Why Most Nonprofit Strategic Plans are Neither Strategic Nor a Plan

Updated: May 15, 2019

A coffee meeting with a nonprofit leader in my city recently prompted the thought process leading up to this blog post.

The CEO of a new nonprofit organization, the organization’s board had engaged a well known national consulting group to lead them through a strategic planning process. As we were talking over coffee about the process they had just been through the CEO blurted out, “Ken I got nothing for all the money we paid! I have no idea what to do with the plan they developed.”

I wish I could say this was a one off experience in my work with nonprofits but it’s not. It occurs far more frequently than what you might expect. And it happens with large, reputable consulting companies who’s reputation precedes them, consulting firms that you you would expect to deliver more tangible, actionable benefit to their clients when they’ve been contracted to facilitate a strategic planning process, especially given the fees they charge these organizations.

A Flowery Mission and Vision Statement Does Not Qualify As a Credible Strategic Plan

I’ve seen some of the strategic plans that these large consulting groups have developed for and with their clients and I’ve been told how much these nonprofit organizations paid for their services which I found astounding. What they got in return for their investment of time and money was a flowery mission statement, an equally flowery vision statement. They might even have a few standard, albeit generic core values. Sometimes they’ll get a few very vague priorities - i.e. “building capacity in the community so they can develop, grow, and maintain their programs, Reducing barriers to service in the community, facilitate access to global programs and services.”

These are not hypothetical examples. They’re taken verbatim from a strategic plan coming out of a process I just described. What is completely lacking is any kind of a specific operational plan with clearly outlined metrics to help this organization measure whether or not they’re actually making substantive progress towards implementation of their priorities and achieving their desired impact. These plans are most often neither strategic or a plan. They fail to answer the question, “How are we going to do this?” What are the specific outcomes we hope to accomplish?” Why does this matter? “How will this help us get from where we are to where we’ve agreed we want to be in 5-10 years?” That’s if they’ve even taken the time to ask that question. And most importantly they fail to identify, “Who’s going to own each of the priorities?" and, “Who’s going to do what, by when, to take this plan from idea to implementation?”

Wrong Answer to the Right Questions is Far Better than the Right Answer to the Wrong Questions

Jim Collins says that one of the key differentiators between the good and great companies who were the focus of his research is that when it came to their strategic process for the great companies, their strategic process was more about a search for the right questions than a search for the right answers. Too often the kinds of strategic planning processes I’m talking about are focused on looking for the right answers rather than engaging strategic thinking to discover the right questions. As a result they come up with answers to the wrong questions which ultimately aren’t strategic or helpful to the organization or the people they’re trying to serve.

Someone has said, “A strategy, even a great one, doesn’t implement itself.”

Sun Tzu said, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” I would contend that a strategy without tactics is not even a slow route to victory, but a guaranteed route to status quo and failure

Results and Outcomes Matter

“However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results” – Sir Winston Churchill Results and outcomes are really the bottom line metric that measure the quality the organization’s strategic plan, not the flowery mission statement or equally flowery vision statement. If what you call your strategic plan doesn’t shape your day to day operations and the DNA of your organization you’ve wasted everyone’s time and the organization’s money to develop what you call a “strategic plan”.

I was speaking with a coaching colleague of mine recently who told me about an organization that had reached out to him for assistance in their strategic planning process because the plan that was developed in a process led by another consulting firm had yielded no positive impact on the organization. They had paid $200,000 for a strategic planning process that had zero impact on the organization! I don’t know about you but I would consider that professional malpractice on the part of the consulting firm.

I’m aware of a large service club that had the kind of strategic plan that I’ve talked about here. Their chief strategy officer was asked for his assessment of their strategic plan. His response was priceless, “It’s a vision without a plan!” He had been hired to help the organization develop a vision WITH a plan.

Some questions for your consideration

  1. Does your organization have a strategic plan?

  2. Does it have clearly identified priorities with tangible, measurable outcomes?

  3. Is it driving your day to day operations and leade