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The New Year is an ideal time to plan for the future. We present five critical “must-haves” for effective strategic and business planning.

navigating-2015

Turning over a new calendar naturally has us thinking about change, and we’ve heard from a number of nonprofit leaders that you’re considering new lines of business, key infrastructure changes, and even total mission overhauls as we head into 2015. Whether it’s with a big T or a little T, transformation is definitely on the brain.

Change isn’t always easy, and neither is planning for it. What does it take to create an effective roadmap for the future? How do nonprofits ensure that their plans don’t become the all-too-common dusty three-ring binder on the shelf they pull out and change the date on every few years? Every plan and every organization is different, but we have five “must-haves” for every planning process gleaned from a couple decades’ experience with 250 clients of all sizes and missions.

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1. OBJECTIVE SELF-ASSESSMENT

Yes, it sounds like an oxymoron, and it isn’t easy, but effective planning demands critical self-assessment within the organization. We have to be willing to ask ourselves those questions that make us most uncomfortable, like do we have the right positions and people? What is my leadership style and when is it most effective, or less so? What are our internal or organizational narratives – the stories we tell ourselves, our stakeholders, and funders – and are they holding us back or propelling us forward?

2. UNDERSTANDING of the EXTERNAL ENVIRONMENT

Your organization doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Every planning process requires a thorough assessment of peers and competitors, demographic or market research, the philanthropic landscape, and national trends and best practices in a nonprofit’s field. An understanding of the external environment, as well as the strengths and challenges within the organization, builds a strong foundation for effective planning, thinking and acting strategically, and establishing parameters for goal-setting.

3. MEANINGFUL PARTICIPATION of KEY STAKEHOLDERS

Fairmount begins every planning process with an accounting of a nonprofit’s “givens and assumptions.” Givens are immutable factors internal or external to the organization – like a new policy and its implications for how an organization operates – while assumptions may be true but can reasonably be challenged – like those internal narratives. Where an organization lands on its givens and assumptions reveals what’s fair game for change and what isn’t and the initiatives or issues that demand immediate attention and those that merit attention later. Goals and priorities are born out of this exercise and serve as critical guideposts throughout a planning process and a plan’s implementation.

4. A CLEAR UNDERSTANDING of GOALS and PRIORITIES

We don’t hold the conceit that any planning process is entirely democratic; making strategic decisions is often at odds with individual assessments and requires an ultimate authority, e.g., the executive or a strategic planning committee. However, planning and implementation will be successful to the extent that the process involves stakeholders both inside and outside of the leadership circle. Why? Because every staff member, from the executive to the front line, has a role to play in ensuring a plan’s success, especially if it represents a fundamental shift from business as usual. Because the plan also has implications for people a nonprofit serves, its Board, its partners, and its funders.

There are a lot of ways to be inclusive in a planning process, such as: staffing the steering committee to include people beyond “the usual suspects”; small-group or subcommittee discussions; and one-on-one interviews or surveys of key stakeholders.

5. A COMMITMENT to REVISITING the PLAN, AGAIN and AGAIN. AND AGAIN.

A finished strategic plan isn’t the end but the beginning of all your hard work. Organizations that get the most out of their strategic or business plans embrace the plan as a dynamic, living document. They commit to a process for regular evaluation and revision, recognizing that the internal and external environment may shift in ways they could not anticipate, and that the path to success doesn’t occur in a straight line.

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