June 21, 2021

The Roots of Strategic Frustration

It is difficult to write this introductory paragraph without repeating hackneyed phrases about strategic plans sitting on various shelves around the country gathering dust…while consultants continue to cash checks. If there is any topic around which nonprofits can reach consensus, it is the futility of strategic planning. The prevailing sentiment is that the idea of strategic planning can be exciting, but things typically fall flat when the planning starts.

In my view, the frustration with strategic planning begins with unrealistic or misplaced expectations. Specifically, strategy, as practiced in the nonprofit sector, is predicated upon three assumptions that are in fact fallacies, as I describe below.

Fallacy 1: Strategy should transform an organization.

The Reality: For most organizations most of the time, strategic movement is incremental. Especially in the current environment – decreased funding, growing competition, and increased demand for service – nonprofits are looking inwardly to focus on those things they do better than others and which the community needs most from them. Sometimes, it takes every ounce of energy and every dollar just to just remain relevant and impactful. Excitement over big ideas often gives way to the reality of the daily grind of organizational life.

Fallacy 2: Strategy feeds on big goals.

The Reality: While the occasional big hairy audacious goal (as introduced by Jim Collings in Good to Great) may surface, strategic planning is not about inducing an adrenaline rush for board and staff members. While sound strategy is rooted in a compelling vision for the organization, progress is more often the result of success in a number of smaller, sequenced, and intermediate goals. We all wish 100% of students would graduate from high school. But that is a vision, not a strategic goal. Being strategic means gaining clarity on that obstacles that prevent 100% of students from graduating, what factors contribute to those obstacles, and how your organization can work to mitigate those factors. Appropriate goals will flow naturally from there.

Fallacy 3: Strategy requires significant organizational change.

The Reality: This is an outgrowth of Fallacy 1, in that the expectation of transformation means that business as usual is no longer relevant because we must make room for a new set of transformative activities. But strategy is not something to be implemented separate from routine activities. Rather, strategy provides the lens through which we view what we do currently. I am not suggesting that new strategic goals can be completely absorbed into the existing structures and processes. I am suggesting, however, that adaption is more likely that total re-creation. Said another way, strategy should dictate how we think about what we do more than it should fundamentally change what we do.


Creativity and innovation are important to long-term impact and sustainability of nonprofits. From a strategic standpoint, we can find more success in the continual refinement and execution of strategy. To paraphrase from the field of economics, strategy feeds on bounded creativity and innovation. It is the difference between strategy driven by “wouldn’t it be great if” versus “what is possible given how things are”.

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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