The Five Most Common Missteps in Nonprofit Strategy Development

After working on hundreds of nonprofit strategies, we’ve observed some very common challenges organizations face when developing marketing, fundraising and strategic plans. The most common missteps that lead to challenges include:

  • Limiting stakeholder feedback to the beginning of the process
  • Failing to move your nonprofit away from the status quo
  • Including operational goals in nonprofit plans that are supposed to be strategic
  • Failing to clarify roles in the nonprofit planning process
  • Becoming too overwhelmed to set key results

I’ll review each misstep in more detail below. If these are challenges your nonprofit is facing when it comes to strategy development, this post will help you identify solutions.

Limiting stakeholder feedback to the beginning of the process

Many strategy processes begin with research and stakeholder engagement. Unfortunately, that’s where stakeholder engagement ends for most nonprofits. When you think about it, this would be like a for-profit business shaping its strategy without asking for input or responding to the needs of its customers. It’s ineffective, inequitable, and it has to stop.

The Shared Power Strategy philosophyTM advocates for redistributing the power to shape nonprofit strategies to a nonprofit’s stakeholders, especially the people and communities they serve, in order to build more effective and inclusive organizations. So what does this look like in practice?

Yes, it’s about understanding and engaging your most important stakeholders from the beginning, but it’s also about bringing them along in the process, getting their input from start to finish and keeping them informed as your organization moves forward with the execution of its plans. There’s a different way to shape your nonprofit’s strategy with your people at the center, and our Shared Power Strategy Rule Book defines the rules for engaging your organization’s stakeholders, particularly your beneficiaries.

Failing to move your nonprofit away from status quo

Strategic plans, marketing plans and fundraising plans should be about pushing your organization to move beyond the day-to-day “keep the lights on” activities to pursue “net new” strategies. But, we all know that change is uncomfortable, and while many planning teams want to think big, they end up limiting themselves because they’re overwhelmed by what it will take to get these new strategies off the ground, both in terms of time and resources.

Therefore the gravitational pull toward the status quo is the strongest force that nonprofit planning teams need to resist again to create real change. It’s important to remember, the best nonprofit strategies are not set in stone. They are not supposed to be a prediction of the future, rather a hypothesis for your nonprofit to test. By adopting this mentality, you’re also centering around the understanding that you may not reach all of your goals. 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.

Including operational goals in nonprofit plans that are supposed to be strategic

Creating nonprofit marketing, fundraising or strategic plans that are too operational is another area where planning teams go astray in an attempt to create something that’s “realistic” and “achievable.” I get it, we all have a fear of failure. But the comfort zone isn’t where we move the mountains we need to move to achieve our missions. Your nonprofit plans, and the pillars, objectives and key results within them, should drive transformation, not just optimization.

Learning about the differences between nonprofit strategic and operational planning will help your organization create more visionary strategic plans that are supported by your nonprofit’s daily operations.

Failing to clarify roles in the nonprofit planning process

We’ve already established that stakeholder engagement is crucial to helping you shape your nonprofit’s strategies, but how do you ensure you’re not overweighting some folk’s input over others? Getting clear on everyone’s role in the process is absolutely essential, and may vary slightly by organization. In general, the board plays a role in shaping the strategic direction of your nonprofit, while leadership and staff are responsible for determining how goals will be executed and delivered on. However, the board, leadership and staff are only three important groups that are involved in planning processes.

Program participants and beneficiaries should be involved, as well as donors, funders, partners and volunteers, and each of these groups should play a unique role in the process. Roles need to be spelled out early and often. If they’re not, organizations tend to face unnecessary friction in the strategic planning process that keeps them from arriving efficiently at a clear set of pillars (aka priorities) and objectives.

Becoming too overwhelmed to set key results

Setting pillars and objectives is the fun, visionary part of marketing, fundraising and strategic planning, but key results are where the rubber meets the road. They articulate how your nonprofit is going to bring that planned vision to life. However, setting them can feel very overwhelming because the process brings to light just how much needs to be done to make your plan a reality. In fact, it’s here where some teams simply throw in the towel…and this is where plans go to die. If you can overcome some common pitfalls your organization might face when setting key results, you’ll be well on your way toward achieving your goals.

Building effective strategies is fun, but it’s not always easy. Check out more of our resources on building great nonprofit plans. If you’re interested in getting the ball rolling with Prosper Strategies, don’t hesitate to reach out.