How Not-for-Profits Can Use Strategic Planning During Times of Change

Not-for-profit organizations face unique challenges when confronted with consistent change. While their primary mission may remain constant, the methods to achieve goals must adapt in order to remain effective in an evolving landscape.

Because strategic plans typically cover a multi-year period—usually between three to five years—many leaders within the not-for-profit space have begun questioning whether it makes sense to invest in this type of long-range planning when it can feel like every day brings an entirely new challenge. However, well-designed and thoughtfully implemented plans can be a critical support for not-for-profits during turbulent times.

Explore methods to implement strategic plans, how to keep plans fresh, and more to help your organization remain agile and responsive to unexpected events.

How Strategic Plans Support Organizations

Strategic plans serve as crucial roadmaps, guiding organizations’ efforts toward achieving long-term impacts. Their primary purpose is to provide a clear framework that outlines the organization's mission, vision, values, goals, and actions needed to fulfill its purpose effectively.

Robust strategic plans can empower not-for-profit leaders to make informed decisions, allocate resources efficiently, and prioritize initiatives that align with the organization’s core values. Moreover, they foster transparency, accountability, and the ability to adapt to evolving circumstances, enabling not-for-profits to better serve their communities and stakeholders.

Strategic plans typically contain the following elements:

  • Vision. A clear statement that captures the organization’s future aspirations for its stakeholders or community and describes the desired long-term results of the organization’s efforts.
  • Mission. A concise statement of the organization’s purpose and its role in the community.
  • Goals and objectives. Desired end results that the organization will work toward to fulfill its mission and pursue its vision.
  • Actions and strategies. Specific, measurable steps that the organization will take to achieve its goals and objectives.
  • Performance measures. The metrics by which organizational leaders and stakeholders will determine whether the organization is progressing toward and accomplishing its goals.

How to Use Strategic Plans to Anticipate and Respond to Change

While strategic plans have garnered a negative reputation within some organizations as being a static, inflexible, and impractical tool, the process and contents of a strategic plan can be an excellent way to both anticipate and respond to emergent issues.

Clarify Purpose

A strategic plan should provide a clear description of the core purpose of the organization. Having a bright North Star can keep everyone aligned and focused on the organization’s most important core objectives—even as the operating environment may be rapidly changing.

Identify Upcoming Issues

When developing a strategic plan, most organizations will conduct some version of a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) assessment. A SWOT analysis helps organizations gain a comprehensive understanding of their current position and the broader context in which they operate.

In terms of anticipating change, this type of analysis can also flag potential issues or threats that are on the horizon.

Understand the Core Needs of Your Constituents

By conducting active stakeholder engagement during the strategic planning process, not-for-profit organizations can gain critical feedback on the core needs of constituents and stakeholders.

Even if the organization is not currently equipped to meet all needs, this information can help inform decision-making—for example, this data can help a leadership team quickly determine which programs to cut or expand in the event of a sudden reduction or influx of funding.

Enhance Donor and Partner Trust

Reporting on progress toward strategic plan goals and intended impact can be a strong method for demonstrating accountability and building trust with donors and partners in the process.

By creating a firm foundation of transparency and trust, not-for-profit organizations can better withstand unexpected challenges and have a higher likelihood of being able to call upon key partners in times of need.

Track Progress

High-quality strategic plans incorporate key performance measures or other indicators to measure progress toward goals. By regularly reviewing performance measures, not-for-profit organizations can more closely track organizational progress and quickly identify potential operational trouble spots. In this way, the strategic plan reporting can be a useful tool for early identification of issues and opportunities.

Develop Assessment Framework

The foundation elements of a strategic plan—namely the mission, vision, and value statements—provide both the basis on which the rest of the plan should be built and can serve as a decision-making framework to evaluate future or nascent initiatives.

For example, potential new activities can be assessed across the following dimensions:

  • Will this initiative support our long-term vision for the community?
  • Is this initiative aligned with our organization’s mission and scope, or would it be better handled by a different party?
  • Does this initiative align with the values of our organization?

How to Keep Your Strategic Plan Fresh

To prevent a strategic plan from becoming stale over time, there are two major activities that organizations can undertake: annual priority setting and regular revitalization.

Annual Priority Setting

Within the overarching direction set by the strategic plan, it is best practice for the management team to develop annual operating plans for each department or major function.

A common process to create these types of plans includes:

  • Each year, the management team reviews the strategic plan and selects specific objectives and actions within the plan that they believe will be critical to focus on for the upcoming year.
  • Priorities are then presented to the board or governing body for review, feedback, and approval.
  • The management team then develops a high-level implementation plan to identify specific actions, timelines, and responsible parties. This work should be aligned with the budget development process.
  • The management team reports on progress to the board or governing body at year-end.

This process to select and prioritize work for the upcoming fiscal year ensures that work is both guided by long-term strategies and responsive to emergent needs.

Regular Revitalization

A strategic plan shouldn’t be a rigid document, but a dynamic tool that allows for adjustments in response to changing circumstances.

While a strategic plan should be reviewed annually, full-scale revisions to the plan will likely happen on a less frequent basis. The frequency of needed revisions to the strategic plan depends on the volatility of the organization’s environment.

Many not-for-profit organizations keep their strategic plans intact for the full plan period and only revise when they develop their next plan. For other organizations, they may choose to conduct interim revisions to the plan more frequently, every one to three years, if internal or external circumstances have had significant impacts on specific programs or service delivery.

As there is no set industry standard for when to revise strategic plans, some organizations’ leadership teams review their operating environment each year to determine if a revision will be necessary and/or establish a set timeline (for example, every three years) for this work.

Revitalization does not usually entail a full re-write of the strategic plan, but typically involves these steps:

  • Assess the current strategic plan by evaluating the progress made toward achieving the plan's objectives.
  • Identify any major shifts in the external and internal environment. This includes examining changes in the market, regulatory landscape, technology, and any other factors that may impact the organization.
  • Develop any needed additional goals or objectives to account for shifts.

We’re Here to Help

To learn more about developing practical and actionable strategic plans, please contact your Moss Adams professional. You can also visit our Not-for-Profit Practice for additional resources.

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