As a nonprofit leader, you want clarity. You want to know what you want to accomplish and the best way to accomplish it. What's more, you want to make an impact when you get there. To do that, you need a strategy.
Unfortunately, too few nonprofits have one.
The good news is that formulating your strategy is easier and less expensive than you might think. Having one will bring you clarity, guide your decision-making, save you time, help you take risks, and increase your impact.
What Is Strategy and Why Is It So Important?
Strategy is a framework within which decisions are made that influence the nature and direction of the organization. It's a tool that helps you make decisions that are congruent with where you want your nonprofit to go. It provides the guardrails that will help you decide where to focus your efforts and what to abandon.
There are two parts to strategy: strategy formulation (developing your strategy) and strategy implementation (executing your strategy). You've got to have both parts for your strategy to succeed. Too often, nonprofits lump them both into a single, lengthy, cumbersome "strategic planning process." It's far better to separate strategy formulation from its implementation.
The role of strategy is to take the present state of your nonprofit and move it to your desired future state, ideally as quickly as possible. To formulate your strategy, you identify your desired future state (e.g., the change you want to see in your community or the type of nonprofit you want to become). This is informed by your mission, vision, and values. It's also informed by data, such as demographic trends, needs assessments, and the perspectives of those you are seeking to help.
How do you identify your desired future state? You ask yourselves questions such as
- What is the impact we want to have on our community? The world?
- If we could achieve our ideal outcome, what would it be?
- What are the relationships we want to have with each other and our community?
- What do we want to look like, sound like, feel like, smell like a year from now?
To implement your strategy, you figure out how to get from where you are today (your current state) to where you want to be (your desired future state). This includes aligning your people (e.g., you, your board, staff, and volunteers), your structures (the way people are put together), and your processes (the way people interact).
In my experience, nonprofits spend far too much time on formulating their strategy — up to a year, and sometimes more — when a much shorter process will almost always work better. I have an approach for speedy strategy formulation that I use with my own clients, called "strategic sprints." They are specifically designed to move through the process much more quickly — and ultimately more effectively — than many nonprofits are used to. Here's an example of a seven-week strategic sprint.
This approach breaks the strategy development process into three distinct phases. Keep in mind that you can shorten or lengthen each of these phases to suit your own requirements — these schedules are not fixed in concrete.
Weeks 1 – 3: Information gathering. This includes identifying the what (e.g., What do you want to learn? What information must inform your strategy?), the how (What is the best way to learn it? Interviews with board, staff, clients, experts; reviewing existing data; conducting focus groups), and the who (who gathers the information: staff, a consultant, etc.).
Weeks 4 – 5: Summarize and share. It's here that you'll identify key themes from your information gathering, surface concerns and opportunities; identify potential scenarios or recommendations; and summarize your findings in a brief document to share with decision-makers, along with key materials and an agenda.
Weeks 6 – 7: Strategy retreat and progress check. The retreat is where you will share themes, establish your plan and gain alignment, identify critical issues, determine top priorities, and assign "priority champions." A week later, priority champions give progress updates on critical issues and priorities. The retreat might cover any of these topics (and more!):
- Values, mission, and vision
- Review of key findings from research to inform planning
- Where the organization is aligned and achieving goals
- Where the organization is misaligned and falling short
- Driving forces, key issues, and opportunities
- How you want to be viewed in the next three years
- Growth options (fundraising, learning, capacity, talent, etc.)
- Agreements on core strategic direction
- Appropriate roles for board and staff in setting and implementing strategy
We always end by identifying critical issues that need to be addressed, determining top implementation priorities, and assigning accountabilities.
Now that you've formulated your strategy, the next step is to implement it! But beware, most strategy fails in its implementation, not its formulation. Be sure to read my next installment, "Is Your Strategic Plan About to Fail?"
About the Author
Kris Putnam-Walkerly is a global philanthropy advisor, strategist, and award-winning author. Her latest book is Delusional Altruism: Why Philanthropists Fail To Achieve Change And What They Can Do To Transform Giving. Learn more at putnam-consulting.com.
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