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Simple Strategic Planning for Nonprofits

Adapted from Starting and Building a Nonprofit

Once you've committed to an idea for a nonprofit, it's time to sit down and create a strategic plan -- the working document that will chart your nonprofit's course through the coming years. A strategic plan identifies your nonprofit's goals for a certain time period (generally one to five years) and outlines how you will achieve them. While your nonprofit will undoubtedly engage in other planning for specific activities, think of the strategic plan as the "master plan" for your organization.

Translating your hopes and dreams into concrete plans is an essential undertaking for lots of reasons. First and foremost, making specific plans will help you get beyond your idealistic visions to focus on exactly what your group hopes to accomplish -- and what you can realistically expect to get done, based on your available resources. Drafting a plan transforms abstract ideas into specific "to do" items, a critical step in setting your nonprofit's wheels into motion. Having a clear strategic plan in place will also serve you well when you seek to raise money and/or build community support.

Components of a Strategic Plan

At a minimum, a strategic plan should generally include the following sections:

  • a mission statement
  • an outline of goals, objectives and activities
  • an assessment of current resources, and
  • a strategic analysis.

Each section is typically a few paragraphs to just a few pages long.

Develop Your Mission Statement

Every nonprofit needs a mission statement: a clear description of the reason the nonprofit exists. Your mission statement should be the first section of your strategic plan and will set the stage for all that follows. Because all nonprofits are mission-driven, you must take care to define your mission clearly.

Some people who start nonprofits believe that they already know exactly what needs to be done and that it won't take more than a few minutes to come up with a mission statement. Think again; drafting your mission statement deserves care and attention. While you shouldn't agonize over your statement, it's important to put some careful thought into articulating the mission that will guide your organization for years to come.

Outline Specific Goals, Objectives and Activities

Identifying more specific goals helps break down your broad mission into individual elements, which you can then pursue with even more specific planning. For example, if your broad mission is to create economic opportunities for teenagers in a certain city or district, you might have specific goals of publicizing job opportunities for teens, mentoring teens in career development, and nurturing teens' leadership and entrepreneurial skills.

Getting even more specific, you can identify objectives, which are closely related and similar to goals but more concrete and measurable. For example, if the above nonprofit's goal was to mentor teens in career development, an objective might be to implement a mentoring program in a certain city or district, by a certain time. It's often hard to judge whether a nonprofit has successfully accomplished a broad mission or even a narrow goal, but much easier to determine whether it has achieved a well-defined, concrete objective.

Some nonprofits wisely go a step further and outline planned activities and programs separately from objectives. Having program areas clearly defined will help your nonprofit communicate with the public about exactly what you do, which can help greatly in getting the public involved or attracting contributions -- not to mention its value in managing your operations. When outlining specific activities or programs, remember that they should flow from your list of objectives and help advance your mission.

Assess Your Resources

In this section of your strategic plan, you should include an assessment of all of your resources, including money, people, expertise, skills and other intangibles, that are currently available to your nonprofit. Your goal here isn't to detail your fundraising plan -- no matter how much it may be on your mind -- but simply to develop a realistic understanding of the assets you have in hand.

When assessing resources, lots of folks mistakenly think only in terms of money. As is true in other areas of life, money can be a great help in getting things done, but it's also true that other assets -- such as skills and experience -- can translate into getting your mission accomplished. A troop of energetic, committed volunteers can be just as valuable -- sometimes even more so -- than cash in the bank or an expensive computer system. In short, don't underestimate the value of your group's less-tangible assets.

Identify Strategies

With goals, objectives and activities identified and your current resources assessed, you're ready to do some true strategic thinking. In the realm of strategic planning, "strategies" are practical ideas about how to make the best use of your resources to achieve your goals.

A common approach to strategic thinking is called a "SWOT" analysis -- an acronym for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Strengths and weaknesses are positive and negative elements within the organization; opportunities and threats are positive and negative elements outside the organization.

The key to doing a SWOT analysis is to identify these elements accurately, and then think about ways to maximize the positive and minimize the negative elements. Brainstorm about ways to use your strengths to take advantage of existing opportunities and to overcome threats you've identified. Also focus on how you will minimize your weaknesses to make your group less vulnerable to threats. This process of assessment and analysis is the essence of strategic thinking and will help you chart a realistic course for success.

Edit and Finalize Your Plan

Once you've completed all the essential elements of your initial strategic plan, all that's left to do is to put it into a final document. Let your plan sit for a day or two before beginning a final review. This allows the planners to clear their brains and look at it with fresh perspectives. It's a good idea to establish a firm deadline for incorporating any final edits, to keep everyone in "wrap-up" mode and prevent endless rounds of tinkering with the work you've already done.

Once your final edits have been incorporated, you may be finished. Or, if you plan to submit the strategic plan to potential funders, you may want to spiff it up and produce a professional document, perhaps using desktop publishing software. Package the information as necessary for your intended purposes -- an internal working document can be much less formal than a package you send to potential major donors.

SWOT Analysis
A common approach to strategic thinking is called a "SWOT" analysis -- an acronym for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
  • Strengths are positive assets within your organization. Examples might include a highly respected board member, a talented group of volunteers or ownership of valuable intellectual property such as a book or software.
  • Weaknesses are negative aspects within your organization. Examples might include a shortage of volunteers or outdated technology.
  • Opportunities are positive elements outside your organization. Examples might include a high demand for your services or availability of a grant in your topic area.
  • Threats are negative elements outside your organization. Examples might include a competing nonprofit or the demise of a major funder.

A SWOT analysis is sometimes called other things, such as a "situational assessment" or an "environmental analysis," but they all use the same basic approach.