September 23, 2017
 
Strategic Planning Lets Nonprofits Achieve Their Vision

By Pat Tietbohl

Pat Tietbohl
Because funders, supporters, and regulatory authorities increasingly are scrutinizing nonprofit organizations, more and more are engaging in a formal strategic planning process to ensure that the organization stays true to its mission.

It’s very easy for a nonprofit to get diverted from its mission by responding to new ideas. A strategic planning process provides a framework to keep an organization on its track as well as to help it decide what projects to pursue and how to spend limited resources.

Strategic planning answers the basic questions of where do we want to go based on review of who are we and who do we serve? It often stimulates further work related to the organization’s mission and its key objectives.

A nonprofit that finds jobs for teen-agers, for example, may focus on providing employment or it may help youngsters develop leadership skills. Both approaches answer the question “what do we do?” but in different ways. As a result, who the nonprofit serves, how it structures and staffs itself, makes decisions, and sources funding will likely differ.

Strategic Planning Starts with the Board of Directors

The strategic planning process often starts with the board, the executive director, and senior management team. Together, they need to agree on the organization’s mission and plan guiding objectives for the medium term, the next three to five years. A well-organized brainstorming session is often useful, as it generates ideas and gets everyone to buy in to the process.

A key question for every nonprofit, regardless of size, is: should we grow, maintain our current scope, or change?

If you don’t ask yourself this question, you could lose funding to other organizations that are asking—and formulating full, detailed answers and plans —because that’s what funders are looking for.

To help answer the question, it’s advisable to perform a SWOT analysis, which assesses the organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

Finally, the strategic plan relates the mission and goals to specific objectives and targets. Often, this includes developing pro forma financial and operational plans. A team approach, involving senior and program managers, and eventually the board for buy-in, generates assumptions on which everyone agrees and creates an operating plan that can mobilize the whole organization.

It’s often helpful to have an independent, outside party assess financial projections. Such an evaluation can also generate important feedback on how efficiently the organization is running, and provide guidance on how to improve financial performance. In the process, it’s not uncommon to discover new funding needs or even new funding sources that may have been ignored previously. Since funders and others will scrutinize your numbers in detail, all the financial pieces should fit together to tell a coherent story.

Your strategic plan can give you a chance to update or reaffirm your vision and create a roadmap to help you achieve it. It also provides a context for assessing operating plans and annual budgets. Investing for the longer term may mean you don’t grow the same way with respect to a given operating target each year. Your strategic plan puts it all in the right perspective.

Online Resources

The following online resources may be helpful to nonprofits engaging in strategic planning: Pat Tietbohl is BizOps Chief Financial Officer at CliftonLarsonAllen LLP. Call her at 781-402-6300 or email Pat.Tietbohl@claconnect.com.

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