The Best Nonprofit Strategies Aren’t Set in Stone

4 min read

Too often, nonprofit strategies are viewed as binding. Leadership and staff covet them as the answer for the future, the community embraces them as such, and boards view them as a way that they’ll determine whether their organization succeeds, or fails, in reaching its goals. 

For these reasons, the nonprofit sector is big on strategic planning. However, these beautiful, elaborate documents often sit in cabinets and on drawers under a stack of other papers their creators have forgotten about. This is because too many organizations look at their plans as predictions for the future, and the moment that future begins to look like it won’t become a reality (hello COVID), many just ditch the plan they’ve worked so hard to create. 

During a board listening session the other day, the chairperson said, “I see this as a three-year rolling strategic plan that can be updated as our financial situation changes.” He couldn’t have been more accurate with his statement. We need to transition from static to dynamic nonprofit strategic planning by treating the process and execution as ever-evolving.

So, how do you transition from a static plan to the dynamic organizational roadmap that should be your strategic plan?

The real solution is not for nonprofits to stop planning or stop predicting, it’s to recognize that strategies should not be set in stone, rather they should be hypotheses to be tested. Successful nonprofit strategies need the flexibility to change based on changes in your nonprofit and the ecosystem.

Start by considering multiple viewpoints to shape your nonprofit strategic plan priorities

At Prosper, we work with nonprofits through the Shared Power Strategy™ philosophy, which says we must redistribute the power to shape our nonprofit’s strategies to our stakeholders, especially the people and communities we serve, in order to build more effective, inclusive organizations.

A huge benefit of this approach is that we start the process with inputs from a nonprofit’s leadership team, staff, board, community partners, participants and so on. In Philip Tetlock’s book, Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?, the Wharton professor interviewed 284 people who made their living “commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends.” His research found that people who consider multiple points of view make better predictions than those who only rely on one perspective. I like to think Professor Tetlock would appreciate our Shared Power Strategy™ approach.

Gathering perspectives from multiple stakeholders not only helps nonprofits identify their ideal three-year scenario, but it may also help them more accurately set their course for the near-term future. As an example, following our organizational, stakeholder and ecosystem research in strategic planning, we can almost always boil our findings down to a set of key insights that guide how we set our plan goals (or as we call them, strategic plan pillars). The work, however, can’t stop here, but let’s be honest, for many organizations it does.

Think of your nonprofit strategy as a hypothesis to be tested

While engaging multiple stakeholders in the process of creating your strategic plan may increase the likelihood of predicting what your nonprofit could (or should) achieve in the near-term, your plan should really be considered more of a well-informed and researched hypothesis that should be tested as you implement.

Your Nonprofit's strategy should really be considered more of a well-informed and researched hypothesis that should be tested as you implement. Click To Tweet

For example, you may determine your nonprofit will expand its programs, increase brand awareness, and achieve financial sustainability over the next three years. These are your strategic plan’s pillars. By setting these during the planning process, you’re identifying the destination you (as well as your stakeholders) hope to reach at the end of the three-year timeframe. 

Your strategic plan pillars are essentially your hypothesis, or the things you think you can achieve, but you must test whether or not you can in unpredictable conditions of your landscape. And if you can’t, your organization needs to remain open to changing course. This is where a system like objectives and key results (OKRs) can support nonprofits in decision making during plan implementation. We like this system because of the flexibility it provides – OKRs are amendable and even reversible. If there’s a change in priorities or new information that makes your objectives unachievable or unrealistic, you can reword, change, add or scrap them. Of course, all of this needs to happen with transparency and conversation among your staff, board, community partners, participants, etc.

So let’s remind ourselves, nonprofits are extremely dynamic, and our strategic plans should be too. At Prosper Strategies, we’ve designed our strategic planning process both to help nonprofits gain the multiple insights they need to develop a strong initial plan, and also to put the systems in place to measure and make adjustments as they execute. If your organization is exploring strategic planning and you’d like to learn more about our approach, we’d love to hear from you.

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