5 Guidelines for a Simplified Nonprofit Strategic Planning Process


5 Guidelines for a Simplified Nonprofit Strategic Planning Process

By: M. L. Donnellan, MS

“There is no such thing as a simplified strategic planning process, and how dare you suggest there is!”

That was just the first sentence of many derogatory ones directed at me by a professor who taught strategic planning. I had dared to publish a blog on the subject, “The Six-Hour Strategic Plan,” after field-testing the process for almost 10 years. (It won an award for innovation by the way.)

So, how did the simplified process come about? The first nonprofit I served was in a small, rural community. I was the only staff. Everything I knew and read about strategic planning said that it took a lot of time and money. I struggled every day to figure out how to get everything done with very limited resources. All the books I read and all the classes I attended bombarded me with copious information and theory. How could I narrow it down and make it work for me in my small nonprofit? How in the world could I fit strategic planning into everything else?

For those of you in larger nonprofits with sophisticated planning processes and lots of resources, you probably do not need to read any further. But for small to mid-sized nonprofits with limited resources or for anyone who has never done strategic planning, this process might be just what you need to jumpstart a never-ending strategic planning process. This is what I learned.

Board Involvement

First and most importantly, in all five of the nonprofits where I served, as well as in the hundreds of nonprofits where I have tested the planning process, board involvement is critical. Not only should they participate in the “Core Elements Assessment,” but they must also be actively involved in the six-hour planning process. Otherwise, they have no ownership of the plan.


Because I neither had the time, staff nor financial resources for a traditional, long-range strategic planning process, I started experimenting with a simplified process. This developed into a one-day board and staff strategic planning session with the components as shown in the following sample agenda:

A. Overview of the strategic planning process
B. Vision and mission clarification
C. Assessments:

  1. Results of “Core Elements Assessment”
  2. Overview of environmental and demographic issues
  3. Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats (SWOT)

D. Prioritizing
E. Goals and objectives
F. Group reports

Vision and Mission Clarification

The first component of the session is the clarification of the vision and mission. Most vision and mission statements are too long and no one can easily articulate them. Without looking at the current statements, participants draft vision and mission statements. The vision is why the nonprofit exists and is the passion and brand identity—no action verbs. The mission is how the vision is carried out through the programs and includes the action verbs. Neither statement should be more than 25 words. Visions do not change; missions can change because programs change. Their drafts are compared to the actual vision and mission statements. The board can later assign a task force to develop final statements for board approval.


The second step in the planning process is the assessments. I developed something called “Core Elements Assessment,” perfect for the simplified strategic planning process. Board members and senior staff take the assessment prior to the session, which covers 128 different benchmarks for all facets of nonprofit management. The results of this assessment are presented in a bar chart (Figure 1), showing the comparison between staff and board responses. Any responses below 50 percent are an indication of areas needing work.

download (1)

A second type of assessment is an environmental and demographic overview, presented by the executive director or a senior staff providing information on external issues impacting the organization (positive and negative).

While all the assessment information is being presented, flip charts on the wall allow participants to add strengths, weakness, opportunities and threats (SWOT) as issues are identified in each of what I call the six core elements of a successful nonprofit (Figure 2).

The facilitator of the process is critical to the success, because they keep the group on task, reminding them to add assessment items to the SWOT charts as they are identified. The guide includes much more detail on the process (even how to select a facilitator and sample forms).

download (2)


Before setting goals, participants are given 18 colored, sticky dots, which they use to prioritize the issues on the flip chart papers they think are the most important for goal-setting for year one of the strategic plan. The results are then tallied, and issues with the most dots are used by small groups to develop strategic goals. The result is a one-page strategic plan showing measurable goals in each of the six core elements as shown in the guide. The guide includes suggestions on how to develop the report, how to incorporate the plan into board meeting agendas and staff work plans and how to adjust the plan to changes within the nonprofit and the environment in which the nonprofit is operating.

I have talked to a lot of nonprofits that did their first strategic planning using this process. Each year they developed more and more detailed assessments and planning processes. So, before you throw this out as unworkable, consider this: Isn’t it better to try it than to do no planning at all?



M. L. Donnellan, MS Author’s page

M.L. Donnellan has more than 30 years of experience as a nonprofit CEO, motivational speaker, consultant, trainer, mentor and writer. She is the author of more than 60 books, guides and webinars on nonprofit management, which are in use in more than a dozen countries. She just recently published a series of 12 webinars for Nonprofit WebAdvisor’s Nonprofit Executive Director Certification program. She has an M.S. degree in administration and a B.S. degree in human resources management. She can be contacted at: mldonnellanauthor@gmail.com.  www.mldonnellan.com


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