What makes something a “strategic” plan?

January 20, 2016

Filed under: Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 10:50 am

What do we mean by strategic planning in the nonprofit context?

In my mind, there are three key distinguishing characteristics.

First, it’s long term.  Certainly more than a year.  It might be as short as 2 years.  For most nonprofits, it generally runs 3-5 years, though I’ve heard of organizations with 10 year strategic plans.

Second, it embraces the entire organization, across functions   It covers your program (the ways you’re trying to change the world) and your institutional capacity.  One test to know if it’s comprehensive:  for any significant activity of the organization, you should be able to point to what part of the strategic plan that it fits within.

Third, it answers a series of big questions about the organization.  Put in the simplest terms these questions are:

  • Who we are?
  • Where do we want to go?
  • How do we get there?
  • How will we know if we’re successful?

That’s it.  I’ve seen strategic plans as short as 3 pages and as long as 50 that meet these tests.  What’s right for your organization, of course, depends on many factors.

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A goal is not an activity

November 24, 2014

Filed under: Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 3:59 pm

Public service announcement: A goal is not an activity, it’s an outcome.

The activity of educating people is not a goal.

More educated people could be a goal, with educating people (or more specifically classes, workshops, publications, etc.) the strategy achieve it.

Another example: Advocacy/lobbying is not a goal. Better public policies could be a goal, with advocacy/lobbying being the strategy to achieve it.

It shocks me sometimes how often people confuse the outcome they are seeking (the goal) with the activity to get there (the strategy).

End of PSA/rant.

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To follow your dreams, learn to say no

Filed under: Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 3:57 pm

Learning to say no is one of the most important skiils for any organizatonal leader or organization.

Oliver Bremerton recently wrote and illustrated a compelling explanation for how this plays at an individual level when it comes to following your personal dreams.

“Our brains behave like a beachball filled with bees. Hundreds of conflicting impulses, pushing us in different directions.”

Successful individuals (leaders, organizations, etc.) learn how to put aside the conflicing impulses and focus on the one, overriding “dream.”

Or in Bremerton’s words, “If you want to follow your dreams, you have to say no to all the alternatives.

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A riddle about 5 frogs – updated

July 11, 2014

Filed under: Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 3:31 pm

About 15 months ago I created a blog entry: 5 frogs sitting on a log. 

Here’s an updated version.

The riddle:

Five frogs are sitting on a log.  One decides to jump off.  How many frogs are left on the log?

The answer is five.  Deciding to jump off is not the same as jumping off, so all five are still on the log.

The five frogs are still sitting on a log.  One gets training on how to jump off.  How many frogs are left on the log?

Five, of course.  Being trained on somethings is no guarantee of action.

The five frogs are still sitting on a log.  One decides he’s a lily pad frog and not a tree frog, so he’ll jump off and onto a nearby lily pad.  He recently was trained on effective jumping.   He’ll jump at sundown.  He knows he’ll have been effective if he winds up on the lily pad.

In short, he knows who he is, where he wants to get to, how he’ll get there, and by when.

How many frogs are sitting on the log?

Of course, the answer is still 5.  But I’d venture to bet that the odds of it soon being four are very high indeed.

Although the parallels to nonprofit work are clear, I’ll hit you in the face with it:  An organizational strategic plan should answer who the organization is, where it wants to go, how it will get there, and how it will know if it’s successful.  In strategic planning terms, this is usually a combination of mission/vision, goals, strategies, and a timeline.

The best written strategic plan, even when combined with training, are no substitute for taking action.

But those who are trained and plan are far more likely to take action (and take it effectively) than those who are not.




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Why don’t groups do strategic planning

May 22, 2014

Filed under: Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 2:57 pm

Instead of thinking about all the reasons groups can benefit from strategic planning, a friend recently asked me: why do some groups fail to do strategic planning?

Here are the top reasons that have been shared with me.

1. Past planning processes are perceived as having failed to yield real benefits. This could be past planning by the organization in question or past planning by other organizations with which board members or staff have been involved.

2. They are too busy. Good planning takes time and some organizational leaders believe time taken up for strategic planning carries too high an opportunity cost.

3. Overconfidence. Some leaders are so confident of their ability to think through challenges on the fly that they just don’t see the benefit of thinking things through ahead of time.

4. Fractured leadership. Some organizational leaders are aware that they have deep schisms either on their board or between board and staff and feel like strategic planning might expose those schisms in an unhealthy way.

5. Not exciting. For some people, the thought of sitting in a room with others discussing strategy is worse than watching paint dry. They want to be “doers.”

For each of these, there are obviously rejoinders. But sometimes given where organizational leadership is, it may just be that it’s the wrong time or cast of characters to plan.

One lesson I’ve learned for certain: if the organization is doing planning to satisfy a funder, but doesn’t actually believe in the value of the planning process, the process will almost certainly fail.

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Connecting fiscal management to strategy

May 17, 2014

Filed under: Fundraising,Human Resources,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 9:14 am

I recently published a guest article for 501Commons on the importance of building a fiscal management system that connects with strategic decision-making.

The main point: you should track revenues and expenses by categories that provide information useful for strategic decision-making.  That means moving away from an exclusive focus on a “line item” approach that focuses on things like printing, postage, and salaries and also layers in a way of tracking by functional categories that represent your programs.

Check out the full article on 501Commons website and then let me know what you think.


