October 30, 2019

The Other Side of the Strategy Coin

Recently, I participated in a brief online discussion that was prompted by an article titled, “Why Strategic Planning Sucks the Life Out of Nonprofits”. (The author could have stopped after the first four words and made a much stronger point. But I digress.).

A contributor to the discussion shared an exchange she had with a board member who objected to the idea that his organization needed an updated strategic plan. “We have been around for 33 years, he said. “We know what we are doing.” Good point. An organization that has managed to stick around for that long must be doing a lot of the right things and doing them well.

For that matter, why would any successful organization go through the time and anguish of yet another strategic plan? Well, it depends on what we think strategic planning is. I suspect this board member is referring to the planning side of coin, the process whereby big dreams are identified and lofty goals are set, all of which are supported by detailed action plans that are supposed to lead the organization to that land of dreams.

Indeed, this approach can suck…the life out of nonprofits, especially one that knows what it is doing and has been doing it successfully for a long time. But planning is only one side of the strategy coin. The other side is evaluation. What is there to evaluate from a strategic standpoint? Consider these:

  • How are we performing relative to our expectations for impact?
  • What is changing externally that is outside of our control?
  • How might we need to adapt to remain relevant, viable, and impactful?

To the skeptical board member, I would offer this question: How do you ensure that you will still be here 33 years from now?

In response to this question, I recommend the strategy review as a more appropriate alternative to full-scale strategic planning. The strategy review is built on a few key assumptions. First, it assumes that the organization operates under a set of strategic goals or aspirations, whether or not they appear in a formal document. In other words, an organization must know who it is and where it needs to go.

Second, effective strategy review requires that the organization have its finger in the wind within its domain of operation. Unless an organization is considering fundamental changes to its program model, it should not need to ask its external stakeholders how it is doing. These are things mature organizations should know as a matter of course.

The strategy review itself is built around three questions:

  • What were we thinking then?
  • What has happened since?
  • Where do we go next?

Don’t be fooled by the seeming simplicity of these three questions. This is not a flip-chart and sticky note process. Visions don’t result from a two-hour session and they certainly don’t drop from the sky. Strategic aspirations evolve out of an understanding of where the organization fits within its domain. As conditions in the domain change – new funders, new options, new problems – the strategic organization responds in accordance with its mission. It’s not a matter voting; it is about adapting.

Like the board member I vilified in my example, I resist the default notion that being strategic requires regular planning. While planning is an effective management tool, being strategic requires that you occasionally flip the coin to the other side.

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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