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January 20, 2022
Strategic Planning Helps Nonprofits Go Beyond the Short Term
By Tom Sherwin

Tom Sherwin
Tom Sherwin
Whether they call it “long range planning” or “strategic planning”, the boards of nonprofit organizations increasingly are devoting attention to their role in charting a course beyond the upcoming operating calendar and budget.

Given variations in support from once-reliable supporters, competition from others seeking funding from a smaller pool of donors, or the federal government’s changing, nonprofit organizations know that where they’re going is as important as how they get there.

Larger organizations with years of history, financial reserves, and staff are in a position to resource strategy undertakings, and they often do. Smaller nonprofits, in contrast, may find their very existence depends on clearly enunciating a mission for the organization. This, in turn, depends on a long term vision of what the organization will become, a carefully crafted strategy (What will we do to become the organization described in our vision?), and tactics (How will we do it?).

Not only donors, but staff, volunteers, and even recipients of the nonprofits efforts are motivated to participate in the organization by virtue of understanding clearly what it does, where it is going, how it will get there, and who cares.

Recent strategic planning experiences with two nonprofits are illustrative. One, a chapter of a large national concern had grown through the start-up and early maturity phase only to find it had become so many things to so many people. It was not clear what it was, social club or educational organization.

The other, a small nonprofit with a passion for supporting a particular constituency in a local community, was privately driven by the family of its namesake. To move others to carry on the work of the family, and assure continuity a mission larger than preserving the memory of their loved one, would be necessary.

In both cases the boards were aware that choosing a particular path for the organization might result in the alienation of important constituencies who preferred another. The question for both nonprofits was: how do we capture the broad interests of our constituencies while focusing our efforts narrowly enough on our mission to provide an optimal outcome?

They asked themselves:
  • Just what was it that they found to be so desirable about their organization?
  • What was less so?
  • What future did the constituencies wish for the organization?
  • And, importantly, what would stand in the way of the organization’s success?
The results were often surprising, poignant, inspiring, and, inevitably, enlightening to the planning team composed of insiders and outsiders.

Too often the options for the future are framed in the narrow perspective of the past. At many nonprofits the range of options can be constrained by long-serving board members. Bringing in the sunshine of varying opinions can be blinding to such committed people, but also revealing, as they realize that new paradigms represent potential solutions to longstanding challenges.

Before you dive into your own strategic planning efforts, first consider whether you have sufficient internal resources to do the heavy lifting of planning. Then, since the most commonly reported failure of long range planning at nonprofits is the failure to implement the plan, consider whether you have the ability to complete the task. Many well-meaning supporters of nonprofits have engaged in a planning process somewhere before, but few have the expertise to manage the inevitable challenges, which arise over conflict regarding the direction, course, and tactics of the organization. If so, seek help.

So get started. All you have at stake is the future.

Tom Sherwin, president of CEO Resources, Inc., helps nonprofits with strategy, governance, and executive development challenges. Call him at 508-877-2775 or email to
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