What were you doing a year or two ago? How about 3 or 5 years? What were you thinking about -- your career, your family, or the social issues of the day? What was making you worried or excited? Did the future feel hopeful? Do you remember whether you felt prepared for that future, ready to handle whatever came your way? Did you make a plan for yourself, perhaps even going as far as writing it down?
Fast forward to today. Were you in fact prepared? What do you wish you had done differently? If you knew back then what you know now, what impact might that have had on the plan you made? Has your plan been helpful, or has it felt increasingly outdated and less relevant?
Nonprofit organizations face a similar dilemma. Think about the issues affecting your organization a year or two ago, or perhaps even 3 or 5. What was making you feel energized or concerned? What was the conversation like at management team or board meetings? Like most organizations, you were likely exploring goals and objectives for the future. You were making plans for what you were going to accomplish and identifying the resources needed to get it done.
Consider your present situation. What did you get right? Were you prepared? What’s going on today you that you weren’t even remotely considering two, three or more years ago? Have the plans you made back then served you as well as you had hoped?
I think that for many of us, the dramatic changes in our nation’s political, economic, social and philanthropic landscapes have made us stop and think: Are we managing our organizations today using potentially outdated plans crafted years ago? Do we feel caught or restricted by strategies and objectives developed when our operating landscape might have been completely different? Is that the smartest way we can serve the communities or causes we support?
Dynamic times call for dynamic planning models. Rigid strategic plans created with three and five-year time horizons are not as useful as they were in the past. What is needed now is a new approach that focuses more on thoughtful planning rather than on the resulting plan itself. We must embrace a philosophy recognizing that decision making informed by constant learning is what leads to strategic action and lasting impact.
This approach must balance a need for stability and continuity with an equally important need for agility and flexibility. We must go beyond the basic “refresh the plan” exercise conducted at the annual board retreat. We must be ready to change tactics based on evolving perspectives and shifting landscapes. Effective strategic planning must enable our organizations to pivot nimbly based on ongoing data collection. It must foster a culture that is open to failing, trusting that failure is followed by learning that makes the next move a smarter one.
In his June 2016 Harvard Business Review article, “Strategic Plans are Less Important Than Strategic Planning,” Strategic Factors Managing Director Graham Kenney said, “In a fluid, unpredictable environment you need to have a very different understanding of plans and planning.” He’s right; it’s time to revitalize the strategic planning process for our organizations.
I believe that all of us in the nonprofit/social impact sector will agree that it is highly fluid and almost staggeringly unpredictable. Planning efforts and the resulting planning tools must be responsive to that reality. If our nonprofits are to thrive, we must transform our understanding of the role that thoughtful, sustained planning plays in our success. With such new, dynamic efforts in place, we will be better able to make a real difference, change lives and improve society for many years to come.
Please join me on Tuesday, May 9 for my presentation, Planning to Plan: Terms, Trends and Taking Off in the Right Direction, a free program at Foundation Center Northeast-Washington, DC when we will talk in-depth about the strategic planning process.
MARSHALL H. GINN, CFRE is an accomplished nonprofit leader, consultant, trainer and volunteer with 30 years of experience working with local, regional and national nonprofits, philanthropic organizations and professional associations. He is a recognized expert and advocate for advancing excellence in nonprofit management, promoting effective philanthropy, and expanding the body of knowledge in the sector. Marshall is the founder of Capital Development Strategies, a consulting firm based in Arlington, Virginia.