Strategic Planning for Life

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on October 13th, 2011 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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As the fourth anniversary of my mother’s death approached, I thought about all of the things that have transpired in that short span:  too many deaths in the family and too many diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses; a nice number of graduations, mostly happily employed grandchildren and a pending wedding.

A lot of momentous stuff, and absolutely none of it—unless you put graduations in this category—planned.  Oh, if we could only engage in strategic planning for our lives!  We could know what to do and what would be the result.  And we would know that the only thing between us and success was our willingness to follow the plan and do the work.  It would make life so easy!

That’s what strategic plans do:  they actually simplify our lives.  I didn’t say the planning process was simply; I’m not that naïve or deceitful.  The process can be a real bear.  But the end result?  That is what makes things so, so much better.

Our organizational strategic plan is coming to its natural end and we are about to create our next iteration.  And I could not be happier!  I am so, so desperate for it, I cannot put it into words.  For one thing, the process of creating that plan allows you to question all that you have been doing, both the what and the why.  In so doing, it is a huge organizational refresher, allowing you to get rid of the old that is no longer working, refresh what still is and, perhaps, add on more.

For another, a strategic plan reigns me in—and that is important for me and, more importantly, for the rest of the staff and The Nonprofit Center.  I’m great at coming up with ideas as to how we can deliver on our mission promises in ways that are even better than what we are currently doing.  I could shoot out a new idea a day if left to my own devices.  But that would drive staff members crazy.  Fortunately, when I fail to control myself and shoot an idea out there, they are very, very skilled at saying what a great idea but not for right now.  What a gift!  But it is a gift that I’d much rather need not accept because my idea generating can focus solely on helping us get where our plan wants us to go.

I wish everyone saw strategic planning as a gift—a gift they were giving themselves, staff, board, potential funders.  Then maybe everyone wouldn’t fight it so hard, run from it, and treat it as the plague instead of the cure.  Yet giving an organization and all of the people involved in making that organization successful a roadmap for the course of evolution of that organization over the next three is a huge gift—one of focus, design, efficiency, and effectiveness.  This is truly a gift that keeps on giving, as it makes everything—from what you should do today, next week, next month, next year–so clear.  It helps identify who you need where doing what and when.  It is almost the breadcrumbs that lead to funders’ doors and then, once there, takes them to the picture in which to invest.  It helps give everyone—even those who are not themselves big picture thinkers—a big picture in which to believe.  Powerful!

And, despite what I said above, the process of getting to a plan can be fun—or at least creative.  I often say that if you asked 10 consultants who do strategic planning with nonprofits how to do strategic planning, you would get 10 different ways.  And none of them is right or wrong, as long as the process contains some key components:

  • tapping the voices of your stakeholders, from clients to collaborators to competitors to funders;
  • doing an honest and thorough S(trengths)W(eaknesses)O(pportunities)T(hreats) analysis;
  • engaging all staff (though, depending upon organizational size, some staff may be engaged consistently and throughout while others may be engaged through surveys, focus groups, interviews;
  • pulling everything together into an actual plan so there is a document to follow;
  • and ensuring a budget that will provide for income to cover the cost of plan implementation.

Over the years, we’ve experimented with several different approaches and outcomes;  some were more enjoyable than others.  My least favorite, I confess, is the traditional course that leads to very well defined—for they must be measurable—goals.  My favorite—but I think the rest of staff’s least favorite—was the creation of BHAGs—those big, hairy audacious goals.  Not down to earth, granted; but totally, totally inspiring.  Not for everyone, clearly.  In the end, all methods lead to the same outcomes:  the group learns a lot about itself and its individual members and a common path for all to follow emerges.  What’s bad about that?

We shouldn’t avoid doing strategic planning; it is, after all, what is best for our organization and all of its people.  We should, however, not be constrained by the dictates of others and do it in a manner that fits the personality and culture of our organization.  Clara Barton said, “It irritates me to be told how things have always been done.  I defy the tyranny of precedent.  I go for anything new that might improve the past.”


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