How to Prioritize Your Nonprofit Planning Goals

Gaining alignment for your nonprofit’s marketing, fundraising or strategic plan goals (which we call pillars) starts with how you structure your process to include all of your organization’s diverse stakeholders. Then, you must work together to answer the following questions:

  1. What do your stakeholders perceive as the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats for your department (in the case of marketing and fundraising) or organization (in the case of strategic planning)? 
  2. How are you positioned against your comparators? How are you similar or different and where are their opportunities to introduce new strategies for differentiation or collaboration?
  3. What is happening in your subsector and the ecosystem at large that you need to respond to?

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Clarify your nonprofit planning pillars by engaging stakeholders

As with any sound strategy process, you’ll want to start by engaging your stakeholders, which is the goal of answering question one. Let’s explore how to do this, along with how to go about answering questions two and three – this process and the answers to these questions, when put together, will help to uncover your nonprofit’s planning priorities.

Plans you can apply this process to include:

  • Strategic planning
  • Marketing planning
  • Marketing campaigns
  • Fundraising planning
  • Fundraising campaigns
  • Message development
  • Nonprofit rebrands

To ensure successful planning, we recommend putting together a primary planning committee, which is made up of nonprofit staff dedicated to making strategic decisions in the planning process as well as executing the plan once complete. It’s this group that is responsible for gathering the inputs necessary to answer the following questions and seeing your nonprofit’s plan through to fruition.

1) What do your stakeholders perceive as the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats for your department or organization? 

To answer this question, the primary planning committee first needs to think about how your stakeholders need to be involved in the process to garner the inputs you need. You’ll want to ensure you hear the perspectives of your staff, the relevant board committee (ex. your strategic plan committee), your full board and, of course, your beneficiaries, among others. 

You can use surveys, interviews and/or listening sessions to ask each one of these audiences about their perceived strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT). While for strategic planning, your stakeholders will be thinking about the SWOT in terms of your entire organization, for marketing and fundraising, they’ll be providing their perspectives as they relate specifically to those areas of work.

SWOT analysis

When your surveys, interviews and/or listening sessions are complete, you can compile the key trends and themes you heard about from your stakeholders into a SWOT. These findings will later be used to cross compare with what you find when answering the next two questions. This will lay the groundwork for evidencing themes that need to be explored in your nonprofit’s planning process (and could later become pillars if they are deemed a priority).

2) How are you positioned against your comparators?

Here, your primary planning committee should agree on who your nonprofit’s comparators are. Typically it is good to identify three to five other nonprofits. Then, you should conduct a thorough review of each. If you’re strategic planning, you’ll want to understand their organization and staff size, budget, geography and target audiences served, programs, etc. If you’re developing a marketing plan, you’ll want to review their messaging, websites, social media channels, media coverage and the like. Finally, if you’re fundraising, you’ll want to take a look at their organization’s budget, revenue streams, annual report, case for support and any available fundraising materials/campaigns. 

Across the comparator assessment, you’re looking for information about how your nonprofit is similar or different, where there might be areas for collaboration but also areas of opportunity where you can differentiate or provide services that might be missing. This analysis can be especially telling if the areas that were identified as strengths or opportunities in your SWOT also evidence themselves as opportunities in the comparator analysis.

3) What is happening in your subsector and the ecosystem at large?

You may already have a good grasp on what’s going on in your subsector, but you’ll want to capture this information so it can easily be shared with your primary planning committee, your board committee, etc. so everyone is operating with the same information at hand. You can also go deeper and take some time to conduct research. This can range from reviewing studies and white papers. For example, if you’re developing a fundraising plan, you might review Giving USA’s Annual Report to better understand giving trends. You can also review relevant industry publications such as Nonprofit Quarterly, Chronicle of Philanthropy or Stanford Social Innovation Review for trends in the nonprofit space.

This research can illuminate areas of common challenges and opportunities for your subsector and provide the primary planning committee with ideas regarding potential future strategies.

Gaining alignment on your nonprofit plan pillars

So what does answering these questions have to do with gaining alignment and identifying your plan pillars?

First of all, answering these questions (and the process for doing so) has given you the first opportunity during planning to hear from your nonprofit’s stakeholders, which has also helped them feel included in the initial part of shaping your marketing, fundraising or strategic plan. Creating an inclusive process goes a long way in helping you build alignment. 

Second, the primary planning committee should be starting to see some key themes emerge. For example, you may have heard from many of your stakeholders that it’s time for your organization to get serious about growing. Put this together with an ecosystem assessment that shows the need for your programs has never been greater and the comparator assessment that shows there is no other organization addressing the same specific needs that you are. This could be one of many example trends that is likely to come out of answering the three questions outlined above. 

Take some time to identify as many trends as you can and begin to articulate them, so they can easily be shared with your stakeholder groups. 

Example trends you might see emerge:

  • Growth
  • Funding diversification
  • Thought leadership
  • Diversity, equity and inclusion
  • Agency culture
  • Brand awareness
  • Brand reach
  • Donor retention

Typically at this juncture, your planning team can identify anywhere between 8-10 trends or themes, regardless of the type of plan you are building together.

Prioritizing your nonprofit plan pillars with the primary planning committee

Once you’ve identified as many trends or themes as possible, the primary planning committee now needs to identify which ones elevate to the level of a nonprofit plan pillar. Remember, your nonprofit plan pillars are the big picture themes around which a nonprofit’s marketing, fundraising or strategic plan are centered. 

This is where some planning groups tend to get stuck in the status quo and want to prioritize things that are already happening or should already be happening as part of their day-to-day work. Save those things for your activity plans and tactical calendars, which come later in the process. Instead, use your nonprofit plan pillars to think audaciously about what you need to do to move your department or nonprofit forward. If you really feel challenged about what your priorities should be, consider using a tool like the Eisenhower Matrix to facilitate a discussion.

Check your priorities with your nonprofit’s stakeholders before finalizing

Congratulations, you think you’ve landed on your most important plan pillars. This is great, however, the best plans and strategies aren’t created in a vacuum. Inevitably, as your team begins to put shape to your nonprofit plan pillars, questions will come up where you could use outside perspective. You received stakeholder inputs at the beginning of the process, and it’s a best practice to garner more input before finalizing your nonprofit plan pillars. 

This is a great time to, again, use surveys or listening sessions to introduce your stakeholders to your proposed nonprofit plan pillars and then ask them for specific feedback. Make time to hear your stakeholder’s thoughts, and ask three to five very specific questions, so you get the feedback you need to finalize your nonprofit plan pillars.

Finalize your nonprofit plan pillars

Following feedback from all of your stakeholder groups, you can now move on to complete your nonprofit plan pillars, feeling confident they are well researched and also vetted by those who matter most to your nonprofit’s mission. This process will help to create alignment and support of your nonprofit’s most audacious goals.