Strategic Planning is Getting Better at Keeping Up with the Speed of Change

When we launched The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution ten years ago, it was to change the paradigm of strategic planning. We had heard from many nonprofit leaders who experienced strategic planning as a mere compliance exercise their nonprofits performed to “check a box” or satisfy a funder’s needs. We felt it should be — must be — different, and sought to stimulate organizations’ appetite for the essential ongoing function of forming and implementing strategies.

Today, we are heartened to see that these efforts, and others like them, are succeeding in turning the tide. Our recent strategy survey indicates that while about half of respondents adhere to a traditional 3-5 year planning cycle, more than one-third are developing strategy more flexibly on an as-needed basis, and some are even creating annual plans. We also learned that most organizations are developing their plans within a six-month time frame, rather than the 6-12 months that was typical not so long ago.

As nonprofits adopt more nimble and dynamic approaches to strategy, they are better able to respond to the unexpected: a disruptive technology; a presidential election result no one saw coming but that is remaking the world for environmental, civil rights, and other subsectors of nonprofits; and natural disasters that upend all plans overnight. And these are just the biggies! In the normal course of business, new competitors enter a nonprofit’s space, funder expectations evolve or move in entirely new directions, long-time leaders step down, and new paradigms for addressing social problems emerge. As the sector moves away from hide-bound three-year and five-year plans (what I call the Stalin approach to strategic planning), there is a growing acknowledgement that what is needed is great strategic thinkers, not fixed long-term plans lacking strategy.

In survey responses, and in our own experience with clients, we are also seeing nonprofits being more open to considering their competitive landscape in developing their strategies. Years ago, suggesting that nonprofits compete with one another was received by some as blasphemy, but many have come to understand collaboration and competition as two sides of the same coin, and the ultimate “winner” is the mission. At the same time, as more nonprofits are paying attention to competitive advantage, the prevalence of community needs assessments in informing strategy seems distressingly low.

In fact, survey responses indicate some important opportunities for continued improvement, including greater community engagement, more effective involvement of board members, and support in moving from strategy and planning to implementation. Some similar issues emerged in BoardSource‘s latest Leading with Intent report, wherein only 54% of those surveyed say the board is good at using their plan to monitor organizational performance. The many thoughtful responses we received to the open-ended survey question “Our strategic plan would be more useful if…” surfaced challenges in implementation and other obstacles that nonprofits face in making strategy more responsive, actionable, and impactful.

We appreciate the time so many of you have taken to share your experiences with us, and are glad to announce that we, too, have been thinking about the “implementation gap” a great deal. That’s why in the coming weeks and into the New Year, you will see us sharing more tools, resources, and ideas geared toward effective implementation — or, as we are conceptualizing it, the path from strategy to success.