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January 20, 2022
Simple but Savvy Strategic Planning
By Kathy Cohen and Nanette Fridman

Kathy Cohen + Nanette Fridman
Kathy Cohen, left, and Nanette Fridman
Nonprofit organizations need to maintain their focus while seizing opportunities, and a strategic plan allows them to do that by identifying key issues, setting priorities, and developing action plans to tackle issues.

Many nonprofits resist strategic planning, making claims like “We don’t have time for planning,” “We know who we are; we don’t need a plan,” “We have no bandwidth,” or “Planning is a waste of time when we have too many day to day issues to tackle.”

In contrast to commonly held beliefs, creating a plan need not drain your resources, nor drag on. In fact, strategic planning does the opposite: it is the ultimate streamliner, helping you conserve resources and apply them toward their maximum benefit.

The following will help.

Build a Team

It is crucial to build a strategic planning committee or task force that is large enough to get the work done and small enough to maintain focus and be nimble. Your team might include a few board members, the executive director, and maybe some key staff who are familiar with organizational operations, finances, and development.

Know Your Focus

Good strategic plans propel stakeholders to work as a team toward common goals. First and foremost, think about the organization's mission, values, and vision. What is the overarching goal of the institution and what need does it fill? Is the institution meeting that mission or does it need to alter course? What is its ultimate vision?

Get the Facts

Before you can begin to think about what your organization's opportunities and obstacles really are, you need to have knowledge of how your organization operates currently. This includes a description of all functional areas of the organization and their corresponding staffing and budgets.

Determine What Is and Isn’t Working

Once you have identified each functional area, it is then time to assess how well each area is serving the organization. Are there areas that need to be updated? Does the development team have the resources it needs to fundraise successfully? Does marketing attract new customers/users? Is the facility adequate? It is a very good idea to hear from stakeholders about how things are going through surveys, focus groups or interviews.

Do Research

This is the time to benchmark your functional areas and how they operate against those of your competitors. You may reasonably assume that your organization is attracting fewer customers/users because costs are too high, only to find out that a critical mass is attracted to other sites because of better hours or coordinated services. You may find that other area agencies have fundraising or customer service strategies that you could feasibly implement. Look widely at the competitive landscape, whether it is local, national, or international.

Set Goals

Determining what is and isn’t working, as well as doing your research, will directly inform the goals of your strategic plan. By determining what is and isn’t working, you will be able to see where your organization shines and where your challenges lie. By conducting your internal review, you will be able to see not only what challenges you need to address, but also where potential opportunities lie. Taking all of this data into consideration together will help you set goals for your strategic plan.

Present the Plan to the Board

Once the committee or task face has articulated the strategic priority areas (we recommend 3-5 at most) and goals based on its work, the plan needs to be presented to the board of directors for their approval.

Determine Action Steps

This is the time to convert your strategic objectives into specific initiatives. Larger goals, like reimagining the building, should be broken down into smaller goals that are specific and measurable. Your overarching goal may be to have a building in three to five years, but your goal over the next six months may be to create a task force and organize focus groups to reimagine the building. After your board approves your direction and priorities, a smaller group should drill down to an implementation plan. This is comprised of clearly stating the goals and operational plans for achieving them including action steps, timelines, measures of success, and who will be responsible for overseeing each step of the process.

Set Plans into Motion

Once all of the above has been determined, your organization will be ready to execute on its strategic plan. Key issues to think about here include who will communicate the plan to stakeholders, how will the plan be monitored, and how you will know if the plan is working. Be sure to set benchmarks for your institution so you can assess progress against goals and results.

Exciting strategic plans create momentum that help with friendraising, fundraising, and attracting customers/users. When every stakeholder can articulate the future vision of the organization and can see the progress it is making toward goals, the momentum has a life of its own.

Kathy Cohen, PhD, a clinical psychologist and experienced nonprofit board president, helps nonprofit executives and boards become more focused, efficient, collaborative, and impactful. Email her at

Nanette Fridman, MPP, JD, founder and principal of Fridman Strategies, consults on strategic planning, financial resource development, governance and leadership coaching, and author of
On Board: What Current and Aspiring Board Members Must Know About Nonprofits & Board Service. Email her at

June 2019
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