Dear Nonprofiteer, Those darn funders want a strategic plan!

Dear Nonprofiteer,

More and more frequently our institutional funders–corporations, government and foundations–ask to see our agency’s strategic plan in support of the grant proposals I keep churning out.  The only problem is, our agency doesn’t have a strategic plan.  And when we ask the Executive Director about this, she says, "We have a strategic plan: serve as many people as possible."  Is she crazy or am I? 

Signed, Flying by the seat of some very worn pants

Dear Flying,

"Serve as many people as possible" is not a strategic plan; it’s a mission–and a relatively uninspiring one, at that.  You might try explaining the difference to your ED this way: the mission says what you’re going to do, while the strategic plan says how.  In fact, of course, the strategic plan also represents a choice of what, out of thousands of possibilities, you’re going to do–but it’s always best to start slowly when trying to educate your boss.

The simple answer to your question is, you’re the sane one: if the institutional funders want a strategic plan, you have to produce what they mean by a strategic plan, or you have to stop expecting them to give you money.  If you pose this stark contrast to your ED, she may get with the program right away ("Nothing concentrates the mind so wonderfully as the prospect of being hanged."). 

If she doesn’t, though, it may be because the phrase "strategic planning" suggests something laborious and endless, featuring debates about angels on pinheads and resulting in a notebook which will collect dust on your shelf.  This is the fault of strategic planning consultants who make themselves essential by making the process opaque and time-consuming.

But here’s the Nonprofiteer’s template for a better process, called (for lack of a catchier name) "Three-Meeting Strategic Planning."  You ask every relevant stakeholder (Board, staff, representative donors and clients, community members) to attend only three meetings:

  • an initial gathering of the full group to identify the issues and problems the process will address;
  • one small-group meeting to propose approaches to those issues and solutions to those problems; and
  • a final full-group session at which the small groups’ ideas are reviewed and reconciled.

Voila: instant strategic plan.  And, as the Nonprofiteer used to tell clients who feared to ask Board members for this much work, "If you can’t get your Board to come to three meetings in 5 months, you’ve got problems I can’t solve."  This process works for as many as 50 people, divided into no more than 4 small groups, or teams. 

It could also be called "Seven-Step Strategic Planning," the seven steps being:

1. Finding out what people are thinking, through focus groups, individual interviews or brainstorming at the opening gathering.

2. Organizing it: identify three or four central issues from the mass of data, and assign a team to each issue.  Assign every member of the process to a single team; ask each team’s most inclusive and cooperative Board member to serve as team captain, and each team’s biggest chatterbox to serve as reporter.

3. Reviewing it: spend the first group meeting getting the group to agree that the right issues have been chosen for team consideration.  Create 5 or 6 specific questions about each issue for each team to answer.

4. Evaluating it in depth: have each team meet once, for a single evening over dinner, to answer its specific questions. 

5. Reporting on it: summarize the team’s conclusions from the reporter’s notes, and circulate them to members of the other teams so everyone knows what everyone else is doing.

6. Reconciling it: spend most of a day (9ish to 3ish) reviewing the team reports, identifying and resolving any conflicts between them, and choosing the single most important task from each one.

7. Summarizing it: write a narrative describing the way issues were identified, formulated and resolved; write a "Goals and Objectives" statement recapping what you’re trying to accomplish and what major initiatives you’ll pursue to accomplish it; and write a plan calendar for the next year or three, with specific tasks laid out in columns: What, Who, By When.

Who is doing all of this, I hear you cry?  To push the process forward and handle all the paperwork–meeting agendas and summaries, team questions and their revisions, the plan itself–it’s useful to have a paid person to act as facilitator and scrivener, especially because an outsider can ask the questions all the insiders are too polite or too shy to ask: "Why don’t you have a Board give-or-get?  What do you mean, you don’t have a computer system?" 

If you absolutely positively can’t bring in a paid consultant, you can do it yourself, with the Board chair acting as facilitator, the team reporters writing their own reports, and the staff formulating it all into a plan; but it’ll take longer and you’ll fare worse.  So spend the $10K or so a consultant will cost (some of the funders demanding strategic plans will actually pay for them), and get it done.

******Is everything hunky-dory at your nonprofit?  No difficulties at all?  Mazel tov.  But if your agency operates in the real world, something might occasionally go wrong–and when that happens, and you’re searching for snappy answers to burning conundrums, ask the Nonprofiteer!  Pose your "Dear Nonprofiteer…" question by hitting the e-mail icon in the left margin, or through the "Comment" section of some earlier posting.  Money cheerfully refunded if not satisfied.****** 


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5 Responses to “Dear Nonprofiteer, Those darn funders want a strategic plan!”

  1. Nancy Schwartz Says:

    Nonprofiteer, what a beautifully simple (and doable) solution. I find the same barrier/lack on the marketing side, and have developed a quick-and-dirty (aka doable) approach to a 90-day marketing plan here —

    Nancy, Publisher,

  2. underalms Says:

    I don’t think you are describing a strategic plan. You are describing an operating plan.

    A strategic plan by definition is one that involves fitting the organization into a broader picture, and for a small organization (meaning under $100 million or 1,000 staff) will always mean charting a path toward either exponential growth or merger into another organization.

    When a foundation says it is looking for a strategic plan, it is a polite way of telling you that your idea is not novel, and you need to link up with the other people who had the idea before you.

    Just an opinion.

  3. M fred Friedman Says:


    I spent the best part of the afternoon working on Next Steps, NFP’s strategic plan. One of the items in the plan is to tell you, and others that Next Steps, NFP’s has a web site And the web site has my blog. I should tell you that the nonprofiteer is part of the inspiration. Of course, since I have not told anyone about the web site and blog, although it is in the strategic plan, I am mostly talking to myself.

  4. Nonprofiteer Says:

    Underalms makes a provocative point, but I think it’s wrong: it is not true that small nonprofits can only be strategic by seeking to grow huge or join up with some other huge entity. Our society’s whole rationale for having its most important work done by groups governed by amateurs–that the community is best represented by a community board, and that community representation produces responsiveness to community needs–falls apart if the “community” in question is some national behemoth. If social services (particularly) are going to be provided by huge organizations, wouldn’t it be infinitely more efficient to have them provided by the government?

    Having said which, I acknowledge that my version of strategic planning is so concrete that it could benefit from more attention to the environment in which a given nonprofit works, and less to the workings of the given nonprofit. That is, let’s not forget to ask, “What are we trying to do, and for whom? Are we succeeding? If not, what’s in the way?” and (yet another step removed) “Is what we’re trying to do worth doing?”

    Meanwhile, thanks to Ms. Schwartz and Mr. Friedman for their votes of confidence in the system, and their contributions to explaining how it might actually work in the trenches.

  5. Jane Mostiller Says:

    Hello.This post was extremely motivating, particularly since I was looking for thoughts on this topic last Sunday.

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