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  • Dr. Ken Thiessen

A Nonprofit's Obstacles To Strategic Planning. Real or Imagined?


If the statistic that 75% of nonprofit organizations do not have a strategic plan is indeed accurate, why is that? What are some of the obstacles that perpetuate the statistic, or cause it to grow? Why is it that so many passionate, committed employees and board members of worthy nonprofit organizations are content to be a part of the majority, even when they realize it’s not a good thing?

As I interact with executive team leaders of nonprofit organizations I hear some similar refrains irrespective of the size, organizational focus, program and service delivery model, or values orientation.

Where and How Do We Start?

The first obstacle is rooted in a lack of awareness of how to initiate and execute a strategic planning process. Most key stakeholders in any nonprofit got involved because there was a compelling and inspiring vision for a cause they cared deeply about. They signed on to do their part to see that vision implemented and realized. There may have been a loosely sketched plan, but in the early stages it was all about getting the organization operational. Before they knew it, the business of the organization became the “busyness” of the organization. Operational realities dictated day to day energy and focus.

Lack of awareness is a real challenge. You may not know how to initiate and structure a strategic planning process. However, you are not limited to the intellectual capital resident in your organization. There are consultants who understand the world of nonprofits and the strategic planning process who could facilitate a process.

We Don’t Have The Time

As I talk to organizations that are willing to address the first challenge and explore what a strategic planning process might look like, a second obstacle surfaces. They quickly realize it will require staff and board buy-in and commitment. The all too common refrain is, “We’ve got too much on the go right now. We don’t have the time.” There is no question they are busy people. But the bigger question is this: “Are they busy doing the right things right in their organization?” How would they know? I have rarely encountered an organization without a strategic plan that was so aligned organizationally that all of their collective energies were directed to their highest priority programs and services.

Is the time obstacle real? Sure it is. However, what if the first part of engaging a strategic planning process began with a ruthless assessment of the “To Do” list dictating the executive leadership team’s time and energy? Might they be better served to develop a “To NOT Do!” list in order to free up some valuable time to thoroughly engage a strategic planning process to develop a more intentional and aligned strategic framework to guide their activities.

We Don’t Have The Money

The third obstacle that rears its ugly head is the issue of money. Few nonprofit organizations are so flush with cash that they have difficulty deciding where and how to allocate those funds. Recognizing the need for external resources to facilitate the strategic planning process, the immediate, response or resignation is, “We can’t afford it! We don’t have the budget for it!”

Is that a real challenge? Absolutely, if you only look at the current reality. But perhaps the question ought to framed differently. Perhaps the deeper question ought to be, “Can we afford NOT to do it?” How much money is being allocated to programs and services which may not serve the core beneficiaries and core purpose of the organization? How many potential donors sit on the sidelines because there is no clear, compelling strategic message to ignite their passion and inspire their philanthropic motivations?

Here’s another point to consider. If the “business” of your organization is more about “busyness” than it is about strategic alignment and focus, what’s that costing you in terms of actual dollars?

It’s Not Spiritual Enough

There’s a fourth obstacle I encounter when working with faith-based nonprofits and that’s the spiritual component. I will regularly hear comments like, “It’s got too much of a business perspective” and, “Where does God fit into this?” If your nonprofit is inspired by a divine calling, could there be anything more important than being diligent and responsible with the human component, ensuring that what you do as human agents in the process doesn’t make God’s job more difficult?

A Different Way

I’m a member of a local service club. Our club each year supports a variety of worthy charitable causes. As a new board member, I suggested an alternate approach to supporting one particular charity. In the past we had taken money from our existing budget to give to this particular charity. I suggested we challenge our members to either commit to a personal donation, or engage work colleagues, family and friends who were not currently a part of our service club to donate to this particular cause. I set a challenge goal of 2 1/2 times our previous year’s support,. This would be new, found money, not money from our existing budget. I was cautioned by other board members not to expect too much, but I was undaunted. I presented the challenge to our club, shared the vision of the particular charity, and with one simple challenge we currently have commitments for 3 1/2 times our previous commitments, and are on our way to a 5-fold increase! That is all “new” money that was waiting for a cause to support! That illustrates the power of strategic alignment and focus!

I suspect there’s a similar story waiting to be written and told in your organization too. Are your obstacles real or imagined? Most often they’re real. But just because they’re real doesn’t mean they’re immovable roadblocks. Usually there’s a way around, over, or through the obstacle. The bigger question is this: Who will be the courageous and visionary person to step out of the comfort zone of what you’ve always done and suggest a different way? Will your executive leadership team have the vision, courage, discipline, commitment, and political will to make it happen? Will you as a member of that team be the one to lead the charge? What stands in your way?


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