Operationalizing your strategic plan
You’ve had your strategic planning retreat, decided on your objectives, and identified the activities that will make those objectives happen. Maybe you’ve even turned your plain document into an aesthetically pleasing graphic for your website.
Strategic Planning Frequently Asked Questions
Strategic planning is a journey of discovery that begins with asking the right questions. In this resource, you’ll find answers to the fundamental questions that will put your nonprofit organization on the path to success.
Now what happens? How do you take your shiny, new strategic plan from words on paper (or on your screen) to action?
Are your objectives SMART?
First, take time to review your objectives and confirm that they are SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound). In the excitement of the retreat, the group may have dreamed up objectives that aren’t quite realistic for the organization. For example, perhaps your organization set an objective to make sure every child has access to healthy food. This is an admirable long-term vision for the organization – but will be a difficult objective for you to achieve in three to five years (the average length of a strategic plan). Don’t set yourself up for failure by creating objectives that just aren’t SMART.
What does success look like?
Once you’ve confirmed that you have SMART objectives, consider what success looks like for each one. What will change? What will have been developed? Success can be measured incrementally, with a baseline and a target, (e.g., an increase in your donor retention rates from the baseline of 45% to the target of 55%) or as a simple yes/no (e.g., complete the development of a marketing plan).
You may learn that you don’t have the data you need to measure your new objectives (a good strategic plan will have the fringe benefit of helping your organization become more data-driven). For example, if donor affinity is key to your objective but isn’t in the database, create a distinct initiative to create it. After a few months of living with the data, you’ll have a better idea of what your baselines are and where your targets should be.
Defining success with numbers gives you, your board, and your staff an objective way to determine whether progress is being made – which creates accountability for those involved. To quote our favorite 19th-century British mathematical physicist, Lord Kelvin:
“When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it, when you cannot…your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind…”
What needs to happen to make these objectives a reality?
For each objective, identify the initiatives that need to be completed to move the needle on the measures that you defined earlier. Initiatives are projects. All projects should have a single accountable person, defined activities, due dates, and task owners (and sometimes budgets). This is an opportunity to get staff members involved — especially those that were not part of the strategic planning team.
Who, when, and how long?
With the activities defined, the last step is to identify who, when, and how long?
Who owns the activity and is accountable for its completion? Select an individual, rather than a group — because when everyone is responsible, no one is responsible.
When will this take place? Is there a deadline for this activity? Is it a priority for the next 30, 60, or 90-days? Or does it need to wait until the next fiscal year? Figure out the general timeline for all activities.
Finally, how long will this activity take? Not in terms of time, but rather in terms of work hours. Estimate the number of hours it will take for a member of your team to finish. Even an educated guess gives you an idea of how these activities can and will fit into a team member’s existing responsibilities.
Check-in and be flexible
You’ve done it! You’ve operationalized your strategic plan and are ready to lead change. As you move forward, schedule regular check-ins to evaluate progress and re-evaluate your plan. Don’t be afraid to change timelines, assignments, measures, or even activities as you move towards achieving your objectives. Flexibility allows you to adapt as you face challenges, rather than letting them bring you and your plan to a halt.