Creating a Strategic Plan for Nonprofit Success

A group of diverse business people debate strategy in a meeting.

Creating a strategic plan can help your organization translate its ideas into actionable steps and goals. By having a clear strategic plan in place for the next one to three years, your nonprofit will gain access to a “master plan” for achieving its goals and reacting to specific activities that impact your organization.

Once you develop your strategic plan, make sure you consult it periodically; otherwise, it’s not serving it’s “strategic” purpose, according to the National Council of Nonprofits. “It’s more advisable to revisit the plan periodically, making adjustments, adapting the plan — and the nonprofit’s strategic priorities — as circumstances change,” the council added.

Four sections generally comprise a nonprofit strategic plan, according to business author and coach Peri Pakroo. Each section typically ranges in length from a few paragraphs to a few pages.

1.    Develop or Revise Your Mission Statement

Your organization’s mission statement is arguably the most important part of your nonprofit’s strategic plan. The statement provides a clear description of why your organization exists.

Unfortunately, some nonprofits fail to do this step correctly, according to business consultant Francis Pandolfi. “As important as missions are, nonprofits frequently go off in ineffective directions by relying on mission statements that can be little more than slogans,” he wrote. “At a time when nonprofits around the world are struggling both to stay afloat and to achieve their missions, they are missing out on one of the most valuable tools available to them.”

Aim for a short and memorable mission statement that says where your nonprofit is headed in the future, in a way that sets it apart from other organizations. This allows your mission statement to make a compelling case for the need it fills.

Pandolfi provided two pointers to remember when crafting your mission statement.

  • Your mission statement must describe your nonprofit’s strategy. The result is that your mission statement describes why your nonprofit is unique, which attracts funds and generates a competitive advantage.
  • Creating the mission statement is just as important as the end result. Developing the statement allows the staff and board to embrace this definition of strategy.

2.    Outline Specific Goals, Strategies and Activities

“Identifying more specific goals helps break down your broad mission into individual elements, which you can then pursue with even more specific planning,” Pakroo wrote. “For example, if your broad mission is to create economic opportunities for teenagers in a certain city or district, you might have specific goals of publicizing job opportunities for teens, mentoring teens in career development, and nurturing teens’ leadership and entrepreneurial skills.”

Establish more specific goals that support your mission. For instance, a concrete goal in the previous illustration for mentoring teens in career development could mean implementing a mentoring program in a certain city or area by a certain time. This makes it easier to determine whether the nonprofit has made progress in achieving its goals.

You can also take it a step further and outline activities and programs that are separate from your goals. This step can help when managing your operations and communicating what you’re doing to the public.

3.    Assess Your Resources

Include an assessment of resources currently available to your nonprofit. This includes money, people, expertise, skills and other intangibles.

Completing this assessment will help you understand the assets you have access to. Money is important, but other assets like skills and experience can help you accomplish your mission. “A troop of energetic, committed volunteers can be just as valuable — sometimes even more so — than cash in the bank or an expensive computer system,” according to Pakroo.

4.    Identify Strategies

The final section of your nonprofit strategy involves performing “true” strategic thinking. Now that you have identified your goals, objectives and activities, as well as your current resources, you can develop practical ideas about the best way to implement your resources to achieve your goals.

A common way to perform this is through a SWOT analysis. This popular framework can help you identify certain opportunities and obstacles that you may face in reaching your goals and ultimately fulfilling your mission. Performing this analysis will enable you to identify and evaluate potential strategies for implementation.

Some nonprofit organizations perform a SWOT analysis as the first step in creating a strategic plan, but it may be more helpful to first have a grasp on available resources and how they interact with your goals, objectives and activities. Otherwise, your plans may be unreasonable compared to what resources you have access to.

Examine possible strategies such as fundraising campaigns and mission tactics against the backdrop of what you have previously. Produce strategies that mesh with your vision, mission, goals and resources.

Finalizing Your Nonprofit Strategic Plan

Put your strategic plan aside for a few days and return to it for a “fresh” look. Integrate firm deadlines for people to make final edits, so that the plan doesn’t get sidetracked with minor edits for too long.

The final step is to decide how you will present your nonprofit’s strategic plan. You may choose to have a document with the four sections for internal use and then another document(s) for the public or any donors. Your audience will decide how you package and present the information in the strategic plan.

Here are a couple of sample nonprofit strategic plans.

  • The first example is the approved strategic plan for the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits for 2010 to 2014. The front page includes the organization’s vision, mission, audience, programs and services, and goals. The following pages expand on background of the plan, the organization’s goals and the strategic planning process.
  • The second example is the approved strategic plan for The Denver Foundation for 2011. This document is more extensive and includes an executive summary along with sections on strategic context, core ideology (mission, vision, values), objectives and key strategies, as well as a section about the organization’s future.

Developing Nonprofit Leadership Skills

Aurora University’s online nonprofit leadership program helps students learn the knowledge and skills needed to lead others and advance their careers in the nonprofit industry. Students receive instruction in current business practices from faculty members with real-world experience. The program takes place in a fully online learning environment.