April 27, 2021

Is Strategy Baked into Your Cake?

First things first: planning is easy; strategic thinking is demanding; both are important.

And I love cake.

Planning is a rational process whereby we attempt to exercise some degree of control over our world by establishing goals, objectives, and timelines to guide our work. Planning is episodic and finite, a bit like following a recipe to bake a cake. Strategic thinking, by contrast, is an interpretive process whereby we continually make sense of our world through analysis, synthesis, and reflection. Strategic thinking is open-ended and ongoing. It is a mindset.

Separating strategy from the plan is a start. However, the fact is that the term strategy has become inherently ambiguous by its use as a stand-in word for a lot of different types and levels of activity. Consider the three uses of the concept within the context of a single organization aimed at one specific goal:

  • “Our strategic goal is to become less dependent on government funding.”
  • “Our fundraising strategy is built around obtaining more major gifts.”
  • “We need to develop strategies for identifying and nurturing potential donors.”

The three uses of the term have a few common elements. First, all require intentional choice regarding the alignment and use of organizational resources – human, financial, technological, and social. Second, each use of the term implies the need for setting priorities, assessing trade-offs, and finding the fit among the organization’s activities. In sum, the three uses imply the defining characteristic of strategy: doing this means we won’t be doing that.

At the same, there is a fundamental difference in the scope of the decisions at each level. The decision in the first statement is broad and aimed at the long-term. Subsequent decisions become more focused and specific as you move from one to the next. And that is the point. The recipe for creating a strategic organization requires strategic thinking at all three levels. Let’s take a closer look at each level of strategy.

Level I: Positioning Strategy. This is big picture/long-term thinking that is concerned with how the organization can create the greatest mission impact in the most sustainable manner. Strategic positioning is built around three fundamental questions:

  • What will we do, for whom, to what end? (Program Position)
  • How do we differentiate from others in our domain? (Market Position)
  • What is the most attainable and reliable funding mix? (Resource Position)

At this level, being strategic requires periodic assessment of the broad external environment to anticipate major shifts among competitors, funders, and client populations that may inhibit progress toward your desired strategic position.

Level II: Focusing Strategy. This level of strategic thinking indicates the shift from what and why, to questions about how. That is, for the strategic positioning goal to be reached, there needs to be other decisions about how it can be accomplished. Decisions at this level are informed by several factors. In the example above, those factors include the organization’s fundraising history and the internal infrastructure to manage a major gifts program.

Level III: Implementation Strategy. Lastly, there needs to be intentionality in the development of tactical plans for how, in this example, the major gifts will be obtained. Will we host events? At one point do we make the ask? What is the role of the board versus the staff role in cultivating relationships? At the level of implementation, being strategic requires ongoing assessment of conditions that affect the ability of the organization to raise money (or delivery programs) in a quality manner. The plan itself is built around a small number of action steps, such as:

  • Allocating staff time
  • Adapting activities to the changing conditions
  • Evaluating results


Like cake baking, the secret to becoming a strategic organization lies in the mixing of the right amount of each strategic thinking at each level. Done well, the result is that the blend of ingredients is better than the contribution of each individual part. Basing your success on only one area of strategy is like judging the quality of the cake based on whether or not we can taste the egg that went into the batter.

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.

Schedule a Consultation
Mail icon

Sign up to stay connected