Strategic Planning or Plugging Away?

The Benefits of a Strategic Plan for Nonprofit Organizations

There's a common theme when it comes to team building, board retreats, strategic planning and SWOT analyses in the nonprofit world: It would be nice to do, but who has the time or budget for that? When your primary concern as an organization is feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, or any other high-minded cause to better the community, it's easier to plug away at your mission than to hit pause for a strategic planning session.

Another reason organizations may ignore the importance of strategic planning is because they believe it has primarily to do with mission and vision planning. While it's true that those are traditionally important elements of strategic planning, it's certainly not the sole purpose or outcome of such activities.

Sue Waector,director of Cornerstone Consulting Associates and a great voice of best nonprofit management practices, blogged about several reasons why strategic planning is crucial for nonprofits. These activities can:


  • Help organizations prepare for the future: As the popular saying goes, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up someplace else.” A strategic plan outlines the steps to achieve a desired future for an organization. It is comforting for board, staff, and volunteers to have a roadmap to follow. The planning process prioritizes the work to be done. Strategic planning facilitates making short-term decisions based on long-term implications. Most important, a strategic plan provides a series of agreements about what needs to happen. It is a dynamic document that lending flexibility to the organization so that when change occurs, the plan can be adapted to accommodate the changes.

  • Promote effective stewardship: Practicing good stewardship means being accountable to others. In the case of charitable organizations, clients and funders of a nonprofit organization assume they will pay for services or donate money, respectively, to the organization, which will re-invest the revenues to address the social need. Similarly, association members and foundation board members and grantees assume that funds will be used for the greatest impact. Because strategic planning helps nonprofit organizations fulfill their missions, it also helps them be stewards of the public’s trust.

  • Align the board and staff: When there is shared purpose and direction (“we’re all in the same boat,”) there is the basis of a high-performance team. When individuals are focused on the same goal or outcome, they feel a certain amount of synergy and often set aside differences, help each other, and become invested in a common purpose. An organization’s mission cannot be achieved without board members and staff who agree on a common direction and are committed to achieving success for the organization.

So even if a nonprofit's staff, board, volunteers and other stakeholders all understand and are fully committed to the mission of the organization, any nonprofit can still benefit from the exercise.

Another element of strategic planning that is often ignored in nonprofits is the analysis that can happen centered around special events. While there's great debate in the nonprofit community right about the general effectiveness of fundraising events, the reality is that many nonprofits still host regular special events – whether for fund or friend raising. I believe these events can have their place in many organizations' development plans, particularly when analysis occurs afterward. A particularly useful tool in strategic planning that can be applied to event planning is a SWOT analysis. After an event is over – the sooner after the event, the better – staff and volunteers can examine the strengths and weaknesses of the event, as well as opportunities and threats. The critical thinking and conversations that occur with SWOT analysis can help improve future events, or in some cases, may tell an organization that the event is not serving the purpose it was intended to serve.

Does your organization believe in strategic planning or plugging away at the mission and daily activities that keep your services running? Which do you think is better? Are there organizations out there that wouldn't benefit from strategic planning or SWOT analysis?