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How strategic planning happens, part two: Preparing for launch

In April, I led a discussion with a roomful of nonprofit professionals for GCN’s member event, Developing a Strategic Plan that Works for Your Organization. Over two hours, we explored the process that leads to a successful strategic plan, plus a number of options for conducting it; we also shared challenges and solutions from our own experiences.

In part one of my recap, I covered highlights from our discussion of the environmental scan and the board-staff planning retreat. Here, I’ll tackle the draft-and-refine process and board approval, then get into the implementation plan – a critical aspect that’s too often overlooked.

Crafting the plan and securing the sign-off

With the board-staff planning session complete, you’ll want to take a couple weeks to draft and refine your strategic plan. This is where those leading the process can engage the rest of the organization to double-check the direction you’ve decided upon, and get their buy-in.

Pay particular attention to the objectives you’ve come up with – the concrete accomplishments meant to get you to your goals. Sometimes, discussions with leaders and front-line staff will help you realize that a particular objective doesn't get you to the goal, or gets you only halfway; sometimes you’ll find you’ve aimed too high, given the capacity of your team. Depending on the feedback, you may have to go back to the drafting table several times.

Ideally, you’ll keep board members informed through this process – that is, before you send it to them for final board approval. They should have time to review it and provide feedback, which means giving them the draft well ahead of the meeting where they’ll be voting on it. Depending on how often they meet, that could be the meeting before the vote; if they meet just twice a year, they might need a specially-called session to get the plan approved.

Putting the plan to work

Once the strategic plan is finalized and approved, how do you set it into motion?

Implementation, of course: Your implementation plan details your action steps over the next 12 months in pursuit of your strategy. In formulating this plan, you should involve all the people who work on behalf of your organization: staff, board, and volunteers (if you have them). It’s worth keeping in mind, at all points, that the strategic plan is a living document, and adjustments may be needed based on changing conditions and further conversations.

The questions you’re looking to answer in your implementation plan include:

  • How are we going to reach our overarching goals? These are your objectives, and you need at least a couple for each goal. Underneath each objective, you may have a number of tactics or initiatives (different people use different terms) that, together, constitute the steps you’ll take over the next 12 months to make the objective happen. Using a chart for each goal (like the one below) will help.

  • What can we realistically accomplish in a year? This is about setting yourself up for success: It’s critical for getting buy-in. Make sure you're really listening to your folks and responding to their needs: That is, hearing "I can't do that this year," and saying it's ok to move that to year two. This is also where you can layer in the environmental changes you discovered in your scan, and make allowances for them.
  • Who takes ownership of each objective? When assigning ownership, use a single person’s name – not a committee, not a group, and definitely not “TBD.” Of course, this person is not necessarily charged with reaching the objective all by herself; leadership will look to that individual to ensure it gets done, report on progress, and answer in the case that it doesn’t happen. Be sure to include board members and the objectives they are taking the lead on as well.  The implementation plan should be organization wide- not just staff.
  • What resources do we need? Ideally, you want to make sure you’re budgeting for each objective before implementation, so you know what kinds of resources you need to commit. Some back-and-forth might be needed regarding budget: One project might require $50,000, but you find out, in talking to the development team and the board, that's not going to happen this year. So you adjust your plan: We’ll try to raise $25,000 this year, and the other $25,000 next year, in order to fund this project. (This is an example of the “living document” idea.)

The implementation plan should be reviewed regularly – monthly at best, quarterly at minimum – by board and staff. (Of course, you must make sure that you share the implementation plan with the board, and that their roles are included.)

Interested in learning more about best practices for the strategic planning process, what a finalized plan looks like, and the free planning tools GCN has available? Reach out to me personally at [email protected] or 678-916-3079, or contact GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group at [email protected] or 678-916-3008. And in case you missed it, be sure to check out part one of this two-part series, covering tips for the environmental scan and the board-staff planning retreat.

Elizabeth Runkle is a senior consultant for GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group.

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