Effective strategic planning for your organization

By Regenia Bailey/Consulting

Ensuring effective planning for an organization is one of the functional responsibilities of a board but many organizations struggle to make planning a priority.

For some, planning seems removed from the important day-to-day work of the organization; for others, the time commitment for planning can be a daunting obstacle. For too many, previous experiences of developing unsuccessful or unused plans have created a negative impression of the importance and relevance of strategic planning.


Why plan?

While the mission describes the purpose of an organization, a strategic plan guides the organization as it works to fulfill that purpose. It provides the map of how the organization will approach its goals and includes indicators of how the organization defines success. Developing a strategic plan helps everybody move in the same direction which increases the likelihood for the organization’s success.

A plan not only provides direction, it provides focus. Focus on specific goals means the organization is less likely to be distracted by extraneous activities. Focus provides a screening mechanism, allowing the organization to say ‘no’ to the opportunities that do not propel it toward its goals.

Having a plan helps an organization be a better steward of its resources. Clarity of direction and focus enable staff and volunteers to understand what the priorities are and where they should be spending their time and energy. Budget priorities become clearer and the plan provides guidance for board work and activities of board committees.


What makes strategic planning strategic?

Strategic planning is about determining how the organization should interact with its internal and external environments. An organization does this by first scanning its environment, typically using a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis. Examining the strengths and weaknesses of the organization enables the board to develop a picture of the internal environment and understand what the organization does well and where it faces internal challenges. Opportunities and threats are part of the organization’s external environment. These are things over which the organization has no control, such as positive cultural attitudes toward volunteerism, broad economic downturns or natural disasters. Opportunities and threats are a constant in the environment and an organization cannot be expected to respond to every one of them. The purpose of strategic planning is to determine where and when a response is necessary and what that response will be.

After the environmental scan, planning begins with the question, “if this is what our environment looks like, what are the best ways for us to work toward our mission?” Developing a viable plan entails determining where opportunities play into the organization’s strengths and what weaknesses the organization must address to fend off threats and ensure stability. Given its understanding of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, and how these interact, the board then determines its plan which outlines the best course of action for the organization to further its mission.


So how does the board lead an effective planning process?

First, the board must be committed to planning for the organization. Some assume that developing a strategic plan locks an organization into an inalterable course that limits its abilities to be responsive to unforeseen opportunities. Therefore, they are resistant to planning, preferring instead to take a more reactive, case-by-case approach to events. Good planning enables an organization to be more responsive to its environment because the board has a clearer sense of the organization’s internal capabilities and the range of opportunities available to it. New opportunities can be evaluated in light of this understanding.

Secondly, the board should be a champion of the process itself. Board leadership should engage organizational stakeholders, encouraging them to provide input and to participate in the planning process. Board leadership must set a positive tone for planning. If the leadership of the board does not make planning a priority or take it seriously, it can be difficult to fully engage other organizational stakeholders.

It’s important that an organization’s strategic plan is not one person’s project. The board (or board representatives) should work with the executive director to outline the planning process, determine who will participate, and keep the process on track. The process should take advantage of the various perspectives that board members bring to the discussion, ensuring that the final plan is a collective vision and not just the ideas of one or two individuals.

Finally, the board should structure planning in the simplest way possible. The planning process should move forward in a timely and deliberative manner without overwhelming the organization as it continues to do its work. The plan itself should be expressed in clear language and provided to board and staff members in a format that ensures that the plan will be used, rather than tucked away on a shelf.


Regenia Bailey is a consultant and coach to nonprofits and small businesses at her firm, the Bailey Leadership Initiative. She is a former mayor of Iowa City and teaches business courses at Kirkwood Community College. For more information, visit www.baileyleadershipinitiative.com.