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Create a Strategic Plan

Strategic planning is a process by which you study the vision for your organization, usually for three years or more from the present.

A strategic plan is a critical management tool for executive directors and board members because it anticipates change before it occurs. Demographic changes in an agency’s service area, advances in technology, competition from for-profit businesses, resignation or retirement of a long-time director, and deep cuts in local, state or federal funding all highlight the importance of changing the basic way an agency does business.

There are mixed results from many academic studies regarding the benefits of strategic planning in business and industry. Yet the process itself does provide a framework for a long-term assessment of new threats facing an organization and the opportunities to develop strategies to respond to them.

What are the benefits of strategic planning?

Strategic planning:

  • provides staff a template to implement policies and vision 
  • allows an agency to be proactive, not reactive in their decisions
  • provides a method to obtain or reallocate resources as circumstances change 
  • strengthens relationships between board, staff, funders and stakeholders
  • illustrates daily activities and challenges to board members, staff and stakeholders 
  • develops a sense of ownership among board members
  • allows ED to focus on mission and vision, not day-to-day issues

What are the costs of strategic planning?

An in-depth strategic plan usually costs money, ranging from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars. Check with your local UW Extension program for strategic planning services that are sometimes little to no cost, depending on the campus.

Staff and board resources have to be diverted to meeting preparation, attendance, minutes and drafting the final plan. Hiring an outside strategic planner also takes time. The process itself can vary from a few days of intensive strategic planning to more than one year.

Potential Bad Will 
The strategic planning process requires all participants to be extremely honest about the agency’s strengths and weaknesses, including where staff capabilities need to be improved or modified. Current staff members may feel threatened. If the plan is not implemented, participating board members may feel their time involved was wasted. Not everyone will agree on new directions for the agency suggested by the strategic planning process.

How do you start creating a strategic plan?

1.    Decide if you’re going to develop a strategic plan.

  • Consider costs and benefits.
  • Is this a good time to commit to the strategic planning process?
  • Is there commitment from agency staff, board and other stakeholders?
  • Is the short-term stability of the agency too vulnerable to invest in long- term planning?

2.    Determine the people and materials needed for the plan.

  • Appoint a strategic planning committee of the board.
  • Gather related materials on strategic planning.
  • Will the facilitator will be a paid outside consultant or a volunteer?
  • Informally survey other similar organizations for potential consultants. 

3.    Decide how many years the strategic plan will cover.

  • In general, smaller organizations choose shorter time frames (2-4 years), while larger organizations choose time frames of 5 years or more.

4.    Document the timeline and process. Write down who will: 

  • appoint a committee 
  • hire a facilitator
  • lead the committee orientation
  • choose the meeting site
  • schedule meetings
  • write the first draft of the plan 
  • set up procedures to revise the plan
  • contact agency stakeholders for their input
  • write the final plan
  • develop the process for the full board’s review and adoption of the plan

5.    Obtain board approval of the time and resources necessary to complete the strategic planning process.

6.    Appoint the strategic planning committee, appoint or hire the facilitator, send out orientation materials and schedule the first meeting.
Grobman, Gary M. The Nonprofit Handbook. Third Edition.

There are hundreds of strategic planning resources that outline different approaches to the process. There is no one perfect strategic planning model for each organization. Each organization ends up developing its own nature and model of strategic planning, often by selecting a model and modifying it as they go along in developing their own planning process. For an overview of the different types of strategic planning models, see:
Allison, Michael. Strategic Planning for Nonprofit Organizations. Second Edition.
Barry, Bryan W. Strategic Planning Workbook for Nonprofit Organizations. Revised and Updated.
Bryson, John M. Strategic Planning for Public and Nonprofit Organizations: A Guide to Strengthening and Sustaining Organizational Achievement. Third Edition.
Howe, Fisher. The Board Member's Guide to Strategic Planning: A Practical Approach to Strengthening Nonprofit Organizations.