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.
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
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.
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 StrategicPlanning
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
One other less than legitimate reason we also here 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 pan. Sharpen your pencil and answer
the following questions:
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.
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
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
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
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
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