4 Reasons Non-Profit Strategic Plans Fail (& 8 Steps to Ensure Success)
Many non-profit strategic plans fail. However, effective strategic planning – and execution – is critical to success.
This post describes four common reasons non-profit strategic plans fail, and eight steps you should take to make sure your strategic planning succeeds.
Non-Profit Strategic Plans Fail When They Aren’t Strategic
Strategic planning originated in the military. Exceptional military leaders developed broad strategies to accomplish a single, complex purposes, such as preserving security or winning a war. The strategic plan was the master plan for achieving that vision. Shorter-term operational plans, with intermediate goals such as battles they must win, positions they must retain, and resources they must have, helped them be successful.
In a non-profit context, strategic planning is similar. It starts with the organization’s vision, which is generally a big, hairy, audacious goal that will take dozens of years to accomplish. The strategic plan maps a strategy to reach the goal, and the business plan, marketing plan and other short-term plan outline out how the organization will make progress in the next three to five years.
And yet, in most non-profits, that isn’t how strategic planning works. Instead, they skip the war and focus exclusively on the battle.
Why does this happen? In my experience, the most common excuse is that the world changes too quickly to take a long-term view.
While the world does change quickly, many macro trends impacting non-profits and their success do not. When an organization focuses on the short-term or mid-term horizon rather than paying attention to long-term strategy, they may end up fighting short-term battles that aren’t as critical to winning the war.
Non-Profit Strategic Plans Fail Without Sufficient Resources
Many organizations do understand the need for strategic planning, but can’t pull together the time and talent required to make it happen.
Strategic planning requires a team of committed volunteers and/or staff who have both strong strategic thinking skills and the ability to drive the plan to a level of specificity that makes it operational. In addition, the team members must have a deep understanding of the environment in which the organization operates. If they don’t, the organization must invest in bringing those team members up to speed. Pulling together the right team is critical – and difficult.
The strategic planning process also requires a significant time investment from the executive and/or board leadership team. This is why many larger organizations hire external consultants to facilitate their strategic planning processes. Unfortunately, smaller organizations often lack both the funds to hire facilitators and the time at the board/professional staff level to make the process effective. As a result, the strategic planning process withers, yielding sub-par results.
Non-Profit Strategic Plans Fail When They Aren’t Executed
We all know of a strategic plan that gathered dust on a shelf after completion. Of all the reasons plans fail, this is undoubtedly the most common.
There are three major reasons strategic plans suffer this demise. First, strategic plans often lack detailed supporting plans. While long-term strategic plans are not detailed, the supporting operating plans and tactical plans must be. In other words, it’s not enough to say we will win the war against hunger by reducing agricultural inefficiencies in Africa. That must be followed up by a mid-term (business) plan that provides shorter-term, measurable goals. Strategic plans have little value without more detailed, short-term tactical plans.
The second common reason strategic plans fail in execution is turnover. In most non-profits, the strategic plan will be developed by a group of volunteers whose tenure on the board (or on committees) extends two or three years. This means that within three years, the strategic plan’s primary champions will have transitioned out of leadership or be in a minority position. Unless these individuals have done an exceptional job of communicating their vision – and passion – to the next group of leaders, the strategic plan will fade from view. New board members may consider their predecessors’ work to be irrelevant, or may simply not understand the background behind it. This is particularly common when the plan is a summary document without background information, when there is no paid staff, and when there is significant staff turnover.
The third common reason plans fail in execution is because they drift off track. Sometimes this is because a new staff member or board member takes on a project or tactic that is outside the scope of the plan, pulling it in another direction. Other times it is because the plan isn’t delivering the anticipated results quickly enough, and a board member suggests abandoning the plan in favor of another approach. Regardless of how the drift began, the impact is deadly.
Non-Profit Strategic Plans Fail When They Aren’t Flexible
Ironically, the fourth reason non-profit strategic plans fail is the reason that many plans never incorporate strategic thinking from the start: something changed and there was no flexibility in the plan.
Smart strategic thinkers don’t pick a strategy that has a 5% chance of winning and expect everything to fall in line. They pick a broader strategy that has a 95% chance of winning, and craft several shorter-term plans to get there.
Your strategic plan, the long-term one that describes how you will achieve your vision, should have a strong chance of success. The business plan you create to sustain that strategic plan over the next three to five years should also have a strong chance of success. It should also have backup plans.
Unfortunately, what happens more frequently is that an organization identifies a strategy and develops a single business plan. Then, when the organization loses some major battle within that plan, the entire plan is tossed out.
How to Ensure Your Strategic Plan Succeeds
Strategic planning is critical to not-for-profit success. It ensures that you are tackling the right challenges now in order to achieve your long-term vision, and helps avoid challenges that could have been anticipated. Reflecting on the broader context in which an organization operates also helps the organization take advantage of opportunities it might otherwise miss. To make sure your strategic planning process produces an effective plan, take the following steps:
1. Abandon the words “strategic planning.”
Strategic planning is so frequently misused as to make it irrelevant as a term. Instead, focus on incorporating strategic thinking into all of your long-term planning.
2. Choose the right team.
Look for people who have natural strategic insight, people who can drive vision into detailed plans, and people who are very familiar with the environment in which you operate. You probably won’t find all of these traits in a single person, but you will need all of them on your team.
3. Dedicate the time required.
Bringing your team up to speed on the environment in which your organization operates. This is time-consuming, but it is critical if you plan to evaluate your mission and vision, and your primary strategies to accomplish them.
4. Confirm your strategy periodically.
Long-term strategies should not change frequently, just as your vision and mission should not. However, you should revisit your long-term plan every time you refine your mid-term business plans. In general, this means revisiting your strategy every three to five years.
5. Develop detailed mid-term and short-term plans.
The shorter the time frame, the more detailed these should be. They should include specific metrics for measuring progress and evaluating completion. They should also include the name of the person or team responsible for implementation.
6. Ensure short-term tactics are aligned with the long-term strategy.
Short-term tactics support mid-term plans. Mid-term plans support the long-term strategies. To prevent plans from drifting off track, greet new initiatives with two questions. First, “Does the activity fit into the plan?” And second, “Is it aligned with the long-term strategy?”
7. Build in flexibility.
As you develop mid-term plans, in particular, include a backup plan. If you are wildly successful and have extra funds, how will you spend them? What will you do if something you are counting on fails?
8. Stay focused.
Make sure your on-boarding process delivers a thorough understanding of your organization’s strategy and plans for execution. Use dashboards and other tools to make tracking progress easier, and make it obvious when the plan is off track.
Share Your Experience
What is your experience with strategic planning? Have you found an approach that works particularly well? If you worked on a planning process that failed, what could you have done differently?
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