Friday, June 17, 2011

Strategic Planning…Yuk!

by Bunnie Riedel, Host

I’ve never met a “strategic plan” that I liked.  Mostly because I see them as a horrific waste of time.  It may make a nonprofit board feel good to sit in a room for a couple of days and dream up new and exotic ideas for what the organization should be doing, but rarely do strategic plans (done the typical way) turn into anything but dust collectors.

And don’t get me started on mission statements.  Some boards want to change their mission statements every couple of years.  Then there’s Bylaws. Some boards believe that if they aren’t re-arranging their Bylaws on a regular basis they aren’t doing anything.

But I digress.  

Back to strategic planning.  Let me give you a real life example of what can happen when the “good ideas committee” takes over.

A few years ago, some portions of the federal government decided to change out how they classify their employees.  Instead of having “grades” and “steps within the grade” to determine pay and seniority, the feds decided to go to “pay bands.”  Hundreds of millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of hours of time were spent attempting to educate the federal workforce about the new pay bands.  

I even sat next to a woman on a plane whose full time job it was to go around the country and have meetings with Navy personnel to educate them about the new system.

So about one year into the new pay band system, portions of the federal government decided it wasn’t working and they were going to go back to the old way of grades and steps.  A colossal waste of time and taxpayer money to say the least.  Why did this happen?  Because a group of well meaning people sat in a room and engaged in strategic planning.

So if you don’t do strategic planning, what should you do?

Action planning.  Plain and simple.  Decide what it is you are going to do and then do it.  And keep the action planning within reach, make it simple and make it immediate.  Figure out what is absolutely necessary for the immediate future (no more than 12 months) and what is desired for the 24 to 36 month timeline.  Here’s some do’s and don’ts. 

·         If it ain’t broke, don’t “fix” it.

If your organization has some program that runs like a well-oiled machine, leave it alone.  Say you have an awards banquet you do every year that brings you recognition and a few dollars, stick to the formula.  The truth is people find comfort in something they know and can depend on, think the McDonald’s Big Mac, for forty years it hasn’t changed and yet people go back to it time and time again because they know exactly what they are getting.  Or how about the new Coke?  That was a huge failure and they had to introduce “Classic Coke” to re-capture their market.

·         Take what you are doing well and do it better.

Maybe this year the awards banquet could use a celebrity speaker.  It doesn’t have to be Hollywood celebrity, maybe it’s a local news anchor or well known physician.  Maybe it’s time for your quarterly publication to go online or become a downloadable app.  Maybe it’s time to grow your tradeshow from 20 vendors to 50.  Figure out where your success spots are and make incremental improvements and of course, heed the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it" rule.

·         Analyze what’s not working and if necessary, toss it.

This is kind of like cleaning out a closet.  If you haven’t worn it for 2 years you probably need to get rid of it.  Is our membership system relevant?  Is our board too large (or too small)?  Do we really need to hold a conference?  Is our continuing education units program working?  Before you come up with a new program or new service, analyze what is working and what’s not, don’t be hamstrung with the “but we’ve always done it this way” mantra.

·         Everything requires time, money, resources.

It’s a shame that there’s only so many hours in a day, a limit on spending and boundaries on what human beings can do in a 24 hour period, but that’s the way it is.  You can’t take a 3 person staff and expect them to do the work of 20 people.  You can’t have champagne taste on a beer budget.  For every program or activity your organization is doing you must factor in time, money and resources.  Resources being staff, volunteers, technology, space, talent, intellect, mobility, property, etc.  Given our time, money, resources…what are we really capable of accomplishing in the next 12 to 36 months? 

An action plan identifies what you would like to do to meet some kind of need and then puts a definitive timeline on that action.  It identifies what is to be done, who’s going to do it, what it will take to do it (time, money, resources) and when it will be done.  An action plan calculates the likelihood of success and what the fallout might be if there is a failure.

An action plan prioritizes the actions and is realistic.  I once saw an organization with a budget of around $500,000 per year claim they would raise $10 million in 10 months.  Truth was they barely kept up with their annual budget.  I may not be able to add 5 new staff this year but maybe I can add one.  We may not be able to increase the attendance at our awards banquet by 50% but maybe we can increase it by 10%.  Be clear about what you can actually accomplish given your time, money and resources.

And then…go out and do it!


  1. There's always the balance of 'if it ain't broke' and new ways to do things better. There were many people who thought that punch cards were the best way to store donor data. There wasn't anything wrong with using the punch cards, but computerized systems would allow new things to happen. :-) Something I often say in my trainings is that 'just because it isn't broken doesn't mean that there isn't a better way to do it.' But that doesn't mean just making change for the sake of change. Something tells me we may just be using different words for the same ideas.

  2. Great post, Bunnie. What really gets me is when a board retreat is fully focused on strategic planning without giving a thought or an hour to fundraising and development training for board members!

  3. Shudders...
    I too have seen lots of plans sit on the shelf. But I wouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water to fix them.
    While I've seen plans ignored (mainly because they are only about actions and not goals or strategies), I've also seen lots of organizations completely unprepared for or unaware of the changes ahead. And that worries me tremendously as too many people in need, too many important programs, stand to lose.
    To me, the important part of the strategic planning is the strategic thinking.
    How is our world changing?
    How does that affect the impact that we want to have?
    How can we leverage our new environment to still achieve that impact?
    What capacity do we need to build?
    What capacity exists elsewhere?
    Are we really asking the right questions?
    Organizations should be thinking strategically all the time. Few do. Many don't do it because they don't know how. Some don't do it because they are afraid of the changes they may need to start making.

  4. Wholeheartedly agreed Gayle. I think we also need to remember that most boards are volunteers and the strategic planning of the nonprofit organization is competing with all the other things that board member may have on their plate.

  5. I also agree with Gayle and would like to add that effective strategic planning obviously leads to positive outcomes for the organization and its clients. This is often hard to achieve in the nonprofit environment without visionary chief executives and managers. These people constantly think about the future as they do their day-to-day jobs.

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  7. A special thanks for this informative post. I definitely learned a few new things here.