How to Prepare for Your Nonprofit’s Best Strategic Planning Process Ever

5 min read

When approaching strategic planning, many organizations are eager to put pen to paper on the document that will chart the course for their nonprofit’s future for at least the next year, and in many cases much longer than that. And, while it’s nice to start with ideas in mind, there’s some important due diligence nonprofits need to do to ensure their plans are as effective as possible, and won’t become outdated overnight. 

When just starting out on your strategic planning process, it’s important to remember that your strategic plan is so much more than words on a page. There are some fundamentals your team should have in place to set your organization up for your success with strategic planning today and into the future.

Choose a Team for Your Strategic Planning Process

Every organization that’s embarking on strategic planning should develop a strategic planning team. Typically, this team includes: 

  • your executive director or CEO
  • the people chiefly responsible for your operations, programs, fundraising and marketing
  • one to two members of your board of directors

Identify these individuals at the beginning of the strategic planning process. Every member of the strategic planning team should commit to being involved at every stage of your plan’s development.

Conduct an Organization Assessment

Then, start the strategic planning process with a thorough assessment of your current organization. We recommend identifying and documenting your nonprofit’s programs, who you serve (and who you don’t), where you serve them, key revenue and funding sources and anything else that paints a picture of where your organization is today. This information grounds the strategic planning team in the current realities of your nonprofit, and ensures you’re all working off of the same information.

In addition to your organization assessment, we recommend conducting a financial assessment, which breaks down your key sources of revenue organization-wide and program-by-program. It’s important to look at the previous fiscal year as well as your current fiscal year. Be sure to note things such as why funding may have changed from last year to this year or what you anticipate from this funding source in the next fiscal year.

Perform an Ecosystem Assessment

Following your organization assessment, you’ll conduct an ecosystem assessment. Here, you’ll identify 3-5 “comparator” organizations or nonprofits that provide similarly aligned services. Then, conduct research on each one using their website, media articles, LinkedIn profiles and other publicly available information. Through this research, you’ll want to get a sense of how they are similar or different from your nonprofit in terms of size, individuals they serve, where they serve them, the programs they offer and how they are funded. Later in your planning, you’ll use this information to differentiate your organization from others in your space, and also to identify areas where you may be able to collaborate or partner with others to enhance your mission-oriented efforts.

In addition to researching other nonprofits in your space, you’ll also want to take a look at the landscape in general by conducting a trends analysis. Identify any new trends in policy or advocacy, funding or clientele that could impact your planning moving forward.

During this part of the strategic planning process, some organizations also choose to conduct a community needs assessment to identify community needs, assess how their current programs are meeting those needs and make decisions about any program changes they may want to make to ensure they are best serving their clients.

Complete a Stakeholder Assessment

Your organization’s stakeholders are the three to five most important groups that impact the future of your nonprofit. This can include groups like clients, funders and board members. When you’re conducting strategic planning, it’s an important time to gauge these audiences’ perceptions of your organization, its mission and the services you provide. You’ll take those insights into account as you develop your plans for the future. 

For each of your stakeholder groups, you’ll want to answer questions such as: 

  • What would they say our nonprofit’s strengths are?
  • How do we help them meet their goals?
  • What reservations do they have about the organization?
  • What actions would we like this stakeholder to take?
  • Why would they choose another organization over ours?

The strategic planning committee can guess at how stakeholders would answer these questions. However, most nonprofits choose to engage their stakeholder groups in this part of the process by conducting one-on-one interviews, surveys and focus groups so they can gather first-hand insights to inform their planning.

Analyze Your Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT)

With all of the great information gathered through your nonprofit’s assessments, the strategic planning team should come together and conduct a SWOT analysis for your organization. Ask yourselves, what are your biggest internal strengths and weaknesses? For example, a strength might be that you have four months cash on hand. A weakness might be high staff turnover. Then think about your external opportunities and threats. For example, an opportunity might be that your organization focuses on racial justice and this is an area where philanthropic funders are becoming increasingly interested in investing, while a weakness could be that you anticipate federal policy level changes that could impact your programs. 

Many organizations choose to work with a facilitator on their SWOT analysis, so they can have an objective party lead them through the process of determining their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

Create a Three Year Vision to Inform Your Strategic Planning Process

Your SWOT analysis is a great segue into identifying your organization’s three year vision. In this part of the strategic planning process, revisit your organization assessment and update it to reflect what you want your organization to look like three years from today. Think about who you serve, where you serve them, how you’re funded, etc. This is important because it grounds the strategic planning team in the same near-term future vision for your nonprofit.

Following your three assessments,  SWOT analysis and three year vision, your nonprofit will be well positioned to begin brainstorming your nonprofit’s strategic planning priorities.

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