Strategic plans count if the process and the resulting plan are valued (and used) by leadership
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a believer in strategic plans (see my earlier paper: Nonprofit Strategic Planning Dilemma), especially when strategic planning and resultant strategic plans are used to build true operational plans which then tie into and ground budgets in reality. That’s the overall planning scenario I recommend and prefer to use in advising or managing a nonprofit organization’s board and staff.
So it was quite the contradiction for me to advise the young woman not to bother with strategic plans when she brought to me her concern about the direction in which her organization was going — or more to the point, her concern about the organization having no direction.
She asked me to help her promote a strategic planning process for the organization. My advice to her was to make a choice. One, being new to the organization accept the situation as it was and work hard at what she was doing, taking as much personal satisfaction from that as she could. Or two, work hard at finding a new position at a different organization that would provide greater professional satisfaction and growth potential.
She was a bit shaken by the advice. She was in a situation where strategic planning was not what the organization needed. The reason was not as obvious to her as it was to me, but by the time I explained, she understood.
Normally, the mere “process” of strategic planning provides the participants benefits. A key part of the planning process is getting staff, board, and (often) members engaged in conversation about the organization, its mission and a vision for the future. That alone is usually beneficial. The strategic plans or plan that result may not even be the most important outcome.
Of course, ordinarily the planning process also results in a document declaring desired future conditions for the organization and the usual strategic plans. This may be used by the organization, more or less. Too often, however, such planning and plans are exercises forgotten almost immediately. The plans go unused.
The organization employing the young woman was in the latter category, and was also at a point where there were no more benefits to be gained by simply conducting another planning process. Knowing the organization’s history, I told her the organization did not lack for strategic planning or strategic plans.
There had been many planning processes and many strategic plans, all of which had been abandoned, unused by the organization’s leadership. Most often planning was abandoned even before the planning processes had reached completion. Planning consultants had been commissioned in the past, only to walk away as the process bogged down into oblivion.
If a plan was declared finished, it would only be a few days until the organization’s leadership had forgotten about it. This was most vividly confirmed by virtue of leadership’s actions. The next idea of the day became that day’s new marching orders for staff. The organization treated its projects and programs much like the planning process: projects and programs floundered, as they started and stalled. Many were never completed, or as time for completion neared, they were quickly picked back up and frantically rushed to finish in an attempt to satisfy funders or other requirements. Ideas of one day and fundraising initiatives stopped almost as soon as they started, as the next great idea or fundraising pitch replaced the earlier one. It was an organization in complete disarray.
I explained to the young woman that another strategic planning process or added strategic plans would do no more or less good than any before, although it would further waste her (staff) time. It would also further frustrate her along with anyone else who expected the results of a new planning process to do any more good than the last.
Strategic Plans Provide Direction — Use it!
How many organizations bumble through their days and mission in this fashion? A major donor suggests a great idea, then staff chase after it, not wanting to upset a donor. But in so doing, staff divert time or funding away from work already underway. A president or executive director has an idea, then not wanting to upset their bosses, staff are off on a new chase.
When financial resources are placed into one new initiative after another, no matter how worthy the initiatives, all new and ongoing initiatives get shortchanged to the point that none of the initiatives can succeed as planned. After all, there is only so much money and so much staff and volunteer time to go around, yet there are unlimited opportunities to spend money and staff time to do good works.
This particular organization’s leader was charismatic, a wonderful person, committed to the cause, and a favorite of all who know him including members of his own staff and board. Keeping people charmed was his greatest skill. Yet, he was an incompetent manager of people, finances, and the organization.
No. Strategic planning was not what the organization needed. What was needed was leadership to either implement the strategic plans the organization already had, or implement any other plan that would provide a consistent, positive mission-driven direction for the staff and organization’s volunteer leadership.
UPDATE: I recently received an email from the young woman, letting me know she had moved on to a new position.
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(c) Rudolph Rosen 2015
Rudolph Rosen is author of the book, Money for the Cause: A Complete Guide to Event Fundraising a peer-reviewed textbook on fundraising management and increasing fundraising success through effective business management and volunteer and staff empowerment and training.