One of the biggest obstacles to strategic planning is finding the necessary time to slow down and focus on the important instead of the urgent.
In the era of COVID-19—when all of us, like it or not, are forced to “slow down” due to social distancing, little to no travel and few, if any, in-person meetings and events—we have a distinct opportunity to use this extra time to think, strategize, and plan for the future. For many of us, the “urgent” now takes up a smaller share of our time and mental space, and we would do well to focus our attention (while we can) on the “important.”
The one thing which is always important but rarely urgent is strategic planning. Creating, reviewing, and updating your strategic plan are valuable exercises for successful nonprofits—but they often get pushed off to be dealt with at another time. Well, there is no time like the present.
In the current crisis, having a strategic plan is an asset. Yes, circumstances have changed—quickly and drastically—but having a strategic plan already in place during this crisis will help you prioritize resources and provide clarity in decision making. Having a plan to drive informed decisions is always important; but in the context of so much uncertainty, the value of a strategic plan is thrown into stark relief. In the coming weeks and months, those organizations with strategic plans—plans that are living documents, nimble and flexible, reviewed often and used by leadership and staff—will stand apart and ahead of those organization trying to navigate this crisis “on the fly.”
Over the course of two articles I want to address the efficacy of strategic planning. First, reviewing your current strategic plan in the midst of the pandemic. Later this week, I will discuss creating a strategic plan in the midst of pandemic.
Start with the proximate
When putting together a strategic plan, you typically start at the top with what you want to do (major goals, key landmark objectives, and related core strategies) and then drill down to the how at a more detailed level (related objectives, tasks, activities, and specific timelines).
While reviewing your plan in light of the current crisis, you should turn this around: start with the proximate and work toward the higher-level landmark goals and strategies. What is coming up in the near term that you need to adjust or update? That means starting with the objectives and tasks for this month and the current quarter. Are some near-term objectives and tasks suddenly obsolete or simply unactionable in light of COVID-19? How has the pandemic changed the landscape for your organization to operate? What can you still do right now? What can’t you do? Consider not only the challenges but also the new opportunities this situation presents you with and what you need to do now to be prepared for later in the year.
Starting with near-term priorities and working your way out, begin striking, revising, and repositioning various objectives. “This” objective cannot happen in April—but can you plan to do it in October, say, or does it need to be stricken altogether? The COVID-19 pandemic presents significant challenges to many organizations, and an ever-changing set of circumstances can drastically affect your organization’s plans for the worse. Consider how you can reconfigure your plans to focus on what you can do and accomplish now and put off or postpone other activities until later.
Once you’ve reviewed the specific tasks, review your measurable objectives in light of the current situation as well, considering the original intent of the objective (such as reaching new audiences or serving current members) and how you might achieve a similar end goal through modified means. For example, if you wanted to reach “X” number of people through in-person events by “Y” date, might that be adjusted to reach “Z” number of people through some form of digital outreach by a revised deadline?
Consider the ripple effect of shifting objectives
Changing one thing might not significantly affect other elements of the plan—but it very well may, and you need to take this into consideration. If you engage fewer donor prospects and by a later date, does that affect when and how you send a follow-up fundraising package? Do you anticipate less giving this year from your major donors, or a shift in the timing of these gifts, after reviewing your top donor list? How do these things affect your cash flow projections?
This, again, shows the value of planning. Cash flow changes are hard to predict and harder still to stomach. But it is better to have some idea of what you’re expecting (and why, based on your plan), as well as the tools to make informed adjustments based on how the plans will change and how that will affect cash flow over time.
As Jeremy Beer explained yesterday, nonprofits can reasonably expect to see a 10% decline in overall giving. You shouldn’t expect this to happen immediately, but if you have a working strategic plan, you can begin moving things around to predict when and how losses might accrue—and how best to mitigate those losses.
Not all organizations will see a 10% loss. Some will lose more, some less. Organizations with solid strategic plans (that include a solid development plan) are better positioned to weather the storm and any potential revenue losses.
Review core strategies
After you’ve made the adjustments for the near-term, consider how this pandemic affects your organization on a larger scale. Take a look at your core strategies and determine whether they are still appropriate and workable given the current environment. The goalposts have shifted overnight: rarely will changes in the economy or political climate affect your core strategies—but then, these are rare times.
Just as you’ll want to revisit your near-term objectives, you’ll want to review and adjust, if necessary, your core strategies too. With such an unprecedented and fluid situation, some strategies will likely need to be adjusted. Most likely, what you will find in this process is that a new strategy needs to be developed or an existing one scaled up.
For example, if your plan does not have a robust communications strategy that includes digital outreach, social media, and online engagement, it needs one now. If it already has one, this might need to be a greater focus. Were you dipping your toe in the digital marketplace? Well, perhaps it’s time to dive in instead. Or maybe you have a core strategy based on growing your organization’s public presence through a series of in-person events. That can’t happen now and for the foreseeable future, so how can you pivot? Ask yourself what you were trying to achieve with that strategy—how was it advancing your mission?—and then determine the best way to replace that strategy.
Review your resources
Don’t let uncertainty translate into fear, which is never a good position from which to operate. You should not be reckless, of course, but you also don’t want to hunker down unnecessarily and stop making investments you planned to make. If you have the necessary reserve funds to make important strategic investments, then you might consider still making those investments. If you are in a position to do so, you will likely come out stronger in the end.
At the same time, take into account any projected cash flow changes. If you are dependent upon major individual donors whose giving may be affected by the current market downturn, you may need to adjust your plans and the funds you planned to invest. Consider what you can still do now with current resources and make the necessary—but difficult—adjustments to your spending and investments. These will be hard decisions to make but making them with confidence will set you apart from other leaders who vacillate and waiver in indecision. Strategic planning often has as much to do with what not to do as it does with making decisions about what to do.
Consider, too, whether you have the technology you need right now. If you had planned on improving your digital capacity, you might want to continue with that investment. It’s also a great to time to be thinking about making database changes.
Consider your personnel needs also. Do you have the right people in place? Did you plan to hire? How should this environment affect personnel and hiring decisions? It may be the case that now a digital marketing director is a higher priority than a major gifts officer.
Remember your board as well. Now is a great opportunity to update them on your strategic plan and the changes you are making and request their involvement. If there ever was a time for everyone to roll up their sleeves and contribute, it is now. The board members can do this in very specific ways. Don’t neglect to engage them.
As you make adjustments to your plan, communicate these changes both internally and externally. Make sure staff are informed. Not everyone needs to be involved in the process of updating the plan, but everyone should know about final decisions. Of course, provide an opportunity for questions and feedback—and if appropriate, make further adjustments based on that feedback.
Finally, updating your plans presents a great opportunity to communicate with your donors, especially your key financial partners. Don’t forget to let them know of your plans and your wise stewarding of (their) resources. They will appreciate knowing that they are investing in an organization with prudent leadership and smart planning—especially now. You’ve already set yourself apart by having a strategic plan. Now you can further set yourself apart and impress them by quickly and intelligently updating the plan and sharing that process with them.
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