Did you know that about 40% of nonprofit organizations are operating without a strategic plan? This might sound surprising considering the importance of having a clear vision and direction for a nonprofit organization. You might have a plan—but perhaps it’s on a window-sized post-it-note tucked away in the closet or buried deep within the hard drive. In the day-to-day busyness of working in the sector, it’s challenging to keep long-term strategies at the forefront of our minds.
If that’s your situation, don’t despair. There are some ways that will help you make the most of your strategic planning efforts, and that’s what this episode of the Good to Growth Podcast is all about. For this segment, Katie got to talk with Joel Kessel, a strategic advisor and the owner of Kessel Strategies, on “Flipping the Narrative on Strategic Planning.”
When it comes to strategic planning (particularly for nonprofits), Joel is an expert on the subject. His educational path led him to pursue a degree in journalism and a focus on public relations and strategic communications. After graduating college, Joel ended up in Chicago for 14 years working for a number of different agencies. It was his first job at a boutique agency that led him to work with nonprofits, which made up about 75% of the agency’s client base.
Eventually, after spending time working at several larger agencies, Joel was able to go off on his own. He decided to channel his knowledge and experience into helping the nonprofit sector, particularly through coaching and strategic planning. Now, for more than 25 years, Joel has been advising, training, and guiding growth-minded nonprofit organizations as well as for-profit leaders and entrepreneurial-minded business owners to think more strategically and communicate more effectively so they can impact the people they lead.
Katie found Joel’s focus on public relations early on in his career intriguing in terms of the strategic planning work he does now. While messaging and outreach aren’t always present in the strategic planning process, they should play a key role. And that’s what Joel has found through his work.
“Over the years, people would ask me a PR question or a media relations question and I was always asking, why?” Joel said. “Why do we want to promote this program? What’s the impact going to be? And in hindsight, that was all about strategy.”
Because of the importance of messaging, Joel felt like he could help make a larger impact and help more organizations in a meaningful way. In his strategy sessions, messaging and awareness always come up, and some organizations are aware of that importance. But what about capacity?
A common misconception is that nonprofits aren’t knowledgeable about marketing or don’t see it as a viable practice. But, as Katie pointed out in the podcast, it’s not about ignorance—it’s about capacity. When hectic schedules and urgent matters arise, something marketing gets lost in the shuffle.
Joel finds that some nonprofits are hesitant to take advantage of marketing strategies at the risk of sounding pushy or sales-oriented. But there’s a way to help reshape that mindset: thinking of sales as serving and marketing as storytelling.
“If we go in with a mindset of serving that potential donor or funder or supporter and share stories of how we impact and change people’s lives, that in and of itself is going to attract those people who want to be on board with your vision,” Joel explained.
Does your organization get caught up in the “should” items? Sometimes it’s challenging to feel enthusiastic about tasks like strategic planning because it’s something you have to do. So how can it turn into something your organization looks forward to doing?
For Joel, it’s about flipping the narrative on strategic planning.
“Strategic planning isn’t an event—it’s a process,” he said. “If we flip that mindset into strategy being a part of our culture, then it’s part of our every day. We need strategy if we want to make a larger impact.”
Strategy can help with board alignment, team culture, and so much more. And having the clarity that comes with specific strategies will guide that vision and direction that every organization needs.
Overall, it’s important to remember that strategic planning doesn’t have to feel like a big hill your organization has to climb. As Joel explained toward the end of the podcast, sometimes less is more. If your organization’s strategic planning looks like a 50-page document that no one wants to read, it’s time to rethink that.
“Why overwhelm and throw more on our plate that’s already overcrowded?” Joel pointed out. “Less is more. Let’s keep it focused and keep it simple.”
Instead of focusing on 5-year plans, start with the next year. The pandemic certainly proved that even the best-laid plans can have an unexpected wrench thrown in during the process. Start small to help set yourself up for better success.
It can also be helpful to keep an open mind and to include other perspectives by having other people join the process. After all, your team will better support what they help create. Getting them involved with strategic planning will lead to more engagement.
When Katie asked Joel if he had any additional good news to share for nonprofits in terms of going forward with strategic planning, Joel conveyed the idea that now is a great time to be in this world.
“I think now is a great time to be in the nonprofit world and to do meaningful work in a meaningful way,” he said. “If there’s one thing we’ve learned in the last 18 months or so is collaboration. There is support out there, and there are dollars out there. We can do this.”
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