Q:  Our organization is small. We have a budget of less than $100,000 and a board of only nine. We see the value of strategic planning and feel we are ready to embark on this process. However, we can’t afford to bring someone in to help us. Can you give us an outline of the steps we should follow – steps that will result in something worth the time and effort?


A: Your organization is lucky to have a board that recognizes that it can’t operate as effectively as possible taking each day at a time.  “Strategic planning” – and I put it in quotes because everyone you talk with will define and approach it differently – is ultimately what you make of it. Some organizations dive deep, spending months, money  and many, many person hours on determining the direction they feel is right for them at this time. Others get together for a half-day of concentrated effort to come up with a few key goals to pursue. Of course, organizations may fall anywhere on the continuum in between. As a small organization that has never done a strategic plan before, I’m going to recommend keeping it simple, working on the latter end of the spectrum this first time out of the box.

I know you want to do it yourself, and I will give you steps for doing this, but I do recommend you try to get someone to lead you through the process. You might find a professor that teaches planning, a strategic planning officer from a bank, hospital or major corporation, or even the board chair of another nonprofit who has been through this process who will be happy to volunteer. Such a person will not only keep you on track, but will free your entire board – and included staff – to participate fully.

Determine who you wish to involve. Will you bring in some community stakeholders? A lot of organizations don’t, but their input can be extremely valuable especially since you exist to serve the community. If you decide to include their voice who among them can provide the most useful insights? And if you decide to forgo having these individuals, how can you be sure to capture their wisdom? If you have staff, do you want them at the planning meeting(s)? You certainly should involve the executive director or CEO, but you may want to take advantage of the expertise the others can offer as well.

Pick a day – this process will take you a good six, seven hours – that works for the greatest number of people. Then choose a place that will allow you to work uninterrupted. A lot of small organizations like meeting at someone’s house, which is certainly pleasant. But you want to be sure that the dog is in the back room and the space is large enough for tables and comfortable chairs to accommodate everyone. You might find the boardroom in a law or CPA’s office more conducive. Arrange for flipcharts – there are table-top varieties that don’t require stands – markers and tape that won’t damage walls. If you use a stand, be sure it’s not one of the flimsy ones or you’ll spend the entire day trying to rebalance the pad of paper. And don’t forget the food! You want everyone well fortified.

I would start the day with some sort of short exercise tied to introductions to allow everyone to meet one another. This is especially important if you bring stakeholders in from the community who may not know the members of the board. I recommend choosing an activity that is tied to the goal of the day, such as having each person name one program your organization offers that they see as essential to the fabric of your community. If they can’t name any that tells you something!

Next I would spend time reviewing your mission, vision and valuesto make sure that they are easily articulated and speak to how the community will be a better place as a result of the accomplishments of your organization. This is critical because everything you do from this point forward will be based on these three. Click on the above hyperlink to assure yourself that your organization is on the right track; and take the time to tweak your current mission, vision and values if needed.

Consider your vision as the meta-goal, the big end result. In groups or as part of one large brainstorming entity work backwards, identifying the various steps that will have to be accomplished to reach that vision. Consider any challenges for which you’ll have to find work-arounds. The idea of working from the vision instead of from where you are now is key. You stand a strong chance of expending a great deal of time and money on interesting but less relevant and less targeted work if you brainstorm goals without the vision clearly in mind. And, if you can identify most of the steps it will take to reach the vision, you have in essence plotted out your goals not just for this year, but for years to come.

Put the steps into some sort of loose order, combining  those that naturally go together and categorizing them as goals. Identify three to seven of these that you can realistically tackle over the next 12 – 18 months. These should be significant goals that are consistent with your vision and values and will require a concerted effort. The “no brainers” – those goals that can be easily achieved with minimal resources – should just be put on the to-do list.

For each of your identified goals, determine your criteria for success. In other words, spell out how you’ll know that you’ve achieved what you set out to achieve. Make the indicators measurable where possible to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that the organization or the board has accomplished what each set out to accomplish.

Put a target date on each goal and assign someone to be accountable for seeing each of these goals through to completion. Write down the goals with their deadlines, the person responsible and the criteria for success where they can be easily and regularly accessed to measure progress.

Build your board agendas around the three to seven goals you identified. Committee and staff reports should focus on what’s being done to further these. Spend a significant portion of your meetings discussing if you are sufficiently on target and how to proceed if not. Consider if the goals are still applicable and whether they should be adjusted based on the most current realities. Strategize about the resources required to achieve each goal and the role you as a board can play in ensuring the availability of the needed resources in sufficient quantities. Finally, make a plan to celebrate your achievements.


For further information on strategic planning check out a few of my favorite resources:

Allison, Michael & Kaye, Jude.  (2005)  Strategic Planning for Nonprofit Organizations, Second Edition.  Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Bryson, John & Alston, Farnum.  (2005)  Creating and Implementing Your Strategic Plan: A Workbook for Public and Nonprofit Organizations, 2nd Edition.  San Francisco: Jossey Bass

La Piana, David. (2008)  Nonprofit Strategy Revolution: Real-Time Strategic Planning in a Rapid-Response World.  Minneapolis, MN: Fieldstone Alliance.

Mintzberg, Henry, Ahlstrand, Bruce, & Lampel, Joseph.   (1998)  Strategy Safari: A Guided Tour through the Wilds of Strategic Management.  New York, NY:  The Free Press