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Take control: The future starts with a strategic plan

October 31, 2012


When are things ever going to get back to normal? This is the question on the lips of many not-for-profit leaders, frustrated over the variables they can’t control in this lingering economic malaise. The fact is that not-for-profits may need to adjust their expectations, goals, and even their mission to a “new normal.”

As staff and rotating board members try to find new revenue and deal with program delivery challenges, the organization can find itself going in many different directions.  Individual silos eventually develop and decisions start being made without a clear view of the big picture. A strategic plan can help keep everyone rowing in the same direction.

If little has changed in your organization since it was founded, its focus and practices may be outdated and incompatible with new financial realities. Creating a strategic plan can provide a framework to help you adapt to change and achieve your long-term goals — even when the future is uncertain.

Fast-moving targets

If your organization works in a rapidly evolving arena, with services that often change, you may believe that long-term planning is a futile exercise. Perhaps you’ve made strategic plans in the past and felt they weren’t productive. But they may simply have been too narrowly or too broadly focused.

Every organization can benefit from a strategic plan that defines its mission and values and outlines strategic goals and the steps necessary to achieve them. Frequent adjustments and updates can keep the plan relevant to your changing environment.

Mission and values

Strategic planning starts with your not-for-profit’s mission statement. Does it accurately describe what you do? If not, decide whether your not-for-profit suffers from “mission drift” and needs to return to its original focus — or whether you simply need to rewrite your mission statement to reflect current realities.

Next, define your organization’s values. Values may relate to the people you serve but should also include how your not-for-profit operates. For example, is an open and team-oriented working environment important? Then include it on the list.

All too often we operate in a vacuum, so be sure to seek input from internal and external stakeholders during this process. This includes board members, staff, donors, major grantmakers and beneficiaries of your services. Multiple viewpoints about your organization’s mission and values will help keep long-term goals realistic. Plus, you want everyone who’ll be affected by your finalized strategic plan to enjoy a sense of ownership in it.

A creative exercise

Once you’ve established your mission and values, use them as a springboard for setting strategic goals. Say, for example, your mission is to provide English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction to residents of your metropolitan area, but you currently only offer classes within your city’s limits. Your strategic goals might relate to expanding ESL programs to the surrounding suburbs.

To kick off your goal-setting session, ask some questions (and encourage creative answers):
•    What has our not-for-profit accomplished? How does that differ from what we’d hoped it would have accomplished by now?
•    Should our organization maintain its current focus? Or are there more pressing needs that deserve our attention?
•    What would we set out to accomplish if money were no object?
•    What can we do to make our organization more attractive to donors, members or grantmakers?
Goals that answer such questions should be achievable, specific and measurable. Be sure to describe how your not-for-profit hopes to accomplish each one and how you’ll monitor progress toward it.

Implementation challenge

Many strategic plans ultimately die because the organization fails to break goals down into small, achievable steps. For example, if your goal is to increase online donations by 20%, separate out such tasks as “simplify and upgrade online donation page” and “use Facebook and Twitter to publicize donation options.”

Another potential challenge is getting stakeholders to believe in the goals and willingly make the changes that are required to achieve them. Real change starts with your not-for-profit’s leadership. If managers and board members make your organization’s strategic goals and the tasks associated with them a high priority, staff members are more likely to follow suit.

To help ensure progress, break your plan into annual (or even quarterly) objectives and assign responsibility for achieving each of them to specific individuals. Developing an annual plan allows you to measure and reward performance in achieving individual objectives on the road to accomplishing overall organizational goals.

Eye on the ball

Maintaining focus is one of the most difficult parts of implementing a strategic plan. But don’t ditch your plan because you and your staff occasionally get distracted or fail to achieve every goal in their allotted time period. Strategic planning isn’t a one-time exercise but an ongoing effort that helps keep your not-for-profit moving in the right direction.

For more information contact Michael Borowitz at [email protected].

All content provided in this article is for informational purposes only. Matters discussed in this article are subject to change. For up-to-date information on this subject please contact a Clark Schaefer Hackett professional. Clark Schaefer Hackett will not be held responsible for any claim, loss, damage or inconvenience caused as a result of any information within these pages or any information accessed through this site.


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