Strategic Planning for Small Nonprofits

Small and grassroots organizations so often do so much with so little. With so many demands and limited resources, how should these nonprofits approach strategic planning?

The traditional model of strategic planning can seem daunting to a small organization. It is no surprise that a small nonprofit might see such a process as too onerous and expensive to be worth it. But the reality is there is no difference between how important it is for the director of a fledgling, neighborhood organization with an annual budget of $150,000 and the global CEO of a billion-dollar force for social change to both employ sound strategy development.

Recently, the board of a small professional association decided to rethink how they did strategic planning. Their faithful application of the traditional strategic planning approach had resulted in a lengthy document full of goals, initiatives, and owners, but which lacked a guiding purpose to tie it all together and provide meaningful value to their members. Members, directors, and staff all defined the work of the organization differently and the feedback mechanisms built into the planning process led to a plan containing pages and pages of loosely-connected goals and activities. They had come to realize their process was long on plan and short on strategy.

At La Piana Consulting, we define nonprofit strategy as a coordinated set of activities to create and sustain a competitive advantage to advance the mission of an organization. We helped the association’s leadership to engage in the same type of strategy development process which our large national clients have used to align resources to support their overall direction. While the same strategy development components were present, the association narrowed their focus to match their leadership capacity by gaining clarity upfront about what they needed to know to approve a strategy and collecting that information and input quickly and efficiently. The result was clarity of purpose, an understanding of the unique role the association can play to achieve its mission, and clear criteria to ensure all choices align with the strategy—all without disrupting its day-to-day operations.

While many organizations revisit their strategic plans every three years through time-consuming and expensive planning processes, challenges and opportunities don’t wait around. The right time for strategy formation is when the organization has identified a big question that needs to be resolved. To improve their readiness, the board modified their meetings to ensure they could quickly recognize and effectively respond to future disruptions which might be beyond the scope of their current strategy.

Regardless of the size of an organization, the building blocks of good nonprofit strategy remain consistent: know yourself, know your market, build on your strengths, make decision-making criteria explicit, and identify your big question. For a deeper dive on how these principles are put into action to combat the pitfalls of traditional approaches to strategy, check out our recorded webinar The Seven Deadly Sins of Strategic Planning [note: link opens video with audio enabled].

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