How to Approach Nonprofit Strategic Planning for Game-Changing Growth

Prepare your nonprofit for strategic planning success with these expert tips on how to move forward together with your team.

There’s so much involved in running a successful nonprofit, so when we see one we admire, our first question is, How in the world do you do it? More often than not, nonprofit leaders will immediately credit their strategic plan, or at the very least, something that occurred as a result of it. 

If your nonprofit’s path forward feels less than defined, it may be time to invest in strategic planning to develop a long-term vision and a track with intentional actions to help you achieve it. Because developing a strategic plan requires a shift in mindsets, we spoke with experts who are well-versed in guiding nonprofit teams through this process in our webinar, Powering Up: The Rocket Fuel of Nonprofit Accelerators & Strategic Planning.

Our panel included:

Here’s how they recommend honing your strategic planning approach to foster successful outcomes. 


Choose the Type of Strategic Planning Experience You Need

Strategic planning terminology gets mixed up all the time. First thing’s first: know what you’re looking for. Here’s the lowdown on the two types of strategic planning experiences. 

Incubator: An incubator helps your nonprofit nurture an idea and pull together the pieces you need to prepare it for execution.  

Accelerator: An accelerator can help your nonprofit take an idea that’s already in the works and supercharge or “accelerate” its growth. 


See the Time Spent As a Worthy Investment

While finding time for your lean team can feel like a stretch, the incubator and accelerator experience can help you build a foundation that allows you to save time later in the growth process. Before you dive in, assess your team’s readiness in terms of capacity. Do you have the people power and bandwidth you need to make this work? If the answer is no, you may want to consider Step 1 to be bringing in folks who can help you out.

The downside to not doing this first? One organization invested in creating a beautiful 42-page, spiral-bound notebook complete with inspirational photos. It took 90 people and a six-month process. But because the organization leaned on a very-part time staff to make it happen, no one ever did a darn thing with it. All that time and effort was wasted. 


Realize Your Vision for Your Nonprofit

Internal alignment around your vision is critical for your team to build a solid strategic plan. Meet with your team and discuss the following questions. 

  • What is your organizational vision?
  • Do you and your team have clarity on your organizational vision? 
  • Where will your organization be in three years? 
  • What actions will you take to arrive at that point?
  • What resources will you need that you don’t have today to take those actions?


Do Your Homework to Find the Right Fit

Connect with alumni of incubator or accelerator programs whose organizations are similar in mission and size to your own. A simple Linkedin post asking for folks who’ve attended can help you obtain valuable peer advice. 

You should also reach out to each incubator or accelerator program you’re considering and attend their info sessions and office hours. There you can ask questions, request references, and get a better idea of the program’s expectations and requirements. Bring that information back to your board and other organizational stakeholders to receive the feedback and support you need to decide how you’d like to move forward. 


Pair Your Plan with the Numbers You Have to Fuel It

Understanding your organization’s financial capacity can help you build your strategic plan in a way that bolsters your fundraising initiatives. Getting a handle on your burn rate expands your capacity as a leader exponentially because you can make decisions and participate in that strategy with a firm base that allows you to predict costs.


Look Beyond Your Nonprofit Team

The common factor among incubator and accelerator alumni is their willingness to look beyond themselves to the organization’s capacity. If you’re a startup organization, you may be a one-person show or on a team of volunteers, but what the successful organizations have in common is they bring in more people to help make the plan happen.


Connect Your Mission and Vision

A core component of a nonprofit strategic plan is seamlessly connecting your mission and vision and creating a cause and effect relationship between the two. You and your team must be clear on “this is what we hope the world will look like and this is our mission,” because that's where you connect with the heartstrings of people, from your donors to your staff. 

What makes a good story? Tap into both your lived experience and your expertise. When you can say, “I pursue this mission because I’ve experienced this,” you’re able to showcase your story personally and channel empathy in your communications. 


Build in Measurements from the Beginning

Make measuring your progress a habit by rooting the success of your plan in specific measurements. As they say, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. You don’t have to go at everything at once. Just choose a few simple basic measurements and build that muscle as you grow. 

In addition to giving you those aha moments and smart pivots, today’s funders and stakeholders expect you to measure your progress. So build it in, even if it's just two or three things you measure from the front end. And next thing you know, that data-based approach becomes part of your culture.


Create a Shared Experience with Your Board

As a leader, bring your board chair into the strategic-planning process because if there's mismatch there, there will be trouble downstream. Make sure the board chair and the executive director are connected, talking, working together, and ensuring that they continue to strengthen their organizational vision through continuous ideas and feedback. If schedules are tricky, stay in touch through tech that keeps information accessible and up to date so stakeholders can jump in when they’re able.


Continuously Communicate with Your Team and Mentor

Just like your board, your team needs consistent communication from you. It doesn't need to be hyper-detailed or perfect. Write a short, sweet weekly summary that's easy to scan and can satisfy your team, get them on board, and win their support. As for your mentor, check in during scheduled times and decide which sessions will be the most meaningful based on the goals you set together.

For all communications, lean on technology to foster collaboration and information sharing. The more experiences and perspectives that influence your plan, the better you can serve your diverse community, and the more engaged and enthusiastic all of your plan’s contributors will be now and in the future. 

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