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The Effectiveness of Your Nonprofit’s Strategic Plan Hinges on Six Simple Words

Creating a compelling strategic plan can be fun. You and your team embark on a journey of organizational discovery, generating big ideas with the right stakeholders, and dreaming about the impact your nonprofit can make. These are inspirational and energizing activities. But, it’s like deciding to get in shape. You plan, buy the gym membership and workout gear, yet nothing has changed yet. The important (and sometimes hard) part is getting out of your warm bed on a cold February Monday morning and getting to the gym.

The hard part is executing the plan.

Everyone has a dream. The ambitious make that dream a goal. The motivated build a plan. The successful execute.

– Mark Harari

To achieve success, you must stay committed to your plan each and every day, even as the environment changes, people leave, and budget constraints arise. And to do that, you need to follow these six simple words: 

A well-built strategic plan is valuable. It’s incumbent on you to prioritize the work of bringing it to fruition. It’s not always easy, but it is possible, and it’s rewarding. Here’s how.

Set Clear Objectives that Align With Your Strategic Vision

Your strategic plan is a framework to guide your organization to achieve its mission and fulfill its vision. It consists of a series of aspirational goals and a description of what success looks like. The first step to ensure that you have an actionable plan is to set clear strategic objectives. A good objective has a few parts.

1. Strategic Objectives are the things you want to accomplish by the end of the plan (e.g., 3-5 years). Each objective should:

  • Explicitly move your organization toward achieving its vision. If it doesn’t do that, it doesn’t belong in your strategic plan.
  • Succinctly state the specific outcome you plan to achieve. Keep this to one sentence, no more.
  • Include a short narrative expounding on the impact the objective will make once achieved. This is like a mini-vision that orients the team around the objective’s overarching purpose.

2. Measures define success. What are the things we will measure to let us know how close we are to achieving the objectives? Each measure should include a baseline (where we are today) and a target (where we want to be by the end of the plan).

3. Initiatives describe the work we need to do to “move the needle” on the measures (aka projects). They have defined tasks, due dates, and people accountable. Each initiative should have one person responsible for it. If everyone is responsible then no one is responsible.

Establish a Clear Timeline for Achieving the Objectives

Creating a realistic timeline requires you to think about implementation in two ways. First, you’ll need to chart out how long it will take to complete each task and subtask using sound project management principles. And second, you’ll need to ensure your team has the bandwidth to do the work.

For example, say one of your nonprofit’s strategic goals is to build a performing arts center. One objective within that goal might be to launch a capital campaign to raise the funds needed to build the building. That objective might be further broken down into a series of deliverables such as hiring a campaign consultant and conducting a feasibility study. Each of these should be assigned to a responsible party and tied to a specific deadline. 

In addition to creating a clear timeline, you should…

  • Appoint a plan manager. This person is responsible for overseeing the implementation of the plan, defining which tasks must be completed in any given month, quarter, and year, and scheduling/convening meetings to keep the team focused and accountable.
  • Use a project management tool (something like SmartSheet, Asana, or Basecamp) to help monitor the implementation of the initiatives. These tools can provide a structured process to design, monitor, and maintain the implementation of your plan.
  • Be Agile. You never know where you will be in a year, let alone in three or five years. It’s essential to set long-term goals, but you should implement them in iterations, a quarter at a time. Decide at the beginning of the quarter what you need to accomplish to stay on track, make sure anyone accountable knows their assignments, check in frequently to see if the tasks are on track, learn as you go, and then plan the next quarter.

Assess Your Team’s Capacity to Handle Additional Work

When all the activities are defined and connected, you will be able to create the schedule. The second element in creating clear timelines is to honestly and objectively determine whether or not your team has the bandwidth to accomplish what you’re asking of them. Therefore, once you’ve defined the tasks required to achieve each objective, determine the amount of time it will take for a team member to do the work. 

Did you just add the equivalent of a part-time job to someone’s already full plate? If so, you may need to reprioritize existing work, offer additional compensation, or grow your team. Being realistic and allocating resources appropriately is key if you want to carry out the work you’ve set out to do within the timeline you’ve established.

Build Accountabilities Into Your Strategic Plan

Humans need accountability. Think back to our workout analogy. Those who hire a nutritionist or a trainer often see better results than those who don’t. Why? On our own, we’re simply not very good at changing our habits and maintaining the discipline required to reach a distant goal.

The Value-Add of a Plan Manager

A strategic plan manager is the equivalent of a personal trainer for your team. This role is essential to realize your strategic plan’s full potential. If you have someone on staff with the skills and time to fill the role – great. However, it’s not uncommon that a staff person believes they can manage the plan themselves on top of their current commitments. That’s not always the case, so be sure to take that into consideration.

There is a steep opportunity cost of poorly executing the plan. Without someone to keep the plan top of mind on a regular basis, the odds of achieving your dream get a lot longer.

Accountability in Action

Plan managers are singularly focused on keeping your project moving forward and holding the team accountable for the tasks they’re assigned to complete.

This involves:

  • Helping the team build out the objectives and tasks for the next 90-day period.
  • Scheduling recurring meetings and asking each team member to report on their progress.
  • Facilitating conversations about what’s working and what’s not so the team can pivot and adjust their approach as needed.
  • Measuring the success of each objective and reporting the results.
  • Supporting the team in using the project management system accurately and consistently. 

This is not simply about checking items off of your team’s to-do list. Rather, it’s about regularly and thoughtfully evaluating the work you’re doing. Is everyone on course? Are you accomplishing what you hoped you would? Is each objective making the desired impact? Are there any unforeseen obstacles or challenges that impact your original plans?

Being accountable doesn’t mean rigidly sticking to a predetermined course of action. It means honestly assessing where you are so you can stay agile, pivot, and course correct as needed. You need the help of a dedicated person to foster this kind of accountability. 

Make Your Nonprofit’s Strategic Plan the Valuable Asset it Can Be

Your organization exists for a purpose — to serve your constituents and make a positive difference in the world. That makes your strategic plan a tremendous asset, one that can help you fulfill that special purpose and advance your organizational mission in powerful ways.

When your organization believes that — deeply, sincerely, and completely —  you’ll be able to dig deep and consistently do the hard work required to make your plan a reality.

has a background in grant writing, grant and program management, and nonprofit administration.