The Revolution of Nonprofit Strategic Planning: Fusing Tradition with Innovation

Blog post by Jaron Bernstein, (5 minute read) Is there a reality in which organizations can recalibrate strategies, identify emerging trends and maintain alignment with their mission, while remaining flexible and adaptable to new opportunities as they arise?

Strategic Planning is Leveling Up 

In nonprofit management, strategic planning has long been seen as the compass guiding organizations towards their goals. With effective, thoughtful strategic planning, organizations can increase their fundraising dollars, expand their community impact and make a greater difference in more people’s lives.

In recent decades, however, there has been a growing acknowledgment that the realities and issues facing the nonprofit community are ever-changing and evolving from year to year, presenting questions about the efficacy of the traditional 3–5-year strategic planning process.  At Alford Group, we guide our clients through a multi-year strategic planning process toward a final product that is dynamic, actionable and easily revisited to track progress. We know that a shiny, beautifully designed strategic plan document that sits on the proverbial shelf until it’s time to create a new one is not useful.

In his influential book, “The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution,” David La Piana goes one step further, advocating that nonprofits should ditch the traditional strategic planning process all together for a more nimble, “real-time” alternative.    Time and again, I see clients wrestling with this dichotomy as they plan: recognizing their organization would benefit from a structured short- to medium-term roadmap to ensure alignment with their overall mission and vision, while also acknowledging the need that La Piana champions for flexibility and recalibration of strategies as new opportunities arise. 

Is there a reality in which organizations can recalibrate strategies, identify emerging trends and maintain alignment with their mission, while remaining flexible and adaptable to new opportunities as they arise? What would this approach look like? To answer these questions, let’s first unpack some of the nuances of each approach. We’ll explore the notions of adaptability, stability and foresight in the strategic planning process, and how your organization might incorporate elements of both as it seeks to forge its optimal strategic path.  

 

Traditional Strategic Planning: The Roadmap  

Traditional strategic planning processes offer a structured methodology resulting in a comprehensive roadmap for nonprofits’ long-term success. At Alford Group, our process involves an examination and definition of mission/vision/values, large-scale organizational objectives, broad strategies to achieve our objectives and specific action plans with detailed steps to achieve each strategy. These elements are crafted through three primary activities:  

  1. Strategy design workshop to build the framework 
  2. Stakeholder engagement to test the objectives/strategies identified 
  3. Workgroup sessions to develop actionable steps, tactics, resources and evaluation measures stemming from the identified strategies and objectives 

The resulting “implementation matrix” is often a workbook that contains all the above information in a format that makes tracking progress and revisiting strategies as needed easy and dynamic.  While emphasizing long-term vision, clarity and progress measurement, this type of process does require upfront investment of staff time and focus; development of the plan may last anywhere from 4 to 6 months. Thus, a traditional planning process can be perceived as cumbersome for nonprofits that find themselves in rapidly changing circumstances. Despite its outward limitations, however, this approach ensures alignment and coherence across the organization, fostering clarity amidst uncertainty. 

Considerations 

  • Clarity and focus: A comprehensive roadmap is offered for achieving long-term objectives and reducing “shiny object syndrome”. 
  • Stability: Guidance is provided amidst uncertainty with clearly established and agreed-upon objectives. 
  • Stakeholder alignment: Coherence and coordination are ensured across the organization. 
  • Budget planning: Priorities are established with the necessary runway to align with budget and fundraising plans which communicates thoughtfulness to funders and stakeholders. 

Potential Limitations 

  • Inflexibility: Adaptation to rapidly changing environments can be difficult and limit stakeholder engagement. 
  • Hierarchical decision-making: If the process is not designed well, buy-in and ownership can be impeded. 
  • Resource intensiveness: Upfront investment in time and resources may be prohibitive. 

 

Real-Time Strategic Planning: The Strategy Screen 

Real-time strategic planning, championed by La Piana, emphasizes a nimbler approach to organizational strategy. This methodology introduces the concept of a strategy screen— a dynamic framework that defines the specific, important criteria an organization will use to make decisions. This tool serves as a lens through which all opportunities and challenges are filtered, ensuring decisions are aligned with strategic priorities and values. By establishing clear criteria for decision-making, nonprofits can navigate complexity with clarity and confidence, avoiding distractions and remaining focused on their overarching values. 

