ways to improve your planning.

Educate your board. Introduce members to their roles in a way that will excite them and enrich their lives. They will want to be a part of the process, and they will be fueled with ideas and resources. Push board members to engage in professional development. Here are three resources I often suggest:

Executive directors, keep your mind and your ears open. If you don’t think your board members know enough to be of value, whose issue is that? Set aside time at a board meeting before you start a process. Toss a big question at them and dig into it. I guarantee that you will be surprised, impressed, and excited to continue to engage them in the process.

Engage board and staff members in an authentic way. Form a steering group and work with a facilitator or consultant. The message you send by engaging board members will be powerful and will pay dividends.

Have fun with questions that expand the thinking of board and staff members. Come up with your own, or try a few that I use:

  • What does our organization do better than any other?
  • What if $5 million landed like manna from heaven? How would you spend it, and why?
  • What is the headline you would most like to see about your nonprofit’s work three years from now?
  • What headline would you least like to see?
  • Recognize that “KPI” is a four-letter word. Key Performance Indicator. When I do this work, I call the process “strategic visioning,” so we steer clear of tactics, or KPIs. A tactical discussion deep in the weeds can be a bucket of cold water on a process that should be focused on what is possible.

One last thing. To create an exciting, robust process that everyone owns, strive for a true partnership between board chair and executive director; work together on an organizational attitude adjustment. Build trust so that the chief executive can be vulnerable about challenges. This partnership should lead the board to engage in substantive strategic conversations and foster a culture of innovation and testing.

An enthusiastic attitude and an inclusive process that allows key decision makers to tackle big questions and entertain taking a risk or two will result in a strategic-planning process that leads to an inspirational vision that each supporter can promote with passion, commitment, and pride.

And please stay safe.

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