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Got questions? What your nonprofit strategy should answer

At GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group, we’ve been discussing, through member events and articles (in NOW and elsewhere), how to build a balanced, executable strategic plan. But what about the content—that is, what questions should the strategic plan help you answer? To help, we’ve put together a few examples of questions that your organizational leadership should be asking. Don’t treat this article like a checklist or an exhaustive how-to: instead, use it to understand the types of questions that need to be answered, and keep in mind that every nonprofit also has some unique questions to answer.

Questioning your assumptions

Fundamentally, the strategic plan should enable your organization to articulate your assumptions about the future related to your mission: how you expect client demands, demographics, and other factors to change over time, and how you expect the organization to respond. Identifying these assumptions can be tricky, but it can help to work backward from the basic questions those assumptions should answer, such as:

  • Should we grow our capacity to meet an assumed increase in demand?
  • Should we add services to meet emerging needs, or reduce services to focus on core programs?
  • Should we expand or shrink our geographic reach based on demographic trends?
  • Can we work more effectively through a partnership, or a merger, with another organization?

Whether they’re related to an opportunity or a threat, identifying your assumptions will allow you to answer questions about your service practices and priorities as diligently as possible. This will give you the basis to decide about the size, shape, and purpose of the organization you’re building toward.

Questioning your operations

Once you’ve decided how and to what extent community need and, consequently, your services will change, you should be able to answer questions about how the organization needs to operate in the future, including: 

  • Does our programing meet the emerging needs of the community?
  • Are we maximizing our capacity by ensuring business processes are efficient and well-managed?
  • Is our board built to support our operating model? Do members understand what we must accomplish strategically?
  • Do we have a volunteer base with the capacity and skills to achieve future success?
  • Are our functional processes (marketing, finance, HR, etc.) adequate to support the future needs of the organization?

Answering these questions will help ensure that the organization you are becoming can deliver needed outcomes efficiently and with excellence.

Questioning your resources

With a strategic plan that answers questions about service scale and operations, you should look to the human, technological, and financial resources needed to support both efficient operations and increased connectivity with customers and stakeholders.

By understanding the value your organization must provide, and how to provide it efficiently and effectively, you can answer questions about your people:

  • What kind of skills and capabilities must our workforce possess for us to be successful?
  • What gaps exist between current capabilities and those needed?
  • How should we develop our leadership team, staff, board, and volunteers to fill those gaps?
  • What skill-sets should we look for when seeking new staff, board members, and volunteers?

Your plan is also a vital tool for understanding how to invest your limited resources in information technology:

  • How do we need to communicate with our customers and stakeholders?
  • What kind of internal information systems do we need to run efficiently into the future?
  • Is our technology infrastructure built to be long-lasting and cost-effective?
  • Will our technology infrastructure continue to provide the capability we need in an ever-changing technological landscape?

Last (but never least) are financial resources. The strategic plan should answer questions that help ensure you meet the operation’s financial needs while making strategic investments in organization sustainability:

  • How much revenue do we need to ready ourselves for future success?
  • Are there significant financial gaps that need closing?
  • Do we have a development structure capable of delivering the funding we need over time?
  • What are our future opportunities for funding in the community, region, state, and country?
  • Are funding streams diverse enough to provide for our long-term sustainability?
  • Are we controlling costs to ensure we maximize the impact of each dollar?

Resolving the answers

There may be differing opinions across leadership, the board, staff, funders, and others that must be resolved while putting together your strategic plan. It’s natural for those passionate for a cause to dream big!   To navigate disparate visions and ideas about direction, always be sure to refer back to your fundamental assumptions about the future of the organization and its community. If you do, your resulting strategic plan will aim everyone in the same agreed upon direction and provide reliable answers for any questions that need to be answered about your future.

Tim Johnson is GCN’s VP of Consulting and Professional Services, as well as a trainer, coach, and consultant. Contact him at [email protected].

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