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Nonprofit Strategic Planning

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Nonprofit Strategic Planning


This article, by Ken Hoffman, originally appeared in Third Sector on November 19, 2001.

Good news at the charity office: it is time to do the strategic plan. Board members and staff rejoice, looking forward to an opportunity to ignore deadlines, eat catered meals, and consider what the future should look like.

But why isn't everyone happy?

Strategic planning is a vague term for a multitude of activities. At a minimum, it is an assessment used to confirm or modify a charity's purpose for existing. Most plans also look at operational matters: programs, governance, management, and fundraising. The theory is that an honest examination of the past and a good plan for the future will provide strategic guidance for some period of years. Because the board and staff are examining themselves, it is customary to hire consultants, who are not invested in any particular outcome, to direct the process.

Many charity board and staff have some quite colourful bad memories of strategic planning. My own portfolio includes a board planning committee, not one of whose volunteer members deigned to write a word of the vast tome the committee was expected to produce, leaving the job to the hirelings. For others, the memories are physical, of stuffy rooms and uncomfortable chairs, listening to the drone of one speaker hour after hour. For most, there is that nagging sense that the time spent was a waste: too many people, too many hours, too much palaver.

No doubt about it: strategic planning can be one of the more painful repeated episodes in a charity's life. Yet, like the dentist, we keep going back, because the imagined alternative is even worse.

Good planning should provide, or at least confirm, a long range mission and some broad goals on which to base operational decisions. If leadership is setting and keeping to priorities, then planning is the essential context in which leadership operates.

If you accept that, then consider a few suggestions for making planning more palatable and successful, drawing on some experience gained in the US.

Physical comfort makes a difference. Avoid crippling plastic folding chairs that numb the heartiest physique. Provide frequent breaks: the less people are participating, the more breaks they need to stay alert. Ventilate the room. Have a natural light source.

Tell people what to expect, ahead of time. At a minimum, provide an agenda.

Make any small-group exercises brief and relevant.

Set a reasonable planning horizon. Three years works well for privately-funded ventures, since a three year grant is the longest commitment made by most major donors. Publicly-funded charities might use a five year horizon. Beyond that, a crystal ball works as well as anything else.

And finally: aim low. Even if the process does nothing more than build loyalty among board and senior staff to a shared understanding of goals, that is still a worthwhile accomplishment. With mission and goals settled, operations should be much easier to plan and execute.

For the hard working and lucky few, strategic planning, when well done, succeeds to a higher level: producing energy and confidence among all of a charity's constituents.

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