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Have you sharpened your axe lately?

March 27, 2014

Filed under: Board Development,Fundraising,Human Resources,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 12:49 pm

A friend was recently describing to me a challenge he faced as a new board member of a relatively healthy organization, but one that seemed to have a frenetic culture.

He said the situation reminded him of an allegory a colleague once told him and I liked the story so much I’m repeating it here.  (If anyone knows the source of this allegory, please let me know).

Once upon a time, there was a logger who made their living cutting logs into firewood.  People kept coming to requesting work, so he got very busy.  He complained to his neighbor about how busy he was.

The next day, when he had a lot of wood to cut, the neighbor came by to observe his work and asked him why he didn’t stop to sharpen his axe. 

The woodsman replied: “Can’t you see I’m too busy to sharpen my axe?”

Of course, the moral of the story is that the woodsman would actually cut more wood in less time with a sharper axe.

This lesson applies to organizations and not just individuals.

I’ve known many nonprofit organizations with a culture of “getting it done” that are constantly overwhelmed with “stuff to do” so they never take the time to “sharpen their axe.”

In the organizational context, sharpening the axe can mean many things:

  • Professional development/training for staff and/or the board.
  • Strategic or other long-term or short-term planning
  • Team-building exercises/retreats

So organizational leaders out there as you plot the year ahead, don’t forget to build in multiple ways in which you’re sharpening the axe and not just swinging it.

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Evaluating on two levels

February 14, 2014

Filed under: Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 3:14 pm

When talking to organizations about evaluation, I often find myself explaining evaluation on two levels.

These levels ask two related, but different questions.

1.  Did the organization take the specific action steps called for in the Strategic Plan?

2.  Did the organization achieve the Objectives of the Strategic Plan?  This latter question doesn’t ask: did we do what we set out to do?   It asks the equally important question:  Did doing what we set out to do change the world in the way we hoped?

In evaluating whether Objectives were achieved, organizations need to take into account that some Objectives (eg. those related to fundraising) are easily quantified and thus easy to measure.  Other Objectives are more subjective and should be evaluated with the eye of a trial lawyer marshaling facts towards a conclusion.

There will be times when the organization does everything it set out to do, but intervening factors (e.g a recession) will prevent it from accomplishing its Objectives.  Conversely, sometimes organizations fail to implement their tactics, but nonetheless achieve their Objectives because intervening forces are in its favor.

In the end, both levels of evaluation are critical.  If you fail to determine if you did what you set out to do, an organization will develop a culture lacking in accountability.  But if you fail to ask the second question, you may congratulate yourselves on implementing your plan, but learn nothing of value to figuring out what you should be doing in the future.

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Thinking about triggers in work plans

June 19, 2013

Filed under: Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 2:02 pm

I’ve previously written about the importance of generating work plans once wrapping up strategic planning.

One of the most useful tools in a work plan is the concept of triggers.

Too often work plans focus on end products without thinking through what other steps must be completed before a specific tactic can be accomplished.

One of my clients this summer, for example, is using “tabling” at public fairs/festivals as a tactic for the first time.  The initial work plan simply said: identify two tabling opportunities, recruit 5 volunteers and table.  Of course, it soon became clear that this also meant developing the necessary materials, setting up new systems to identify/train volunteers, finding a table/chairs, designing/printing a banner, etc.

Another client recently discussed with me her experience putting together the organization’s first corporate sponsorship packages for an event.  Because no work planning had happened, she hadn’t identified the triggers that had to be done in advance of actually asking corporations to sponsor (updated materials, agreement upon sponsorship levels, relationship-building, etc.).   The process therefore took her considerably longer than they had anticipated.

Rather than just creating a to-do list, good work planning identifies the outcomes you want and then works backwards to identify all the triggers or precursors that must be accomplished along the way.    In addition to making sure steps are done in the right order, on time, making explicit all the triggering steps that must first be taken is essential to make sure the work plan is making realistic assumptions about how much staff time a project will take.

More than once I’ve watched organizations go awry when they fail to plan in this way and find themselves 2-3 weeks out from a major milestone scrambling because a trigger wasn’t taken into account.

Occasionally, there are brilliant people whose minds can do this all in their head.

But for mortals like me and you, putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard is an essential step to make sure the work gets done in the right order on the right timeline.

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What you call it doesn’t matter

Filed under: Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 1:49 pm

I was recently talking to someone who plays the staff role for a medium sized nonprofit organization.

She had raised the possibility of doing strategic planning with her boss and was told in no uncertain terms that their organization’s CEO was against strategic planning based on past negative experiences.

Yet, in her assessment the organization very much needed it.

My feedback to her is: it doesn’t matter what you call it.  So don’t call it strategic planning.

Instead, I recommended she suggest to her boss that they need to reach clarity on the organization’s identity (who they are, what they uniquely do) and business model (what they do, how they fund it), along with 3-4 long-term goals that everyone on staff can rally behind.

Rather than do a “planning retreat,” they can tackle these questions in much shorter, discrete meetings that involve a subset of the board/staff that then comes back with proposed answers.

Of course, in the end, if the CEO of the organization doesn’t want anything along these lines to happen, forcing it on them won’t accomplish anything.  But there are ways to bring along reluctant staff and board members to the idea that organizations with a strategy and with everyone rowing in the same direction are more likely to thrive than those that wing it.

You don’t have to call that strategic planning to make it work.

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