Managerial Volunteers
Case for Philanthrophy
Strategic Planning

Sandra Larson Consulting

Managerial Volunteers—A Radical Resource for Change
The Business Case for Corporate Philanthropy
Strategic Planning Takes Planning
The Decision-making Board
Constructing Decision Styles
What to do While Waiting for Your Board to Raise Money
Unique Nature and Struggles of Traditional Small Nonprofits
Rounding Up Board Policies

Managerial Volunteers—A Radical Resource for Change

A sage nonprofit observer once said to me, All good plans sooner or later have to degenerate into work. This leads me to my own axiom that would fit as a condition of the first one: All good ideas sooner or later need to degenerate into plans. I suspect that the source of the all good plans sooner or later have to generate into work quip comes from someone exposed to a poor planning process that not only displaced work but also tried the patience of both board members and staff and ended poorly.

“... a little planning can prevent too much planning.”

Let's look at one common reason a planning process bogs down and does not produce results: the unplanned plan. Said another way, a little planning can prevent too much planning.

Here are some suggestions on how to go about planning a plan. This is apropos for long range or strategic planning. I note a difference here as the term long range while still in use has gone somewhat out of favor as it tends to indicate a planning process that attempts to formalize the future out quite far, but does not examine strategies very thoroughly where as strategic indicates that the whole organization will be looked at and that, while goals and objectives may be formulated, the emphasis will be on identifying strategies for change over a shorter period of time (usually 3-5 years). I thus use the term strategic planning to emphasize the decision-making process that will encompass an in-depth evaluation of many strategies and their alternatives.

“Is it reasonable to assume the plan will make any difference in how the organization operates?”

First and foremost, before jumping on board the idea of doing a strategic plan, assess whether your organization should undertake such a process. Is the timing for undertaking this activity right? Is it reasonable to assume the plan will make any difference in how the organization operates? If the answer is no to these questions, maybe going through the motions will propel you nowhere and waste valuable time and money. If you're not sure what the benefits could be, or even what it means to do such a plan, ask your colleagues about their experiences, ask to see their plans, or call a local management support center or consulting firm that will give you an hour or so to hear their approach to planning.

“Two excellent resources are available.”

You may also want to read up on the benefits of planning and the various models of planning. Two excellent resources are: Strategic Planning for Public and Nonprofit Organizations by John M. Bryson of the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs and Strategic Planning Workbook for Nonprofits by Bryan W. Barry, Amherst H. Wilder Foundation.

We think you'll probably be convinced that there will be very real benefits for you to plan strategically. If you want to control your future rather than be victimized by it, strategic planning can help you create this future by capitalizing on your strengths and external opportunities while minimizing the threats a rapidly changing environment presents to us all. Also, as Professor Bryson points out, it will help your organization's overall performance.

There is at least one obvious compelling reason not to undertake a formal planning process: it's called a crisis. Just as all good communicators know you don't engage in active listening strategies when someone yells "fire", you don't go into a strategic or long range planning mode when you need to put out an in-house flame.

“... a poor excuse for not planning is that it will slow a very gifted, intuitive leader down. Don't sign off on this excuse. ”

One other less than legitimate reason given as an excuse for not planning is that the organization has a very gifted, intuitive leader and planning will just slow her or him down. Don't sign off on this excuse. It is rare when one individual's thinking is sufficient to guide the total organization and it's even more difficult to get others to buy into that individually developed vision if they are not part of the planning process.

Another illegitimate reason for not planning has to do with the fear of controversy: The let-sleeping-dogs-lie argument. Don't accept this one either unless you think you can afford to snooze while other organizations are planning your future.

O.K. So now you've decided to plan. Sharpen your pencil and answer the following questions:

1. Who will be in charge of the plan?

“Without these responsibilities clearly spelled out, no one is at the helm and the process will not progress.”

Is it the board chair, the executive director, or some other leader? Who is going to champion the plan? Who is going to lead the meetings? Who's going to staff the committee, keep the minutes? Without these responsibilities clearly spelled out, no one is at the helm and the process will not progress.

2. Who's to be included in the formal planning process?

There are some planners who will tell you that just going through the process of planning, gaining some consensus on key issues and future decisions is the most significant outcome of planning regardless of what is actually committed to paper. In other words, the process has to involve key persons, both volunteer and paid, who will need to own the plan in the future and to buy into its implementation.

In larger, more hierarchical organizations key staff from the front line to top management should be at least represented. In smaller organizations, the executive director and appropriate other staff can be involved. In all cases they should not overwhelm the board representatives or the board as a whole if they are all included.

You will need to decide whether you want other stakeholders involved beyond board and staff.


See also:

The Business Case for Corporate Philanthropy

Strategic Planning Takes Planning


Remember too many make the decision-making too cumbersome. Eight to nine is probably as large as you should go. You can hold focus group meetings with other staff and others whose opinions are crucial to include. Which is not to say either, that the full board must have final review and approval of whatever plan is ultimately developed.

3. What committee should do it?

Certainly a committee of the board. Many organizations use their executive committee or program committee. Often a special planning or strategic marketing committee is set up for this purpose. Setting up a new committee elevates it out of the ordinary day-today focus of the organization. This, in turn, helps to highlight the critical nature of the work to be done.

4. What planning methodology should be used?

There are many methods that can bring you through the process successfully. The resources mentioned, or other books on strategic planning, can help you sort this out. A consultant might be brought in just to plan the strategies if you aren't sure which planning process suits you best.
Given the more competitive world we live in today, more and more planning is taking on the lingo and processes of marketing professionals who are especially good at determining your competitive edge and help you tie what yours consumers want to what you want to offer them. In this case, some one with for-profit business background might be helpful. The proviso here is that they would need to understand the mission-driven nature of your enterprise to be fully useful. One other proviso-because I stress competitive edge, this is not to discount the important strategies that all nonprofits must deeply consider-those of cooperation and collaboration with others.

5. What is the most appropriate timeline for the plan itself?

Do you want to look out three years, five years, or beyond? There is no pat formulas, but the smaller you are, the more flexible you may be and staying short is probably advisable. Larger agencies can't move so fast and thus need longer planning horizons. The methodology you choose will also play a role in deciding this issue.

6. How long should the process take?

You should probably consider taking two days to a year, spending eight hours to one hundred and eight. Yes, it can be that short or that extended. Much depends on your size and the amount of homework that will need to be done. Professor Bryson suggests that ten percent of key staff members time spent on planning in a year is not unreasonable.

Generally, given time constraints of board members and staff and the time needed to gather information, six months to a year would be a normal range of time for the plan to be completely wrapped up.

7. Is an outside consultant needed?

Well, remember who is writing this article. We're a little biased in favor of planning consultants. We think they can lend objectivity to the process, they can help the chairperson and executive director participate more directly in the process, and they should help move the process crisply along. But if you have some skilled experienced planners in the organization or on the board, you may want to do it yourselves.

In sum, to be effective, formal planning should itself be planned. These steps should be taken to plan a plan.

1) Determine your level of commitment to inclusive strategic decision-making and your current organizational capacity to plan.

2) Think through the logistics and the methodology that are most likely to meet the needs of your organization; and

3) don't hesitate to look to outside resources if you think they could assist you in answering any of the above questions or guide your process.


Contact Information
Sandra Larson Consulting |
11472 Fairfield Rd. West, Suite 302
Minnetonka, MN 55305
952-595-0432 | 612-964-4389 (Mobile)


Managerial Volunteers
Case for Philanthrophy
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© 2006 Sandra Larson Consulting