Award-winning writer Kathy Widenhouse has helped hundreds of nonprofits and writers produce successful content and has gained 600K+ views for her writing tutorials. She is the author of 9 books. See more of Kathy’s content here.
Don’t have a strategic plan? You may not make much progress with your wonderful work. That’s why strategic planning for nonprofits, small businesses, and solopreneurs) makes good business sense.
When you don’t undertake planning, you set yourself up for frustration and even failure. “If you don’t know where you are going,” said legendary pro baseball player and coach Yogi Berra (1925-2015), “you might wind up someplace else.”
Yet the term “strategic planning” can sound intimidating if you’re a nonprofit leader who is already wearing too many hats … if you’re a new biz owner … if you’re a blogger or solopreneur who wants to build your reach. It’s an activity best relegated to seasoned professionals, right?
Wrong. You don’t need an MBA to create a strategic plan that works, even if you’re writing one for the first time. If the thought of strategic planning makes you quiver or sends you into denial, then you’re in the right place. When you have a simple outline to follow, you can feel more confident in working through the planning process. But first …
Strategic planning is an intentional process you use to create and achieve goals.
Because it’s a process, strategic planning a series of steps. It’s “strategic” in that it’s purposeful. At the end of the process, you have a product – a strategic plan.
If the term “strategic planning” still bothers you, you can refer to it as “purposeful planning” or “intentional planning.”
With plan in hand, you’ll have a course of action to take to achieve your goals for your nonprofit or your small biz. And since strategic planning is a process, you periodically evaluate and tweak your plan to keep yourself on track.
It’s a process you should undertake at regular intervals – say, at least once a year – whether you’re a nonprofit leader or a business owner or solopreneur.
Various business gurus identify “5 steps of a strategic plan” or “7 stages to strategic planning” or even “16 elements your strategic plan must have.” But I’m all about making writing simple. The point of strategic planning is to figure out how to reach your goals in the most direct way, right? In my mind, it’s best to get started by focusing on basics.
Strategic planning for nonprofits boils down to four key areas. You can create your first strategic plan or update a previous one by asking and answering 4 simple questions that correspond to each of those 4 areas. You can undertake this process on your own (if you’re a solopreneur or small biz owner) or with your team (if you have key staff you’d like to include).
Here is a list of 4 questions you should ask yourself during the strategic planning process.
By asking and answering these four simple questions, the strategic planning process forces your nonprofit or biz to evaluate why you exist, what you do, how you do it, and your results. You’ll clarify what need you meet (your mission and values statements), what you do or don’t do to meet the need (your analysis), how you will adjust to meet those needs more effectively (your strategy), and how well your plan works so you can modify your approach the next time around (your evaluation).
Specific details in those four buckets vary from organization to organization. But if you include these four elements, you can create a plan that helps you achieve your goals. And you can add to it later, of course … since strategic planning is a process.
Use a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats)
As you conduct your SWOT analysis, be sure to address both external factors (conditions that lead to the need you address; the service area where you work) as well as internal operations (with whom you do your work, including staff, volunteers, partners, donors, and beneficiaries.)
As you flesh out your strategy, consider these additional factors.
You can use this helpful workbook for creating your first (or updated) strategic plan, which includes a strategic plan template to help you put everything together.
Nonprofit leaders are b-u-s-y. Most agree that strategic planning offers plenty of benefits, including focused programming, increased efficiency, better engagement with donors and beneficiaries, productive fundraising, and long-term sustainability. Even so, just 49% of nonprofits have a written strategic plan.
Maybe you’re among the 51% that don’t. If so, you can get started by creating a traditional strategic plan as outlined above.
But if that seems like an overwhelming task, you can get going by choosing just one of the types of strategic planning listed here. Once you’ve completed that planning process and begin to carry out its tasks, you can move on to another. And another.
Or you can start with couple of types of planning – recognizing their interconnected nature – to be more efficient with your time and to streamline the time you devote to planning. For example, you can create a combined Fundraising and Communications plan. Once that in place and working, you could work on a Programmatic and Community Engagement plan. Get started with these specific types of strategic planning categories.
Your plan should be long as your nonprofit needs it to be to reach your goals. That could be one page long or it could be hundreds of pages, depending on the size of your organization and its strategy. Writing tip: start simple. You can expand your strategic plan later, but it’s best to get started. Remember – no plan, no (or little) progress.
A business plan …
A strategic plan …
That depends. Some nonprofits and business owners hire consultants to walk with them through the process. Some use a professional only periodically – say, at a critical juncture in the organization’s development, during a conflict, when they need an objective voice, or during a capital campaign. Others undertake planning successfully on their own.
The key is to get started. Your strategic plan doesn’t need to be perfect. In fact, it won’t be. And your plan will change at least each year as your biz or agency grows. If you find you need outside help, by all means find it. Just get going.
At least once a year. In addition, create benchmarks along the way in your annual strategic plan (monthly, quarterly, bi-annually) at which you can evaluate your progress.
Keep in mind that strategic planning is a process. Practically speaking, put planning sessions in your calendar. Then when you take the time each year, each half-year, or each quarter to evaluate what you’re doing and how you can do it more effectively, you build on the previous planning session.
Plus, consider the alternative: an ill-defined, vague approach to your work.
For nonprofits, not planning prevents you from accomplishing your goal to fix or alleviate the problem your organization was set up for in the first place.
For small biz owners and solopreneurs, not planning can lead to the Shiny Object Syndrome (SOS) – embracing all those yummy options that come your way via the internet or email, each promising to be a magic bullet for building your biz.
As businessman and consultant Harvey MacKay (b. 1932) said, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”
When you take the time each year, each half-year, or each quarter to evaluate what you’re doing and how you can do it more effectively, you build on the previous planning session. And your organization or business grows, too.
People and situations change. Plan on it.
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