Why Nonprofits Need a Strategic Plan

Traditionally, the mantra of board service is to provide one or more of the following:  time, talent and treasure.  In reality, good boards are challenged to do more.  The proper role of a board is to provide oversight and leadership in identifying how the organization pursues its mission. 

A strategic plan is a tool that should be used to help an organization identify goals and pathways to realization of same.  The first step is to have a meeting of the minds on the mission statement.  Once the mission statement has been written, it is incumbent upon the board to understand it.  The functions of a tax-exempt organization can be divided into three separate categories:  administrative, program, and development (funding).  The board should look at each of these areas and set goals for each category that are challenging but realistic.  Once the board has set the goals, it is time for introspection.  The board must realistically assess both the strengths and weaknesses of the organization. 

Once the board has completed the process as outlined above, it is time to focus on the pathway to success.  Most strategic plans set a five-year timeline with periodic look backs.  These reviews often result in revisions to both goals and means of approach.  Newer, smaller, and less sophisticated organizations may choose to use a three-year timeline.

One way to start discussions about a strategic plan with your board of directors is to ask them for their vision for the organization in three or five years.  The discussion should include the three basic components of the organization’s existence.  For the strategic plan to be meaningful, there must be a general consensus as to the board’s vision of the organization.  Discussions like this often start with a dialogue among the board and staff as to who the constituency of the organization might be.  Once they have been identified, the next question is: how good of a job are we doing serving them now, and what do we need to do to serve them better?

On the administrative side of the analysis, it is important to get input from the chief executive officer of the organization.  The chief executive officer is the person in the best position to make a determination of the strength and weaknesses of his or her staff.  The board should be asking and seeking reassurance that the staff is competent and has the capabilities to move the organization to the next level. 

In order to be successful, every organization must have resources.  Every organization has stakeholders who support the organization.  The board, in its discussion on this subject, should be looking at several factors.  Is the organization doing a good job of communicating with those who support it?  Is the organization using the most efficient and effective ways to seek support?  How can the organization broaden its base of support and correspondingly reduce its cost of acquiring that support?  For most organizations these are significant challenges.

The simple definition of a strategic plan is one that sets goals and then asks, “How do we get there?”  The time and resources expended to create a strategic plan are well spent if there is a serious effort by the board and the administration of the organization to constantly seek ways to improve its efficiency and effectiveness.  Without goals an organization will simply “tread water” and will ultimately be seen as deficient because of its lack of pursuit of excellence.