Introduction to Strategic Planning for Nonprofit Corporations

Strategic planning may be broadly viewed as an iterative, two-part undertaking. In the first part of the process, an organization defines a vision for the future that is consonant with its mission. In the second part of the process, the organization then allocates financial, capital and human resources toward achieving this vision. The two parts of the process must be linked with regular feedback mechanisms that allow both the vision and the allocation of resources to evolve, together, to meet emergent opportunities and challenges.

For a nonprofit corporation, the Board of Directors is tasked with determining the organization’s mission, and must, therefore, play a central role in strategic planning, to either ensure that the organization’s vision supports its mission, or (in rare cases) to amend the organization’s mission should a particularly compelling vision of the future or extreme circumstances require such a change. In broad terms, then, the Board’s role in strategic planning is tied to the first functional element described above: the definition of vision.

The second functional element (allocation of resources) is typically the purview of the organization’s staff, with the Board’s members providing the oversight (but not management) necessary to ensure that the Board collectively satisfies its fiduciary responsibilities. Both the organization’s mission and the Board’s vision must be clearly, effectively communicated to the organization’s Executive Director, who is then tasked with managing the resources needed to bring the vision to fruition.

Strategic planners must recognize a principle most eloquently elucidated by General Dwight D. Eisenhower during planning for the invasion of Normandy: “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.” Planning is a dynamic, ongoing enterprise, not an occasional activity resulting in a static, printed plan that is likely to become obsolete soon after it is created. Planning is a process, while plans are tools—and no tool should ever be held in greater reverence than the process it supports.

Key elements to be evaluated as part of a strategic planning process should generally include:

  • Human, capital and financial resources, ensuring that the Board’s vision can be achieved without undue burden to the organization’s capital, financial or personnel assets; this may require identification, cultivation and solicitation of new donors, sponsors or grant-makers;
  • Physical needs and infrastructure, with emphasis on keeping an organization’s equipment and facilities up-to-date within a reality-based budgeting process, and on developing local solutions that consider best industry practices;
  • Services provided by the organization, with emphasis on the quality and quantity of services provided, recognizing opportunities to better serve constituents through new services, and equally recognizing when certain services have either run their course, or require a significant course correction to remain viable;
  • Contractual obligations and opportunities, keeping abreast of contract terms and conditions, working to schedule procurement actions as needed to ensure uninterrupted services, and also taking advantage of the sponsorship or philanthropic opportunities that arise as part of contractual negotiations;
  • Environmental and political ramifications of all the organization’s activities, considering how the organization may best support a sustainable, healthy community, linking all constituencies and stakeholders.

By undertaking an iterative, dynamic strategic planning process, nonprofit organizations can be reinvigorated and refocused on a shared, clearly-defined vision. With proper strategic planning, nonprofit organizations will be better able to serve their constituents in an era of rapid change in the charitable sector, ideally creating market opportunities where challenges and competitors once stood.

About J. Eric Smith
Executive Director, Salisbury House Foundation.

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