3 Keys for Nonprofit Strategic Planning Now

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By Renee Rubin Ross

It feels challenging to plan at a time of so much uncertainty.

We may all feel like burying our heads in the sand and waiting for someone to yell, “The pandemic is over!”

But because of the shifts of the pandemic, many nonprofit organizations are creating strategic plans. The following organization names and identifying details have been changed to protect their confidentiality.

  • For San Francisco Community Services, a relatively new community-based organization focused on racial justice, the past two years have led to increased community need as well as a significant expansion in individual and institutional fundraising.
  • For The Junction, a multi-generational spiritual community, the pandemic aggravated a downward trend in membership, leading to the need to find new strategies for sustainability.
  • For The Senior Center, a nonprofit assisted living facility, the increased costs of running the facility during the pandemic and challenges of recruiting residents for congregant living at this time have led to questions about organizational structure and a desire to build a new strategic plan.

Here are three key principles that should guide strategic planning work now:

1. Use an Analysis of Organizational Lifecycle To Guide the Process

In her book “Nonprofit Lifecycles: Stage-based Wisdom for Nonprofit Capacity,” Susan Kenny Stevens shares a powerful path of stages that organizations may move through, from idea, startup, growth, maturity, decline, turnaround, to terminal.

Since each of these organizations is in a different place in the lifecycle, they each have different needs. San Francisco Community Services is navigating the transition from growth to maturity, needing to build internal systems to ensure that the work is sustainable for all staff members. The Junction has hit a time of decline; organizational leaders need to have the hard conversation about whether the mission is still compelling. And for The Senior Center, solidly in maturity, the focus is on documenting current and past strategies to determine whether they are still compelling in the current environment.

2. Look Carefully at Budget Trends and Assumptions

Financial analysis should always be part of strategic planning; organizations should especially focus on sources of revenue and spending as well as budget changes over time. Over the past two years, we’ve seen dramatic fluctuations from pre-pandemic budgets. These fluctuations underline the importance of examining funding sources and understanding the assumptions behind future projections.

For example, San Francisco Community Services doubled their individual fundraising during the pandemic, which gave the organization increased financial flexibility — but individual contributions are unlikely to double again! As we built the next strategic plan, the leadership team created a few different scenarios for the budget in the coming year that would enable a few different staffing models.

3. Focus on Building an Inclusive, Participatory Organizational Culture

We’ve heard a lot about the Great Resignation and staffing challenges. To retain staff, leaders should work toward strengthening organizational culture, building the emotional intelligence of the board and staff teams so each nonprofit feels like a good place to work. There are many ways to incorporate this culture work into the planning process — from team assessments to visioning to building in time for community-building.

Staff members of San Francisco Community Services each took the CliftonStrengths and then talked about how team members’ strengths support each other, where there might be holes, and what actions the group could take to collaborate better. On the other hand, The Junction brought a focus on inclusivity to planning; a key part of their work was increasing organizational transparency in order to empower leaders to determine appropriate actions toward sustainability. For all organizations, creating organizational values talking about the challenges of living up to these values can be another way to build alignment and strengthen culture.

Planning right now is not easy. January is a time for organizations and people to reset. Though many may not admit to applying New Year’s Resolutions, they inevitably happen. And organizations often wait until this time of year to plan for the year, especially if their fiscal year is aligned with the calendar year. Coming back from the end-of-year holidays and travel ramps up quickly. The immediate needs tend to trump the much-needed time spent to plan, which is problematic for reviewing and establishing organizational strategies and setting priorities. We may feel that we cannot plan.

Perhaps, this uncertain time has something important to teach: planning isn’t about searching for solutions from “on high.” It’s about drawing on the wisdom of the people closest to the problems, who will be working on solving them, to create strategies that will enable our communities and organizations to keep moving forward through the challenges. From that perspective, there’s no better time to start.

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