August 11, 2021
There is a conundrum of sorts surrounding strategic planning; First, nonprofits need to be strategic. Second, organizational planning is important. And yet, strategic planning is ineffective for many nonprofits. Why is this so?
I argue that it is because most strategic plans lack a mechanism for categorizing and sorting the various activities that will move the organization toward its strategic vision. Said another way, individuals must first come together and pass through a set of turnstiles before they scatter out and enjoy the carnival in our own way. The turnstiles of strategy come in the form of strategic priorities.
Before getting into the nature and use of strategic priorities, let’s take a brief look at the conditions that brought about the strategic planning conundrum in the first place.
Condition 1: Not Enough Strategy
The genesis of the first condition is the overuse – and the consequent misuse – of the term strategy. We need to elevate the term Strategy to its uppercase meaning. Big-picture strategy is about positioning the organization for relevance, impact, and sustainability. A nonprofit strategic position is built on three foundational elements: 1) what it will do, for whom, and to what end; 2) how it will relate to others providing similar services; and 3) how it will attract the resources needed to continue its work. This is long term thinking, the success of which is measured incrementally and is realized in the cumulative effects of a number of decisions and activities over time.
Condition 2: Too Much Planning
The second condition of the nonprofit strategy conundrum is the expectation created in our heads when we set out to “develop a strategic plan”. Instead of a detailed, step-by-step plan, imagine a broadframework within which ongoing program and resource decisions can be made. A strategic framework provides parameters rather than instructions, including a description of your desired strategic position, major challenges and opportunities relative to that position, and boundaries to keep you moving in the right direction. Consequently, the aim is not to work the plan, but to work within the framework.
Strategic priorities are an essential feature of a strategic framework. I define strategic priorities as key opportunities and challenges that affect your ability to attain, maintain, or enhance your desired strategic position. Functionally, strategic priorities bridge the conceptual space between the strategic vision and specific action plans. Effective strategic priorities have the following characteristics:
The example below from a youth center illustrates the value of strategic priorities.
In the course of strategic planning, the center discovers that it is not able to attract and retain youth aged 16 to 18. To remedy this, the center plans to create a dedicated space for older teens by renovating one wing of the existing facility. How is this represented in the strategic planning document? By default, we are likely to identify “dedicated space” as a strategic priority. Planning for the space will include costs, schedules, contractor selections, etc. Once the renovation is completed, we will check it off the list.
The problem with this vision to action scenario is that we confuse the means with the ends. Creating the space is the means, a tactic undertaken to advance a broader strategic priority, which is to attract older youth. Why is this distinction important? Because it will likely take more than a new space the advance the strategic priority. What programs will benefit this group most? What outcomes are most important to our mission? And, what happens if we create the space and it does not attract the targeted group? As a strategic priority, the issue remains on the strategic agenda and will shape resource and program decisions across the organization.
The goal for strategic planning should not be the creation of a list of things to do. Instead, the best use of strategic planning time is to develop a framework that is durable enough to shape actions, yet nimble enough to accommodate changing circumstances. Strategic priorities function to bring a more immediate focus to the long-term vision while giving direction to board and staff for how they should prioritize their own time and activities.
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