April 14, 2017
It's the phone call every nonprofit leader dreams of. "I'd like to give you a very large sum of money." At first I thought it might be a scam, but when I realized the caller was the real deal — a philanthropist who cared deeply about education — a new question came to mind: How would we spend that much money?
Fortunately, we had just concluded a twelve-month strategic planning process, had a board-vetted plan for growth ready to go, and were able to submit that plan to the donor with only minor revisions. Several weeks later, we received our first-ever seven-figure gift.
To quote the Roman philosopher Seneca, "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." Nonprofit organizations often treat strategic planning as a luxury, opting to focus on more pressing, day-to-day matters. And because, as time-management guru Steven Covey has framed it, strategic planning is entirely Quadrant II (important but not urgent), its inherent value is easily overlooked.
The concept of deliberate strategic planning goes back at least as far as the late 1960s, which is when John Argenti published his landmark Corporate Planning and when companies began engaging in SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis. The nonprofit sector embraced strategic planning in the 1980s and 90s, as the number of registered 501(c)(3)s began to explode, "charities" became more professionalized, and the competition for grant dollars increased. In 1993, Patrick J. Burkhart and Suzanne Reuss published Successful Strategic Planning: A Guide for Nonprofit Agencies and Organizations, one of the first books to help nonprofits with their long-range planning.
Still, apart from the occasional discussion at a staff meeting or board retreat, organized strategic planning often takes a backseat to the day-to-day work of running an organization. Yes, schools use strategic planning to shape and guide their capital campaigns, but for nonprofits that don't mount major fundraising campaigns, setting aside time for strategic planning can be seen as more burden than blessing.
At Oliver Scholars, the time and effort that went into strategic planning paid off handsomely when we were asked by our angel donor for a well-thought-out growth plan. Is your nonprofit prepared? The following ten tips can help your organization get the most out of its next strategic planning process: