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Nonprofit strategic planning, and why you should care

Have you ever had that feeling that you should probably have paid better attention in a particular class? Perhaps you are sitting there reading this nodding your head in agreement saying to yourself, “If I’d paid more attention in geography, I would actually know where Kamchatka is.” Maybe this would help you to be better at playing Risk? Or maybe it’s, “If I’d paid better attention in English, I’d know the proper usage of the Oxford comma, and even how to avoid creating a run-on sentence.” And maybe that would help you in your pursuit of writing the Great American Pandemic Quarantine Novel (you and the rest of us, too!). Well, in my case, I wish I had paid better attention about a thousand years ago while I was finishing up my MBA Degree and took a course dedicated to the art and science of Strategic Planning. At the time it seemed so mundane and academic, but these days, in trying to bring my nonprofit mindfully to it’s brave new future, Strategic Planning seems a lot more relevant. I should have paid better attention!

For us at United Way of Greater Nashua, the conversation about creating a new strategic plan began about 2 ½ years ago. I had been with the organization for about 3 years, and we were getting to a place where things were settling in pretty well and there seemed to be a lot less reaction and firefighting than in my earlier years. At that point I began talking with my Board of Directors about our future direction and creating a roadmap for getting from where we were to where we would like to be in the future. We had recently gone through our by-laws and created an Advisory Council to represent the community more broadly in our thinking and actions. It seemed that our logical next step would be to undertake some deliberate planning. Fortunately, even though I had spent a good portion of my time daydreaming during the Strategic Planning course, we had on our Board an expert who had most assuredly paid better attention than I. Enter Dr. Amir Toosi, PhD, Dean of the Rivier University Division of Business and Security Studies. Besides being a good friend, fellow Chamber Ambassador, and awesome United Way volunteer board member, Dr. Toosi was also able to step up and say, “Yes, I can facilitate this process.” Sidenote to my fellow nonprofits: pay good attention to the expertise you have on your Boards. There might be some remarkable talent willing to help you in ways you had never imagined. Such has been the case with Amir and our Strategic Planning Process.

The process which is now in it’s second full year has been a great journey. I admit, when we started out, my thinking was very task oriented. Get together. Make a plan. Implement the plan. Check the box. However, what I have now come to appreciate is that the planning process itself is as much if not more of the value than the actual product. While it might sound cliché, there is a lot of truth in this case to the statement that the journey is every bit as important as the destination.

Along the way we have had a lot of deep and meaningful conversations about where we have been, where we are, why we do what we do, is what we do what we think we should be doing, where are we going, and what do we want to look like when we get there? These conversations are about your mission and your vision. For me, the key point as a nonprofit is how do we want to change the world? Every nonprofit organization will answer this question differently. In our case, we are saying that our Mission is “To mobilize the caring power of the community, ensuring a strong safety net, where every individual has access to the building blocks of a good life – health, education, and economic mobility.” And beyond that, we have created a Vision, which is that “United Way envisions a community where every person has the resources and support to succeed, and as a result, the entire community thrives and prospers.”

Anybody who has ever been through this process, and has taken it seriously, will tell you that just coming up with those two simple statements, Mission and Vision, can be an incredibly difficult, time consuming, arduous, and introspective task. And it was. However, it was also incredibly rewarding, since we can all now say, “This is why I’m here. This is what we do.”

Beyond Mission and Vision, the next step in the process was to begin contemplating values. For us, we came up with a list of shared values. In Biblical terms, I think you could call these our “commandments.” These are the bedrock upon which the foundation is built. We spent quite some time debating these values and finally decided that our 5 core values are: Community Focus, Collaboration, Resiliency, Accountability, and Integrity. Without any single one of these, we would not be able to look ourselves honestly in the mirror and claim that we are who we claim to be. For example, Collaboration: it is our bedrock belief that to succeed in our Mission and accomplish our Vision, that we need to constantly strive to work together across community partners because no single organization or entity or person has the resources, skills, or wherewithal to get us to where we want to be. However, we believe that by working together – by LIVING UNITED – that we can absolutely get there.

Another really important step in this journey was to take a deep dive into where we think we really stand with regards to implementing our Mission, Vision, and Guiding Principles. We did this using a tried-and-true tool called a SWOT analysis. SWOT is an acronym which stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. The process of the SWOT analysis forces an organization to think deeply about itself and be honest about how it is doing and what the world around it is doing, as well. As a result, you cannot help but come away with a really long laundry list of things to get better at, things to continue doing well, things to worry about, and things to take advantage of in the future. What I would say, though, is that it’s very important to work on Mission and Vision before doing a SWOT analysis. The temptation is strong to just jump into a SWOT because it is action oriented… it feels like you are doing something. But the SWOT is meaningless unless you have really worked to understand your Mission and Vision, so definitely start there.

For us, an important and fortuitous part of our Strategic Planning journey was the pandemic. We were about a year into the process when the pandemic came along, and the world as we knew it changed overnight. This forced us as an organization to reconsider our role in the community and determine how to best support our partners as well as the public at-large. Interestingly, everything we had already articulated in our Mission, Vision, and Guiding Principles, was still completely valid in the world of the pandemic. While what we were doing from one day to the next changed dramatically, the outcomes were still the same and the reasons for doing these things did not change at all. For me, that was a great validation that we were really on the right track with our process.

So, let me tell you something about Dr. Toosi. He is not the type of teacher who just lets you finish your term project, hand it in, and go on break. He is the type of teacher who will say to you that it’s time to think about what’s next, which is exactly what we did. The next step, and the one we are currently working hard at, is establishing a series of measures to help us stay on track with progress to attain our strategic objectives. These are called Key Performance Indicators, and they measure the most important things in your process to ensure success. There is an old and very true adage that what you measure is what gets done. If you want to know what is really important to an organization, then I would suggest you need to look at what are they measuring. For example, we have said that one of our bedrock principles is accountability. And we measure that but submitting our financials and management processes to scrutiny by organizations like GuideStar and Charity Navigator. In the for-profit world that is similar to the Better Business Bureau or JD Powers. If a business says that customer satisfaction is a bedrock principle, but they do not subject themselves to independent scrutiny, then you have to wonder how serious they actually are about that principal.

There is of course much more I could say about our strategic planning journey, but what I will end on is this: as a volunteer, donor, or client of a nonprofit, you should care about this process. I have learned that an organization which truly wishes to be the best that it possibly can be and is willing to admit that it could be better, must thoughtfully and seriously undertake strategic planning. You should feel comfortable asking the Executive Director of a nonprofit you are looking to be involved with to talk about their own process and journey. If they cannot articulate an active and ongoing process, and perhaps pull a dusty report off the bookshelf called “Strategic Plan”, then you might wonder if they are truly serious about being the best they can be. As for us, I am very proud of what we are doing in strategic planning because it is making us better and helping us to truly show that Great Things Can Happen When We LIVE UNITED.

Mike Apfelberg is president of United Way of Greater Nashua.

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