8 Signs You Need a New Strategic Plan

from Boardable contributor Dolph Goldenburg

A well-designed strategic plan is essential for any nonprofit that wants to enhance mission impact. It provides a framework for considering new opportunities and preparing for growth. It also builds greater accountability to your constituents, funders, board, and staff.

Building a strategic plan, however, requires careful analysis of programs, fundraising, finances, community needs, and emerging opportunities. To do this properly, the process demands significant staff, board, and financial resources for an extended period of time. Six to eight months is normal.

No organization should dedicate this level of resources to planning unless absolutely certain that it needs a new strategic plan. For this reason, I offer these eight signs that your nonprofit needs a new strategic plan:

1) You have no strategic plan.

According to research study “The Wake Up Call,” 11 percent of nonprofits do not have a written strategic plan approved by the board. If your organization lacks one and wants to remain relevant, you need to start developing it.

2) Your current strategic plan is outdated.

A plan prepared before 2015 is probably outdated. As a consultant, I often hear organizations say something like, “We have a strategic plan that the board approved seven years ago. We haven’t really implemented it and are going to begin implementing it instead of launching a planning process.”

When the organization approved this plan in 2011, it probably had different staff and board leadership. Programs have since evolved (or devolved). The organization’s strengths and challenges have changed. In short, many external variables are now completely different: the economy, government policy trends, community demographics, your competitors, and funders. That’s a lot of change in just a few years.

3) Your strategic plan does not support current grant writing and fundraising efforts.

A carefully developed strategic plan helps your organization write grant proposals. Specifically, it outlines the case for funding: the need for your programs, reasons for expansion or modifications, and anticipated outcomes. When writing grant proposals, your staff can copy, paste, and lightly modify information from the plan directly into the grant proposal.

The plan should also support the cultivation and solicitation of major donors. When meeting with donors about a specific program, you can show them how this program fits into the organization’s strategic plan, and then make the case for a larger gift this year.

You need a new strategic plan if the existing doesn’t support your fundraising—or worse, you’re embarrassed to share it with funders and donors.

4) Your board and staff structures can’t sustain the organization for the next five years.

Nonprofit leadership performance against strategic plan statistic

The best plans set goals for board and staff development. That helps ensure the organization’s infrastructure can support expected growth in programs and impact. This may include developing a transition plan, a more robust board recruitment campaign, and grooming current board and staff members to assume larger roles within the organization.

If your board and staff structures won’t sustain your organization in 2023, this represents a significant threat to the its survival. It’s time to respond to this threat with a thorough strategic planning process.

5) Your board and staff no longer refer to the strategic plan when making key decisions.

A plan guides an organization’s biggest decisions. Should it expand the development office? Explore a merge opportunity? Acquire the newly available space next door? Though the plan may not directly address each of these questions, it serves as a framework for considering them with one simple question: Will this contribute to achieving our plan?

All too often, however, a strategic plan sits on a shelf in the executive director’s office and gathers dust. Like plants and the truth, strategic plans die in the darkness, pushed further to the side as staff leadership changes or new board members join.

6) Your board is not in alignment with your mission.

If I get seven different answers when asking board members to describe mission, I know the board lacks alignment with the organization’s purpose. More troubling, the process of reaching agreement on the mission will likely modify the mission (and make the current plan irrelevant).  After all, a strategic plan is written to achieve a specific mission.

7) Your strategic plan does not describe your current programs and services.

When the board doesn’t use the plan as a decision-making tool (and when it lacks alignment with the mission), an organization’s programs may not resemble those outlined in the plan. In these situations, it’s best to ask, “Can we get back on track within the next 12 months, or should we begin a new planning process?”

8) Your organization is not prepared to address anticipated challenges and opportunities in the next year or two.

Do you anticipate a funding cut or new funding next year? Will your organization’s rent increase next year by 33 percent, but you don’t know where the funds will come from to pay for it? Do you anticipate a dramatic increase in consumer demand because of federal funding cuts?

These situations don’t come with simple or readily apparent answers. Therefore, they are often best addressed through a strategic planning process.

What to do if your nonprofit needs a new strategic plan

If your organization needs a new plan, but you don’t know where to start, check out my ongoing blog series on everything you want to know about strategic planning but are afraid to ask.

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