If your nonprofit did not have a strategic plan before this crisis hit, then you are probably finding yourself somewhat lost, perhaps directionless. For the past month Philanthropy Daily has been producing articles and webinars to help you weather this storm. But while all of those conversations are important, there is still no substitute for having a solid plan.
Earlier this week I discussed the importance of having a strategic plan and then provided some tips for updating your plan to respond to the current crisis. Today, I want to help you put together a strategic plan if you don’t currently have one—or if it is severely outdated.
Use your time well
Many of us spend a significant amount of time traveling. Planes, trains, and automobiles suck up a lot of our productive hours, even if you are able to get work done during travel. As I wrote earlier this week: stop letting the “urgent” take precedence over the “important.” Take the time you are saving—from travel, from commuting to the office, from meetings—and devote it to the tasks that will help you in the long run and, frankly, in the short run, too.
Of course, you can’t just sit down and do this all at once. Budget time that you can commit to planning for the foreseeable future while things are shut down. Say you had a 45-minute commute to and from the office every day, as I did before the quarantine. That’s 7.5 hours a week and more than twenty hours over the next three weeks. That is quite literally time saved that can be wisely “invested” in the strength, stability, and future growth of your organization.
Four big questions
There are four main questions you want to ask as you build your strategic plan:
- Where are you now? (assessment)
- Where do you want to go? (goals)
- How are you going to get there? (core strategies)
- How do you know you have arrived? (measurable objectives)
Needless to say, robust strategic planning is significantly more extensive than this, but these four questions are the heart and soul of a useful and actionable strategic plan. Furthermore, these questions are intentionally in this order. You cannot get to measurable objectives until you know where you want to be. You can’t specify where you want to be and how to get there unless you first know where are.
So you’ll want to ask these four questions and in this order. Once you’ve done that, the details follow. These questions will give you a framework, an outline, and then you can work on the step-by-step actions to take you from where you are to where you want to be.
Use this time as an opportunity to engage your board, leadership, and other stakeholders including major donors. Normally you’d try to gather a group meeting to review and assessment, set goals, and so on. In lieu of in-person meetings, lean on video calls and strategically engage those most invested in the mission and future of your organization.
Before reaching out to anyone, put together a set of key questions about the history, the mission, and the vision of your organization. Ask what sets you apart, why you are important, what more you can achieve if you grow. Find out why donors support you—maybe even why they support other groups more (or less). Find out what motivates your board members who invest time and energy in your organization. Find out why key staff like working there (and what they find frustrating), and listen to what they think is unique and important about your organization. If you’re able, talk to leaders at a few peer organizations: what do they think about you? How do they see themselves as different from or similar to your organization?
Of course, it helps, when possible, to have a neutral third party ask these questions in confidence to encourage candid sharing—but it’s not impossible to do this yourself. You’ll have some blinders (no one wants to be completely honest with their boss or supervisor), but it’s way more valuable than ignoring this process altogether. (And chances are, you’ll be surprised how much people open up when they are asked questions and taken seriously.)
As you ask these questions, you are looking for areas of convergence and divergence. What does everyone say about you? Where do your board chair and CEO disagree? Who is totally off about the mission? What in the organization’s vision pops out in everyone’s articulation? And so on.
Assemble the data
Once you’ve spoken with everyone, pull the notes together and distill them into several key findings. In addition to running interview calls, you should also crunch some numbers internally. Finding out “where you are” and “where you want to be” is not just talking. Get the hard data, too. For instance, specific to development and fundraising, find out:
- How many donors do you have over each of the last three years?
- What is the average giving per donor each of those years?
- What does the donor pyramid look like when you break them down by giving amount?
- What is your one-year and two-year donor retention rate?
- What is your annual fundraising revenue over the last three years?
- How frequently are you communicating with donors (meetings, calls, letters, newsletters, emails, collateral items, etc.)?
- How many foundations grants do you receive, what is the average grant size, and how much do you receive from foundations in total?
- How many foundations are you soliciting (or, what is your close rate on foundation solicitation)?
Needless to say, there is much more to review when you are conducting a full assessment, but these are a good sampling of key development-related questions that help you spot key trends and potential issues, such as an over-reliance on a single development tactic or donor segment. It will be hard to do an assessment with less than this—and going beyond this takes you to a new level of planning where you may want to be making a larger investment of resources for a comprehensive and benchmarked assessment and plan.
But with these numbers and your interview notes, you should be able to assemble a fairly thorough document describing where you are, what people think of you, why you matter, and what you want to achieve.
Add your data findings to the major themes from your interview notes and circulate your initial assessment to those who will be involved in your planning. With this information in hand, you can begin planning. (Finally.)
Start planning (or at least prepare for planning)
After the assessment phase—which, in many ways, is the bulk of the work—the real planning starts. This will require a video call or several video calls with a tight group of key people. This will certainly be executive leadership and potentially a few key board members and/or other key staff. Depending on how the current circumstances are impacting your organization and its programs, perhaps you prefer to wait a little longer before beginning your planning conversations so you have a better idea of what the rest of the year may look like. Even if that’s the case, with your initial assessment in hand you can be ready, prepared to move forward when the time is right.
When you start your planning conversations, the first thing to do is to review your key findings carefully. You may want to share this with a wider group first, solicit feedback, and then review the document and feedback with the small group. After addressing any questions and concerns about the assessment of where you are now, you can begin to look at the future. With the background of a shared understanding of the realities of your organization and its capacities, how can you continue to advance your mission in the years ahead?
You have three key tasks:
- Identify a “landmark goal” for your organization. Where do you want to be as an organization in three to five years? What do you want to be recognized for?
- Identify the key strategies that will move you toward your landmark goal. You will likely identify three to seven specific strategies of great variety, ranging from scaling up one or more of your programs to building out your communications program, to bulking up your development program by starting a foundations program and adding more mailings.
- Enumerate the measurable objectives that will indicate whether you are on track to achieving your goal. These may gain more specificity and definition as the whole plan is worked out, but you should begin fleshing them out from the beginning.
With those three things in hand, you can begin drilling down into specifics of the plan. That means determining specific tasks and activities to move you from where you are to where you want to be (the landmark goal). Of course, as everything begins to take shape, you can put together revenue and expense budgets to guide your organization over time.
Worth your time
I never said it would be easy. Everything outlined here probably sounds like a lot of work. It is—but think of how much time, energy, and stress you will save by doing this work up front… and especially now, while you have the extra time.
Finally, remember: any plan is better than no plan. Focus, first and foremost, on the big picture questions during this time, in particular the why and the how for your organization. Putting together that framework is important. Then drill down to the details related to execution.
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