Why Strategic Planning for Nonprofits Needs High Priority

Why Strategic Planning for Nonprofits Needs High Priority

Many nonprofit organizations and foundations struggle with limited capacity and do not have the luxury of time or surplus of funding to reflect on how each task at hand contributes to their overall strategy. Nonprofit employees and board members can be overwhelmed by day-to-day activities, making it a challenge to take an introspective step back and improve strategic management.

Unfortunately, this puts up blinders as to where holes exist in their systems and plans. This can also lead to problems in accountability, a weak strategic plan, not to mention the staff stretched thin. 

Nonprofit organizations typically are faced with several business challenges from inefficiencies in operations and deficiencies in program planning. Other issues nonprofits face are limited resources, and aligning their culture with clear, measurable business goals.

A survey conducted by The Center for Social Innovation (CSI) at Stanford Graduate School of Business found that most nonprofits have difficulty achieving goals due to gaps in strategic management and leadership:

“More than 80 percent of nonprofit organizations struggle with at least one of the seven fundamental elements of nonprofit leadership and management, thus hampering their overall performance and their ability to achieve their goals.”

Why is Strategic Planning Important for Nonprofits?

In nonprofit organizations, staff, board members, and stakeholders usually have strong emotional ties to the mission and core values. Instinctively, each team member, without hesitation, rolls their sleeves up and does heavy lifting wherever they are needed. At first glance, this is the beauty of nonprofit organizations. You could even say this is a great model for passionate teamwork. But in that type of work culture, it is common for staff to wear a multitude of hats and juggle several projects at once. Unfortunately, this results in an ongoing bombardment of growing responsibilities that pushes strategic planning to the back burner. 

All the while, nonprofit employees – from entry level to the executive team — find themselves hopping from one project to the next. This creates a reactionary state of putting fires out rather than strategic management or systematic approach. When nonprofit employees focus only on completing mounting tasks and don’t dedicate time to strategic thinking and planning, it can make them lose sight of the bigger picture.

Just 11 percent of organizations in the nonprofit sector can scale their impact based on strategic thinking and management, according to The Stanford Survey on Leadership and Management in the Nonprofit Sector.

Nonprofit Strategic Planning Consultant vs. Interim Executive Director

Many not-for-profit organizations realize they have overtaxed their internal resources and are slipping into inefficiencies. When this occurs, some look to nonprofit strategic planning consultants for guidance. Although these traditional consultants may provide a recommended strategy, they usually do not stay for the long term to help in the implementation of vital projects and plans. Because they are not embedded in the organization, they also are exposed to a limited view of what makes the organization tick and where the gaps exist.
“Consultants are not usually in a position to institutionalize systems or foster a culture to sustain strategic alignment,” according to the report, Achieving Ongoing Effectiveness + Resilience in Social Enterprises. 

A highly-effective alternative to the consultant route is hiring nonprofit interim leadership who are expert in nonprofit growth and renewal. Over a  period, ranging from 6 – 18 months the interim executive provides an unbiased outside perspective of what they see. An interim executive also brings a wealth of experience working with multiple nonprofit scenarios, and has successfully developed and implemented a variety of nonprofit strategic planning models.

The interim executive, ranging from an interim COO to interim CFO to interim CIO partners with the permanent management team or board, and provides an in-depth assessment of what is needed for stability, growth, and sustainability. Based on their findings, they work with the organization’s leaders to craft a strategic plan that addresses infrastructure, alignment of business systems, nonprofit governance, fundraising, revenue building, program planning, and transformation goals. They also help nonprofits develop realistic metrics and measurements that are not only ambitious but achievable. 

Interims can also act as nonprofit interim executive directors, and bring much-needed stabilization to a nonprofit organization. For nonprofits that are coping with low morale, internal tensions, uncertainty, and breakdowns in communication, they can quickly assess the root causes of these issues, and begin to repair them. They identify where recurrent problems are, and help departments better collaborate through positive employee engagement. 

An interim executive director can guide the process of restructuring a nonprofit organization. They are equipped to dive in, and uncover systemic issues, operational deficiencies, leadership needs, and funding opportunities. With their expertise, they create a new nonprofit organizational infrastructure that addresses all of these gaps.

Interim executive directors don’t stop there. There can be major differences between an interim working on a temporary basis and a traditional consultant. Unlike a consultant, the interim CEO or interim executive director does not immediately depart after developing the strategy. They take the reins and guide executive staff and board members through implementing the new plan. What’s more, they ensure the plan aligns with the capacities that are available, including staff workloads, funding, partnerships, etc. This allows the organization to easily continue to execute on the nonprofit strategic plan once the interim departs.

When a nonprofit organization undergoes restructuring and is in need of new roles or is faced with an abrupt vacancy in leadership, an interim executive can be just the ticket. Working closely with the organization, the interim can provide an expert assessment of the situation, and help determine the type of leaders needed. They can help create the job descriptions, recruit candidates, and ensure that the new leader will be well-positioned for success.

An interim executive gets a firsthand look at unresolved issues that plague nonprofit organizations on every level. Through their commitment to the organization, they empower nonprofits to transform, scale, and stay relevant. In this way non-for-profit organizations can evolve to meet the changing or growing needs of their community while continuing to secure funding and streams of revenue.