Strategic Thinking & Planning for Nonprofits

Guest blog by: Cynthia Woolbright, Founder and President, Woolbright Group

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once said, “Greatness is not where we stand, but in what direction we are moving.” An organization’s vision and mission aspires to great things. But to accomplish them, they need a compass and a map. That map – a strategic plan – shows the path they can chart to get where they hope to go. The compass guides them and tell them the direction they are headed on their journey, let’s call our compass the goals and objectives set forth in your plan. And now, a few thoughts on strategic thinking and planning.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. was standing at his window, looking out over New York’s skyline when his new assistant arrived at work. Having seen this each morning for a week, the assistant gathered his courage to ask his Rockefeller if there was anything he might do to help. Rockefeller turned to him and said, “Thank you, but no, I am thinking.”

Strategic thinking and planning have been around for many decades. Both are critical to success and effectiveness for any leaders and the organizations they lead. Remember when Alice reached the fork in the road and asked the Cheshire cat which one to take? He asked where she wanted to go, and when she was uncertain, his apt reply as “If you don’t know where you want to go, then take either road.” Smart cat.

Strategic thinking is an active, on-going process. It helps get you where you want to go. In all aspects, it requires us to envision what we want to accomplish and to formulate solutions to problems and leverage opportunities. Strategic planning focuses on how you will implement and translate one’s strategic thinking into measurable and actionable objectives. Once the plan is developed, it requires tracking progress and adjusting accordingly. It lays out the details of how your strategic thinking will be turned into action with benchmarks and timeline.

John Bryson, the McKnight Presidential Professor of Planning & Public Affairs at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, and author of Strategic Planning for Public and Nonprofit Organizations: A Guide to Strengthening and Sustaining Organizational Achievement, shares that strategic planning is a disciplined effort to produce fundamental decisions and actions that shape and guide what an organization is, what it does and why it does it. He states that it “is a set of concepts, procedures and tools by which organizations can think strategically, clarify sense of direction and establish priorities, but it involves making decisions today in light of their future consequences as a result of developing a basis or a benchmark for these decisions.”

When Wayne Gretzky was asked about his extraordinary abilities, he said, “I skate to where I think the puck will be.” Bryson suggests that he had the “confidence to know basically everything there is to know about strategic thinking and acting in hockey games. As a Celtics’ fan, I would add that Larry Bird, when asked about the same question, said “I run to where I think the ball will be.” Both men were highly capable of thinking strategically and clearly understood their respective organization’s purpose.

Today, the speed and sheer volume of change, focus, and information requires us to, like Rockefeller, become strategic thinkers and develop a roadmap that helps us benchmark, measure and adjust in our journey to accomplish our strategic goals.

I was fortunate to work at two colleges where we had a strategic plan by which our respective departments would then develop their own plan, aligning our plan to contribute to the college’s strategic goals and objectives. At both institutions, we found great success in the measurement of our plan---all tied to the strategic thinking that informed our strategic plan.

Often staff share that they have enough on their plate without “adding more from the strategic plan.” If you are truly a strategic thinking and planning organization, all work plans should align with the strategic plan and inform the resources and staff functions required to accomplish it. In other words, a strategic plan is not just another check on the “to do” list – it should drive the “to do” list! Often, organizations confuse strategic planning with business planning. Your annual business plan should be driven by your strategic plan. It is essentially operationalizing, on an annual basis, all the resources and tasks needed to continue program on your strategic plan. And, to ensure you’re responding to the ever-changing environment, taking a few “Rockefeller moments” each day to think strategically is essential.

Robert de Haaff, in his book Strategic Thinking Skills, identifies four key qualities of strategic thinkers:

  1. They’re always learning
  2. They always seek advice from others
  3. They’re not afraid to take risks
  4. They never forget organizational purpose.

Half goes on to suggest that strategic thinkers need to:

  1. Be proactive
  2. Understand counter arguments
  3. Constantly optimize
  4. Keep up to date with news and trends.

I would add that finding a mentor would be quite valuable. Now, you can be a strategic thinker but to actualize your thinking, you need to develop a strategic plan. How do you go about that? You’ll find there are numerous approaches to strategic planning. I highly recommend you consider talking with a variety of consultants who can work with your senior team, Board, and constituents to develop a process that works for your organizational culture. A well-conceived planning process will ensure that you bring everyone along in the planning process. Using an outside consultant is well worth the investment because the consultant will serve as an objective facilitator, advisor, and confidante to your team.

Remember, the strategic plan is not your business plan. Your strategic planning process should create time and space for you and your team to “stand at the window” and reflect on your future. It should be a sacred time to have deep and difficult conversations, to reach out and get honest and challenging input from key stakeholders, and a time to hear each other out about what you think your future should look like. True strategic planning is not for the faint of heart. It needs to translate strategic thinking into an action plan that is truly implementable, measurable, and inspirational. A strategic plan should stretch your team to new heights toward your vision of who you are as an organization.

So, go stand at your window. Take some time to reflect on your work and how you might reach higher to bring your vision to life.

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