As we celebrate our 15th anniversary, we’re publishing a series of articles about how our business has changed over the years. This month’s article focuses on the shifts in strategic planning.
Ten years ago, strategic plans focused on solving problems. The planning committees were comprised largely of executive leaders. They had very little to say about the role of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in strategic planning.
Today, strategic planning has changed by becoming more visionary and collaborative, incorporating DEI, and centering on implementation and action. Below, we explore four major trends in how strategic planning, or developing strategic frameworks has changed.
Moving from programming to envisioning
Strategic planning is an organization’s process of defining its strategy and making decisions on how to allocate its resources (staff, budget, programs, and services) to pursue that strategy. According to the seminal work by Henry Mintzberg in Harvard Business Review, “The Fall and Rise of Strategic Planning,” strategic planning has experienced its fair share of shifts. Since it was born in the mid-1960s, the process has evolved from programming strategy (identifying what already exists), to planning strategy divorced from action to strategic thinking, which is about synthesis, intuition, and creativity. Mintzberg comments: “The outcome of strategic thinking is an integrated perspective of the enterprise, a not-too-precisely articulated vision of direction.”
Strategic thinking is an important soft skill for nonprofit leaders today, and we at Brighter Strategies believe strategic envisioning is its close cousin. Today many organizations are embracing a diversity of desired approaches for strategic planning, from competitive analysis to more visionary tools. Woven through these tools is appreciative inquiry, a collaborative, strengths-based approach to change in organizations to help an organization amplify what’s going well, rather than investigating problems to fix.
Prioritizing collaboration and inclusion
In 2008 many nonprofits conducted strategic planning in a vacuum. They set off on leadership retreats or formed ongoing committees where their best executive minds designed a three-year plan for how the organization would hone its competitive advantage. Then, they distilled those detailed insights into complicated communications for the rest of the organization, funders, and community to consume. And often after the plan was construed, it sat on a physical office shelf or in a digital PC folder, unopened until the next planning cycle began.
In 2023 many nonprofits have thankfully grown their strategic planning processes to become much more collaborative and inclusive in their process. Today more voices are invited to the table including staff at all levels, community members, advocates, and families. No longer is the approach a top-down initiative run by a Board of Directors. Through town hall meetings, surveys, focus groups, and online platforms, organizations solicit input from multiple stakeholders to ensure the strategic plan aligns with the aspirations and needs of those it serves. This collaborative approach fosters a sense of ownership and commitment among all involved.
Collaboration might also take the form of a strategic alliance with another nonprofit. BoardSource recommends: “As you clarify your organization’s strategic priorities, you may find that they are best accomplished in partnership with others. Consider a strategic alliance with another organization to accelerate your mission work and unlock new opportunities for impact.”
Integrating with DEI Initiatives
Considering myriad voices through a collaborative approach leads to greater social impact and goes hand in hand with the next major evolution in strategic planning—integrating diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Today, organizations strive to ensure that their strategies not only serve their mission but helps them live their values around Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.
This shift has been gradual during the past decade and a half. Fifteen years ago, few organizations considered DEI a strategic priority. Ten years ago, due to their increased awareness of its positive business impact, many nonprofit leaders made DEI a program priority within their strategic plans. Today, to address systemic inequities inside and outside of the organization, DEI practices now run throughout the planning process. For example, many nonprofits conduct DEI assessments ahead of strategic planning to ensure goals and strategies reflect findings from the assessment. Others connect internal DEI needs to the DEI impact nonprofits are looking to make in the community.
Connecting DEI to Strategic Planning
Nonprofits can connect DEI to the strategic planning process by:
- Tying the DEI business case to organizational strategy
- Integrating DEI stakeholders and the strategic planning team
- Communicating goals creatively
- Measuring progress and outcomes
Many of the shortfalls of traditional strategic planning have to do with stopping the process after planning ends. The purpose of the plan, however, is to do something with i. The purpose is to use it to transform the future state. Nonprofits have learned over the years that implementation is where the real magic of strategic planning occurs.
Plan-based action is when stakeholders transform the high-level goals into operations and actions. Key performance indicators (KPIs) are critical in this transition. Organizations can track these measures to determine whether they are meeting targets. Additionally, evaluating and assessing the financial results of various projects within the plan keeps the organization accountable to key targets. Many organizations today use business intelligence (BI) software to visually depict KPIs and financial results; this information allows them to revise strategies as needed in real time, to ensure business goals are achieved.
Such advancements in technology have redefined how nonprofit teams collaborate on strategic planning. In 2008, nonprofits primarily relied on historical data and anecdotal evidence to inform their strategies. Today, data analytics tools now provide nonprofits with a wealth of insights into donor behavior, program effectiveness, and community needs. This data-driven approach allows organizations to make informed decisions, allocate resources more effectively, and tailor their strategies to meet the evolving demands of their stakeholders.
Strategic planning has always been the compass guiding nonprofit organizations toward their mission-driven goals. However, the methodologies and paradigms surrounding this critical process have evolved significantly. The need to be agile and flexible has bolstered the nonprofit industry’s commitment to the above changes. Many organizations are abandoning the three-to-five-year planning term for a more adaptive approach. Additionally, BoardSource reports a “move toward strategic frameworks articulating organizational priorities, business plans that combine programmatic and operational goals with financial forecasts, as well as more robust annual plans with clear metrics and timelines.”
With this new focus on continuous learning, monitoring, and adjusting strategies in real-time, many nonprofit organizations partner with outside experts to refine their approaches while staying true to their mission in an ever-changing world. If you are interested in discovering how a partnership with Brighter Strategies might improve your strategic planning, contact us here to learn more.