May 06, 2024

How is a Refrigerator Like a Strategic Plan?

No, this is not the opening line of a dad joke. Nor is it one of those abstract mental puzzles. In fact, there is nothing funny or puzzling about what I am about to say.

Economists will tell you that what something is worth is a function of what buyers believe they are getting that is of value to them. When it comes to the purchase of a refrigerator, we look for certain tangible qualities (e.g., the color, the size, the features, etc.) that we believe best meet our needs. That is the value proposition.

Like a refrigerator, the value of a strategic plan is rooted in the extent to which you believe it will meet your organizational needs. However, unlike a refrigerator, the qualities we seek in a strategic plan can be ambiguous. This is due to several factors, including the fact that organizations are not always crystal clear about what they need from a strategic plan. Said another way, they have an uncertain value proposition.

The Value of a Strategic Plan

From my experience, the value of a strategic plan is embedded in two key qualities. The first is utility. Obviously, a strategic plan should be useful to the organization. But useful in what way? The primary utility of a strategic plan is to guide long-term program and resource decisions. Nothing more, nothing less. These decisions occur within a broad range of considerations (e.g., who we will serve, how we can best serve them, how we attract the resources we need, etc.) but ultimately are aimed at one core strategic question: how can we create the greatest mission impact in the most sustainable manner?

The second quality is durability. We want to know that the strategic plan will remain relevant and not become yet another “plan in the can”.  At the heart of durability is recognition of the difference between the strategy and the planning. As stated, strategy guides long-term decisions. Planning, by contrast, directs short-term activities. While changing circumstances may require adaptations of your plans and activities, they do not necessitate an entirely new strategy. The ability to withstand changing circumstances is the hallmark of strategic durability.


A maxim of strategic positioning is that there is no there. That is, you are not racing toward a strategy finish line at which point you can say “we have arrived”. Rather, strategy is measured in incremental progress and movement. Thought of in this way, a strategic plan is less like a roadmap and more like a compass. The general direction is fixed, while the course we take is not always a straight line.

Fortunately, a strategic plan designed for utility has durability built into it. By keeping the strategic line of sight on the bigger pieces of the organizational puzzle, your organization will come to realize the true value of a strategic plan.

Need Additional Assistance?

If you are interested in going deeper into your nonprofit strategy or if you wish to review your organizational strategy more broadly, click the link below to schedule a 30-minute phone or zoom consultation with Mike Stone.

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