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January 20, 2022
Create a Nonprofit Strategy to Move Beyond COVID-19
By Aly Sterling

Aly Sterling
Aly Sterling

While COVID-19 is still dominating headlines and impacting the way nonprofit organizations operate, the time for letting it dominate their strategy is long past, as there’s important work to be done now to prepare for post-pandemic success.

As 2021 begins, your nonprofit should create a clear map for navigating the road ahead. Instead of creating a crisis-focused strategy, revisit fundamental best practices that include donor stewardship and strategic planning.

With a sound strategic plan, your nonprofit will stay aligned on key priorities and be well-positioned to achieve its vision, even through turbulent times. Most importantly, an informed strategic plan, even before it is executed, can create significant positive impact.

Consider this tried-and-true process for creating a thoughtful strategic plan that sticks.

1. Assess your internal structure, history, and future goals

The first step of the planning process is to evaluate your organization’s past, present and future.

This includes a stakeholder assessment to reveal how your community thinks about your organization’s work and mission, including its strengths and weaknesses. You’ll want to conduct interviews with:

  • Donors
  • Clients
  • Board members
  • Community members

If possible, use open-ended questions rather than multiple-choice. The qualitative data that emerges from these questions will be more telling than a pre-defined response especially if themes emerge from multiple stakeholder conversations.

These conversations will provide a fresh outside perspective that can’t be achieved through self-evaluation by those who are deeply entrenched in the work. To keep the stakeholder assessment as unbiased as possible, consider bringing in a nonprofit consultant to conduct the surveys. People are more likely to provide honest feedback to a disinterested outsider who isn’t directly affiliated with your nonprofit, which will be more helpful in the long run.

The insights, compliments, and constructive criticism generated from this assessment will form the foundation of your plan moving forward.

In this stage, you’ll also want to evaluate your recent work, any ongoing initiatives, and your organizational culture. What has been successful, and what could use improvement? Is your team’s culture resistant to change or ready to embrace feedback?

With all of this in mind, you can start contemplating future goals for your organization.

2. Align on a clear vision

The next stage of the strategic planning process involves uniting your team together in pursuit of a clear organizational vision. Along with creating a useful strategic plan, this process will reinvigorate the commitment of your team and reinforce the need for your mission.

To do this, plan a collaborative board retreat where members have a voice in the decision-making process. Right now, this will likely need to be a virtual board retreat, but it’s still possible to create an environment that fosters creative discussion and ingenuity. Designing your strategic plan together will give members ownership over the process and the resulting priorities.

Ultimately, a successful strategic plan needs the buy-in of your entire board of directors and everyone on your staff. If any key stakeholders aren’t on board, you’ll have trouble maintaining momentum.

3. Act and continue to push forward

As you build out the specifics of your plan, you’ll likely want to follow a specific planning model to stay organized. According to Bloomerang’s guide to nonprofit strategic planning, these include the standard issue-based, organic, real-time, and alignment planning models. The model you choose will depend on the needs of your organization (going back to the assessment from Step 1 above) as well as the external circumstances you may be dealing with.

Once your plan is finalized, your job isn’t over. In fact, the work has really just begun. To keep everyone moving in the right direction, consider the following:

  • Embed your broader strategic priorities into your daily activities and the culture of your organization.
  • Identify initiatives that aren’t in line with your new priorities and decide where you can take a step back.
  • Recruit an accountability partner like a nonprofit consultant who can track your progress (or lack thereof) and provide direction.

Finally, your plan should look only two to three years in the future rather than the traditional five or 10. The nonprofit world evolves quickly, and locking yourself into an out-of-date plan will only increase the likelihood that your strategy lies stagnant on the shelf.

By working each day to align your activities with your strategic plan, you’ll be able to achieve your nonprofit’s vision and make an impact on your community.

Aly Sterling, founder and president of Aly Sterling Philanthropy, provides fundraising, strategic planning, search consultation, and board leadership development services for nonprofit organizations, and has contributed to publications of BoardSource, The Governance Institute, and The Giving Institute.

January 2021

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