Nonprofit Strategic Planning: 4 Tips to Shape Your Future

Do you ever feel like working toward your nonprofit’s long-term goals seems more like a game of chance than a tactical approach? This is a sign that your nonprofit could benefit from designing its own strategic plan.

A nonprofit strategic plan is a document that lays out your goals for a certain period of time (typically a one-year annual plan or three to five years long-term plan) and outlines the specific steps you need to take to accomplish those goals. In other words, it not only outlines what you want to achieve but how you’re going to do it.

Of course, effective nonprofit strategic planning is easier said than done. It requires your staff and board to work together to develop a game plan for achieving specific goals, prioritize the most important first moves toward those goals, and adapt your plan as needed.

If you’re ready to make progress on the goals you’ve dreamed about, it’s time to engage in nonprofit strategic planning. Let’s explore four tips that will help you get a strong start.

1. Analyze your current state. 

It’s difficult to know where you’re going without knowing where you currently stand. Analyzing your nonprofit’s current state will help you make informed decisions about what your organization is capable of accomplishing and allow you to establish a baseline for your performance as you work toward the goals you set in your strategic plan.

Take a critical look at your current state, and pay special attention to these areas:

  • Successes: What at your nonprofit is working well? Examine your operations, structure, and team. For example, you might find that your major gifts team is excelling at cultivating and stewarding supporters. Or, you may see that one of your programs is so effective that it’s always in high demand. When you identify a success, think of how you can leverage it to help with the goals you want to set in your strategic plan.  
  • Challenges: What are the recurring challenges that your nonprofit faces that, if solved, could help yoube more effective? Some common challenges include a high staff turnover rate, an inadequate tech stack, or a lack of board participation in fundraising.
  • Opportunities: Think through the strengths and challenges you’ve identified that could translate into goals. For instance, you might consider how to further empower your major gifts team to conduct more in-depth prospect research or ask yourself how you could improve your internal culture to reduce turnover.
  • Vulnerabilities: Vulnerabilities are the external challenges your nonprofit faces as it works toward its larger goals. Consider the current economic and political climate, for example. Perhaps recently-passed legislation has made it trickier to deliver your services, or maybe an economic downturn makes it difficult for your regular supporters to give.

Examining your successes, challenges, opportunities, and vulnerabilities will give you a good idea of how things are going for your nonprofit right now and what you can realistically expect to accomplish or improve by designing a strategic plan.

2. Set measurable goals. 

Next, it’s time to set your goals and outline the specific steps you’ll take to achieve them.

Begin by using the tried-and-true SMART goal framework. SMART goals should be:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-based

For example, instead of setting the generic goal to “get ready for a capital campaign,” a SMART goal for capital campaign preparation might look like this:

“In the next five years, we’d like to expand our animal shelter to accommodate 50 more dog kennels, which will require us to conduct a capital campaign. This year we will complete a planning and feasibility study by November to ensure our organization is ready to launch the campaign in January.”

Applying this SMART goal framework empowers you to think strategically about how realistic your goal is, how strongly it supports your larger mission, and what your first steps toward achieving the goal will be.

Based on what you observed when analyzing your organization’s current state, you might set SMART goals in one or more of the following areas:

  • Revenue generation
  • Program expansion/enhancement
  • Board development
  • Financial sustainability
  • Volunteer program improvements
  • New technology or facility-related investments

Remember, you can set multiple goals. Traditionally, strategic plans help nonprofits set goals for the next three to five years, so if you have a few smaller projects you want to complete, now is the time to plan out how you’ll make it happen.

Additionally, this is also a great opportunity to get your team on the same page in terms of your long-term goals, even if you won’t accomplish everything over the next few months or years. Even a simple discussion about your vision for the future can strengthen your team’s unity and commitment to your cause.

3. Work with an experienced consultant on your strategic plan.

As you begin the process of nonprofit strategic planning, you may find that it’s difficult to parse out what is and isn’t working for your organization, or what goals you should prioritize to sustainably grow your capacity to do good.

That’s where a nonprofit strategic planning consultant comes into play. Many nonprofits choose to partner with these experts to tap into the following benefits:

  • An objective, third-party point of view: When you’re in the thick of your organization’s work, it can be difficult to identify your strengths, challenges, opportunities, and vulnerabilities on your own. A consultant brings an outsider’s perspective to the table, helping you see your own blind spots.
  • Tailored recommendations: Consultants know that every nonprofit organization is unique, and will give strategic planning recommendations that fit your organization’s current state and vision for the future.
  • True collaboration: The best consultants will take a collaborative approach to working with your organization, understanding that your internal team and board have an important role to play in planning. Your consultant will provide a fresh perspective and new ideas, but they’ll also trust that you know your nonprofit best.

If you’re ready to tap into the expertise of a strategic planning consultant, Averill Solutions recommends following these steps to get the best fit:

  1. Identify the consulting services you need and the goals you have for the partnership.
  1. Use your network to get consultant recommendations.
  1. Meet with your top candidates to gauge how well they would fit into your organization’s working culture and how interested they are in your mission.
  1. Submit a request for proposal (RFP) to the consultants you’re most interested in working with, and then review the completed proposals to better understand how the candidates would assist you with strategic planning.
  1. Choose the fundraising consultant you want to work with and sign a contract with them that includes the timeframe of the engagement, the costs for services rendered, and how you’ll measure success.

As you work to find the right consultant for your nonprofit, pay special attention to each candidate’s communication style. Some nonprofits may prefer a consultant who they can trust to work independently, while others might be interested in a consultant who keeps them looped in on every step of their project.

4. Remember to be flexible.

When designing your nonprofit’s strategic plan, it can be easy to get attached to the goals and action steps you write down. After all, these are the goals that you want to achieve so you can do more for your beneficiaries.

However, it is important to realize that your plan isn’t set in stone and that you can revise it as needed. For example, you may start enacting your strategic plan by focusing on making improvements to your volunteer program but realize that your planned giving program needs some adjustment to secure more future funding. Being flexible will allow you to successfully pivot in situations like these.

Positive change in how your organization operates is the ultimate goal. How you get there can always be adjusted based on your changing needs!

Nonprofit strategic planning is essential for bringing your vision for your nonprofit’s future to life. By following these four tips, you’ll be better able to create your own strategic plan that helps you not only set ambitious goals for improvement but also achieve them.