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From the Answer Desk: Contingency and Scenario Planning -- What's the Difference and How Do Nonprofits Get Started?

September 17, 2009

(This entry has been cross-posted on the Foundation Center's Philanthropy Front and Center-Cleveland blog.)


A: Both are structured ways for organizations to think about the future. In the context of planning, the terms "contingency" and "scenario" are sometimes used interchangeably. In simple terms, a contingency plan can be described as your organization’s "Plan B" or "worst case scenario" and is often tied to something specific, like a natural disaster. They are also sometimes called business continuity plans or disaster recovery plans. Scenario planning, on the other hand, is a “strategic planning method expressly developed to test the viability of alternative strategies," according to Mal Warwick in his book, Fundraising When Money is Tight. Warwick suggests six steps for creating an effective scenario plan, starting with exploring answers to the question, "What keeps you awake at night?," to draw out fundamental issues, and concluding with testing your strategic choices using "what-if" reasoning. Warwick describes scenario planning in detail and goes on to suggests Peter Schwartz’s classic 1991 book, The Art of the Long View, for further reading. (Listen to our February 2009 podcast with Mal Warwick here.)

In the July 2, 2009 Chronicle of Philanthropy article "Worst Case Scenarios," author Ben Gose advocates that forming a contingency plan can help a nonprofit navigate the recession more successfully. Offering tips ranging from setting priorities and identifying "trip wires" (actions to take when revenues drop, for example), Gose cautions that organizations must come to terms with the fact that "painful decisions will still have to be made." However, Mr. Gose goes on to note that during contingency planning "a charity may find that a program it considered cutting is in fact worth saving, and that finding can make a compelling story for donors."

Additional resources:

Financial Scenario Planning for an Uncertain Future
Slides from a presentation made by Emil Angelica at the June 2009 annual conference of Dance USA.

Nonprofits Assistance Fund Scenario Planning Worksheet
A "step by step guide to nonprofit contingency planning."

Open community on scenario thinking and scenario planning where you can publish scenarios, reflect on the planning processes and share online resources about scenario planning in a democratic and inclusive manner.

Do you have a question? Ask Us!

-- Rob Bruno

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