Not-For-Profit Strategic Planning Isn’t Easy

Strategic Planning isn’t easy for any organization. I am, however, trying to make a point here. Not-For-Profits (NFPs) have some special and unique challenges when it comes to strategic planning that needs to be addressed in order to produce meaningful results.

The Board

A number of years ago, I was on the board of an NFP that decided to include the board in a “Strategic Planning Saturday.” There was lots of talk, opinions and writing on the wall, but in the end not very much was accomplished.

Which gets me to my first challenge: the Board.

Boards are vitally important to NFPs as they are often made up of major contributors and they form the network through which the organization gets to other major contributors. This advantage comes with a couple of problems. First, the size of the group makes it difficult to have a strategic conversation without getting distracted by tangential conversations that eat up a lot of time. The second is the board is usually made up of very successful people. They all think they have more experience and knowledge than the staff and executive team does about what the organization should do and how they should do it.

In my experience, successful strategic planning is best done with as small a group as possible that represents the key aspects of the organization. My recommendation to NFPs is to have members of the executive team interview key board members and solicit their guidance prior to beginning any strategic planning sessions. Then have the executive team use this as input in their formulation of the plan. Finally, the executive team should present it to the board as a complete product and solicit their support in implementing it. Having the buy-in and support from the Board is crucial to eventual success, but managing their input is also key.

One approach that I have seen work well is to produce a report from the accumulated background, historical information, and SWOT analysis outlined in the referenced eBook below and provide this report (marked confidential) to each of the board members for their review and comment.


Another distinction that NFPs have in strategic planning is addressing the needs of the various constituents that are involved in executing the mission of the NFP. Often these include service recipients or clients, facilitators who bring the clients to the organization, family members of the clients, partnering organizations, licensing agencies, and donors. All of these stakeholders see the organization from a different perspective. They have different wants and needs and will judge and recommend the organization by how well it satisfies their needs.

Each stakeholder almost needs a separate section of the strategic plan for them that outlines their needs, how the organization addresses them and what the ultimate result is desired to be. This is especially important for new client groups who the organization wants to serve, or for groups whose needs are changing.


Another area that needs special attention in an NFP strategic plan is how the organization plans to communicate to its various stakeholders. Communication is vital to the success of an NFP and should be well thought out as a special part of any strategic plan. One message does not fit all in this case. Clients and donors, for example, want to hear about different things. While they each may be interested in results, for example, their concerns are miles apart. That they each receive communication specifically tailored to them is crucial.


How a plan gets implemented is very different for an NFP than it is for a for-profit company. An NFP almost always has fewer staff and resources available to them. They, therefore, have to be more restrained in their planning, but mostly they have to be vigilant in the implementation of the plan. Implementation is not only key for the desired results, but also for maintaining credibility with the stakeholders. How the stakeholders see the results being produced will have ramifications that may or may not be desirable.

In Conclusion

Strategic planning isn’t easy for any organization but has far-reaching benefits that make it well worth the effort. This is true for NFPs perhaps even more so than for-profit companies. In addition, know that the first significant effort will be even more difficult, but it gets easier as each new planning cycle comes around. A strong planning ethos will contribute immensely to the organization and its stakeholders.


If you want to learn more about the process, please download this eBook and feel free to call me if you want to discuss any aspect of it. While this eBook was written with for-profit companies in mind, using the guidelines set out above will allow you to adapt it for an NFP.