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To Plan or Not to Plan

Sometimes taking the time to plan is the right thing to do.  Sometimes it is better to experiment and learn.

The vast majority of the time nonprofit boards should be creating plans and setting goals.  The rest of the time they should be reviewing the progress the staff makes executing the plans.  The primary purpose of the board’s planning is to set long-term (5 years or more) direction for the staff.

Some will think that creating a strategic plan and a long-term financial plan can be done quickly.  As a result, they wonder what the board will do with the rest of its time.  Strategic plans are easy to write.  However, before creating relevant and practical plans the board must do significant research, create and analyze a variety of trends, and cast a vision for your nonprofit, your clients, and your community.  In addition, the board must create plans to resource and fund the strategic plan.  Once the draft plan is available, it must be circulated for review by stakeholders, especially donors since they are the ones who will be asked to fund it.  After that, it is easy to revise and publish the final plan.  Annually, it is necessary to review, revise, and recirculate the plan.

The reason many think that strategic and long-term planning is quick and easy is because plan creation is often compressed into a weekend retreat.  Those plans are typically incomplete, impractical, and never gain sufficient support to ensure their execution.  As a result, strategic planning is usually an exercise to satisfy an external demand, usually a funding source or accreditation.

There are typically two reasons for the staff to create a plan.  One is to polish the planning skills of the staff or certain staff members.  The other is to ensure the successful management of a large, complex, time consuming, resource intensive, or expensive activity.  For the staff, planning reduces risk and increases the potential for success.  Since its value to the nonprofit is less than the effort required to create it, it is a drain on resources.  That lowers the sustainability of the nonprofit rather than potentially creating a competitive advantage and enhancing the value to its clients and community.

The rest of the time, the staff is better off taking risks.  The staff should use each opportunity to experiment and learn.  After a few months, an operational plan becomes a standard process and the plan is the checklist of activities.  In a few more months, it becomes a way of doing business.  After that, it becomes stale.  In a rapidly changing society, its relevance is diminishing, which is a drag on the sustainability of the nonprofit.  The only way out of this cycle of decline is to experiment to find a new way forward.

The primary goal of each experiment should be to enhance the value of the mission statement to the clients and community.  Ideally, each experiment will produce more meaningful, measurable, and durable results and outcomes.  The success of each experiment should be judged by the value of what is learned.  The value  can only be judged by the impact the knowledge has on your clients, results, outcomes, and your nonprofit’s sustainability.  Over time, you will discover that the value of what is learned far exceeds the cost of the infrequent ‘failed’ experiments.

Next Step:

Ask your board to create a strategic plan and the subordinate plans necessary to ensure successful implementation

Measure the success and value of the strategic plan based upon how many goals are reached over the life of the plan

Encourage the staff to experiment and learn more than plan

Use the continuing relevance of your programing, improving results and outcomes, and growing donor support as success indicators for your experimentation and learning

It will adversely impact your nonprofit if the staff is involved in the strategic planning beyond being a knowledgeable advisor to the planning process.  The drain on staff resources will reduce the staff’s ability to effectively serve clients and donors.  The more the staff is involved, the less ownership the board will feel in the plan.  Success depends on the full commitment and support of the board.

A high level of sustainability and all that that implies (steady growth, financial strength, loyal and generous donors, a growing reputation, a durable competitive advantage, increasing community support, etc.) is a collateral benefit of a carefully crafted strategic plan and a staff that feels empowered to experiment and learn.

Your nonprofit deserves everything a strategic plan has to offer your mission and your clients.

Your clients deserve the benefits created by continuous experimentation.

Take It Further:

Ask your board to give your staff permission to experiment

Ask you board to make planning a priority

Meld the diversity of your staff and board to create more effective plans

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