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When nonprofit strategic planning goes wrong 

A woman looking at a board with sketches and post-it notes in an office.

A successful nonprofit strategy is all about getting critical resource decisions right to achieve organizational goals. The strategic planning process is a rare chance for a nonprofit’s leaders to step back and look at their organization and its activities as a whole—to understand what success looks like and to allocate time, talent, and dollars to the activities that can help achieve it. 

It sounds straightforward, yet many nonprofit organizations struggle with the strategic planning process, especially when not knowing why, where, or how to start. This is why it’s helpful to understand the frequent ways strategic planning can go wrong upfront.  

In this blog, we will outline four common strategic planning pitfalls and what you can do to avoid each to ensure your nonprofit’s plan results in success. In addition, we will share several of our organization’s free educational and planning resources to support your efforts throughout this piece. 

1. Everything but the kitchen sink

This pitfall occurs when a strategic plan includes a logical list of things that would help the organization, but it lacks overarching impact goals, tradeoffs, and prioritization of activities.  

Plans can sometimes read like wish lists, citing every new idea or opportunity on the horizon. But an effective plan will hang together as a whole and make it clear why some paths forward are a better use of limited resources than others. Additionally, it should build on the unique skills and capabilities the organization brings to a community or field.  

To achieve this, we recommend focusing on your organization’s most important challenges or opportunities. In practice, this might mean considering where your nonprofit has a chance to grow, recognizing when ways of working need to adapt to changing conditions, or opting to rethink your mix of programs. As you consider potential paths forward, ask yourself how each option will further your impact:  

  • What is the problem we seek to address in the world?  
  • Who is our population of focus, and will some populations be disproportionately impacted?  
  • What impact goals will we hold ourselves accountable to over the next three-five years?   

2. The impossible dream

This misstep represents an inspirational strategic plan but does not account for the time, money, and skills required to accomplish action items.  

Even the most ambitious strategic plan must also be feasible. This means organizations will want to have a good sense of how much time and money their plan will require, who will put in that time, and where the resources will come from. Resources aren’t just money; they also include the staff, technology, and board capacity to carry out the plan.  

Among the most important questions to ask to avoid this strategic planning pitfall are:  

  • What resources—financial, human, and/or organizational—will we need to pursue our strategic priorities?  
  • Where will we need to add, reduce, or diversify talent?  
  • What new systems or capabilities will we need to build or buy?  
  • Do we have the right organizational design in place to pursue our strategic priorities? 
  • What level and what type of funding will be required? 

3. The manifesto

This common mistake happens when a bold plan is created, but it lacks support from others besides the plan’s creator and is disconnected from implementation

In a good strategic planning process, leaders need to be willing to seek out information and act on it—even if it goes against their initial assumptions. By engaging people, who experience your organization from different vantage points—such as staff, board, clients, funders, community members, partner organizations, and others—you can learn a lot. As one leader we interviewed advises, “There’s a culture piece that needs to be considered at the same time as the rest of the plan. Change management needs to be built in from the beginning.”  

To build support for your strategic plan, consider ways you can use engagement and information-gathering tools to inform your approach, such as:  

  • Performing stakeholder interviews; 
  • Holding focus groups or conducting surveys with program clients or alumni;  
  • Talking to current and potential funders; and  
  • Conducting a landscape analysis to understand who else is offering similar programs or services and what white space there may be.  

4. The work plan

In this common pitfall, plans outline clear activities and milestones, but they do not consider risk or build in the flexibility to adapt to a changing environment. 

Implementation mainly happens after an organization has finished crafting its strategic plan. But the odds of successfully implementing the planned changes—shifting parts of the organization in a new direction, setting up new initiatives, and curtailing previous efforts—can depend a lot on what you do during the strategic planning process.  

There are a range of tools organizations can develop during the strategic planning process to help them stay on track. For example, implementation plans lay out the steps, sequence, owner(s), and metrics for each key activity of the plan, while performance dashboards track progress against it using a few vital metrics for the leadership team and board.  

Remember, too, that every strategic plan and its strategic priorities have risks. To build in adaptability into your strategy, the planning team should identify key risks to better understand the challenges they might face and how they might adapt along the way. By having these conversations early and then checking in on progress as the plan unfolds, the team can more confidently pivot as needed. 

*    *    * 

Strategic planning can help improve how an organization makes decisions to achieve their goals and achieve sustainable success. The questions posed during the planning process—about impact goals, resources, change management, or the potential risks of the plan—are not the sort you answer only once. Rather, leaders will likely find themselves revisiting those questions and asking related ones down the road. A good strategic plan will provide waypoints to navigate those questions as your organization brings the plan to life. 

Preeta Nayak is a partner at The Bridgespan Group, based in San Francisco. Lindsey Waldron is a principal at Bridgespan, based in Boston.  


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