Three Versions of Your Nonprofit’s Strategic Plan

5 min read

The phase of strategic planning where nonprofits revisit or reimagine their mission, vision and values is fun. It involves big picture, blue sky thinking that gets everyone motivated about what’s to come. That’s because these are the inspiring parts of your strategic plan (and the planning process). The momentum that starts here carries into pillar setting, where folks are excited to think about what the world will look like three years from today when they achieve their biggest organizational priorities. 

However, when it comes to creating key results, in almost every strategic planning scenario, this is where the overwhelm sets it: We actually have to do this, along with everything else we’re already doing! (Check out this blog post for help). This is also where we commonly hear something along the lines of: this stuff doesn’t seem very motivating if we’re going to share it with supporters and funders.

This is true! These audiences aren’t necessarily inspired by how the sausage is made, and they don’t need to be. This is why we recommend creating 3 versions of your strategic plan, each serving an intended purpose based on your nonprofit’s stakeholders.

For your nonprofit’s staff, your strategic plan needs to be operational; for your board, it needs to outline your organization’s strategic priorities; for your stakeholders, including the communities you serve, your donors, and supporters, it needs to give them a lens into what your nonprofit will achieve over the next 3 years, and inspire them to connect or stay connected with your mission.

Your nonprofit strategic plan needs to be inspirational, strategic and operational, but each of these pieces plays a different role in your nonprofit’s success, and each serves a different purpose for each one of your nonprofit’s stakeholders. In this post, I’ll review the elements of your strategic plan and discuss which of them is most relevant to each one of your audiences. 

The elements of a nonprofit strategic plan

As a reminder, the elements of a full nonprofit strategic plan include:

  • Mission, the work you are doing every day to drive toward your vision – what you do, who you do it for, and the intended impact;
  • Vision, the future you would create if your organization achieved all its goals;
  • Values, a set of guiding principles that shape the behavior and decision making of everyone on a nonprofit’s team;
  • Pillars, the big priorities your organization must focus on in order to advance its mission, and drive toward its vision, no matter what, over the next 3 years;
  • Objectives, the most important things your nonprofit needs to accomplish under the plan timeframe; 
  • Key results, the benchmarks you set that allow your nonprofit to measure and track whether your objectives are being achieved; and 
  • Activity plans, which outline the specific steps or activities that you will employ under each objective/key result pairing.

Here’s how each of those elements should fit into the three versions of your strategic plan: the one that’s operational for staff, one that is strategic for your board and one that is inspirational for all of your other stakeholders. 

 

The staff view of your nonprofit strategy = operational

The staff version of your strategic plan includes all of the elements of the strategic plan outlined above, with a particular focus on the operational aspects of the plan: your objectives, key results and activity plans. These elements typically live in shared dashboards and spreadsheets, not necessarily designed for public consumption. While these may not be the most visually pretty parts of your strategic plan, this is where the magic happens. The objectives and key results allow your team to track the progress toward your pillars, and also allow you to maintain flexibility, even changing key results, if necessary, based on real-time conditions. 

These elements by nature are designed for nonprofit staff to operationalize their strategic plan through the day-to-day work of the organization. Generally, this view of the strategic plan is too detailed for your nonprofit’s board of directors, whose responsibility is strategic oversight.

 

The board view of your nonprofit strategy = strategic

So what should your board be keeping an eye on? The big picture strategic direction of your nonprofit. That’s your progress on your strategic plan objectives and pillars. While your nonprofit team is monitoring key results, the progress of those key results levels up to provide an overall score on how you’re tracking toward your objectives. We encourage nonprofits to share progress on objectives with the board regularly, and for those that are off track, have discussions about what needs to be done and where the board can or should support. With that in mind, most board-facing strategic plans should only go as far as sharing objectives. If your board wants more, examples of one or two of the key results under each objective should help them get the flavor of how you’re operationalizing the objectives.

The public view of your nonprofit strategy = inspirational

For your nonprofit’s remaining stakeholders, including the individuals and communities you serve, your supporters, donors and funders, your strategic plan should serve as a tool to help you share the story of how you’re bringing your mission to life over the next 3 years. This version includes the inspirational elements of your strategic plan: your mission, vision, values and pillars. 

Many organizations design these elements into a succinct 1-2 page document that includes an introduction about their nonprofit, a brief situation analysis, along with the priorities for the next 3 years, almost like a case for support. They also include graphics, charts and photos that support the narrative of their strategic plan. This is the version of your strategic plan that you post on your website and share with those outside of your organization and board. It doesn’t include the details and minutiae that your staff and board need to do their jobs, and keeps your stakeholders focused exactly where you want them.

There you have it – the three versions of your strategic plan – operational, strategic and inspirational – and which version should be shared with your staff, board and the public.

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