Prior to developing the strategy screen, La Piana’s real-time strategic planning process emphasizes answering the question, “Who are we as an organization?” Central to this methodology is the comprehensive definition of organizational identity, position in the marketplace and competitive advantage.   Utilizing these foundational elements, nonprofits can then engage in ongoing analysis of big organizational questions and strategic opportunities as they arise. Rather than waiting for the next planning cycle, organizations are empowered to address critical issues in real-time, leveraging their strategy screen to assess risks, evaluate opportunities and make informed decisions swiftly. This proactive approach not only enhances organizational agility but also fosters a culture of continuous learning and improvement, positioning nonprofits for sustained success in an ever-evolving landscape. 

Considerations:  

  • Agility and responsiveness: It offers quick adaptation to changing environments. 
  • Transparency: Clearly defined criteria for analyzing organizational opportunities illuminate and accelerate the decision-making process. 
  • Adaptability: It grants the ability to pivot strategies based on real-time feedback, data and opportunities as they present themselves. 

Potential Limitations: 

  • Resource intensiveness: Upfront investment in time and resources to define organizational identity and strategy screen still may be prohibitive. 
  • Illusion of consensus: Though the strategy screen is created collaboratively, its emphasis on quick decision-making could lead some leaders to default to its use rather than involving necessary internal and external stakeholders when needed. 
  • Lack of long-term vision: Short-term focus may compromise overarching strategic goals and relationships. 
  • Lack of clarity and stability: Organizations (especially larger ones) that value consensus and clear direction may desire more structure. 

 

Utilizing Elements of Both Real-Time and Traditional Strategic Planning 

Now that we understand the principles of both real-time and traditional strategic planning processes, here’s how nonprofit organizations could effectively integrate elements of both methodologies: 

  1. Establish a Clear Vision and Mission Begin with the foundational elements of traditional strategic planning by defining organizational identity through a clear vision and mission statement. This provides a guiding framework for decision-making, ensures alignment across the organization and is a crucial investment of time and effort before embarking on any planning process. As mission and vision are discussed, ask questions inspired by real-time planning’s methodology around position in the marketplace and competitive advantage, such as “Who else is doing what we do? What sets us apart from them?”
  2. Utilize Strategy Screens to Complement Periodic Strategic Reviews The real-time planning tool of a strategy screen allows for a structured decision-making process in response to live-time questions or potential strategies. This tool could be utilized as a complement to periodic strategic reviews akin to traditional planning cycles, which provide opportunities to step back and evaluate progress towards long-term goals. This way, organizations can recalibrate strategies as needed, identify emerging trends and ensure alignment with the overarching mission, while remaining adaptable to new opportunities as they arise. 
  1. Incorporate SMARTIE goals as Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) Ensure that your strategic plan includes KPIs that balance short-term metrics with long-term indicators of success. This allows organizations to track immediate progress while also measuring their impact over time, ensuring accountability and transparency. Utilize the SMARTIE framework (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timebound, Inclusive and Equitable) to ensure goals can be attained and have the intended impact. 
  1. Foster a Culture of Learning and Adaptation Cultivate a culture that values experimentation, innovation and continuous improvement. Encourage staff to embrace change, take calculated risks and learn from both successes and failures. This mindset of agility and adaptability is central to real-time planning, but requires clear vision and consensus built through a traditional planning process. 
  2. Promote Stakeholder Engagement and Collaboration Whether utilizing a traditional or real-time approach, it is crucial to emphasize stakeholder engagement throughout the planning process. By involving staff, board members, donors, community partners and beneficiaries in decision-making, nonprofits can harness diverse perspectives and foster a sense of ownership and alignment with established vision and goals. 

 

You can have it all. 

By integrating principles from both traditional and real-time methodologies, nonprofits can create a strategic planning approach that combines the best of both worlds — agility, adaptability and responsiveness, along with stability, clarity and long-term vision. This hybrid model empowers organizations to navigate the complexities of the nonprofit landscape with confidence and purpose, driving sustainable impact and meaningful change.  As “The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution” unfolds, let us embrace this synergistic approach, empowering nonprofits to thrive amidst change and uncertainty.