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Bromme Cole Talks Nonprofit Strategic Planning

Bromme Cole Talks Nonprofit Strategic Planning is a look into a few ways you can go about growing your nonprofit and meeting your organizations goals.

I was at a conference last month where several speakers presented on the virtues of strategic plans for nonprofits.

“A blueprint for the future!” One speaker howled from the podium.

“A roadmap to success! Hire a consultant for objectivity!” A consultant offered later that day from the same lectern.

“Include everyone, each employee has a voice…create a democratic plan!” Implored another presenter.

I am not a fan of clichés, they’re unserious, especially when it comes to the importance of determining the future of an organization. They are a way to hide behind vagueness. Such language is unnecessary and detracts from the gravity of the endeavor; after all, people’s jobs are at stake and the organization’s constituency relies on continued operations.

With that said, I enjoy the strategic planning process and have written a lot of plans over the years. Earlier this year, I wrote one for the organization I run. It took me three months, mostly late nights, and weekends. An Ad Hoc committee of board members reviewed it twice with comments. My Head of Programming, CFO and Human Resources all weighed in, of course. Their suggestions influenced my thinking but did not govern it.

After all, as CEO the responsibility for determining the future course of the organization was on me. And that’s a good thing. For any nonprofit who wants a strategic plan, the board should require the Chief Executive to write it. He or she is in charge and true responsibility comes from ownership. Otherwise, it may simply sit on the bookshelf unread for the next five years. Said another way, any Chief Executive who can’t write a plan, shouldn’t be in that role. Stressful? Yes, but stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It builds resilience, focuses the mind, and enhances short term memory. It’s also a powerful motivator.

The counter-narrative aspect to this article should be clear by now. Let me take it a step further. Quite a lot of 501(c)(3)’s approach planning (and budgeting) largely from an expense point of view. Here is how that process begins: Programming and resources cost this much last year, and it is expected they will increase by a certain percentage over the next few years. This model has worked since the advent of nonprofits and organizations who pursue this practice often find themselves cutting back mid-year on expenses or eliminating entire programs. Why? For the simple reason that they did not approach planning from a revenue-first point of view. If planning begins with how an organization sources money, then expenses fall into line without a problem. Ever wonder why a lot of people who win lotteries go broke within a year? That’s because they think about how to spend the money and not how to reinvest and continue to grow it.

So, let’s look at what’s in my plan. I always open with a letter to the reader in which I offer an overview. Here, I start with the goals…both a revenue and net assets (what’s left over after subtracting liabilities from assets) goal stated up front…essentially where I want the organization to be in five years. Then I back up and discuss, broadly, what, how and when. It’s also an opportunity to include my board with a statement from the Chairperson. I see this as critical, they are after all, also responsible for the corpus and their public support is important. I should also note that in the letter, I speak about the reasons why we want to grow and expand. I touch upon the demand propelling that growth.

What else? What follows is an outline of how I approach writing a strategic plan. While no two organizations are alike, this basic framework offers a useful starting point.

Vision and Mission statements

These are essential but keep them simple. Start with a vision statement that tells everyone what your organization will ultimately become or do. Concentrate on ambitions and future goals. Look at LinkedIn’s vision statement: “Create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce.” Or NASA’s inspiring vision statement: “Exploring the secrets of the universe for the benefit of all.” Bear in mind your organization’s vision statement needs to reflect the core values upon which it was founded.

As for a mission statement, it differs from the vision statement with respect to timeframe. A vision statement is about the future while a mission statement speaks to what the company is doing presently to reach is goals. Patagonia’s is memorable: “We’re in business to save our home planet.” Disney’s mission statement, while a bit long, is also good: “to entertain, inform, and inspire people around the globe through the power of unparalleled storytelling, reflecting the iconic brands, creative minds and innovative technologies that make ours the world’s premier entertainment company.”

These statements require thought so take time to get these precise. Poorly written or vague statements reflect badly on your organization.

Core values

defined as standards, or qualities considered inherently worthwhile or desirable—are the bedrock of an organization’s culture. They are a pervasive set of shared beliefs about how it works together and treats others. Clearly articulated values usually answer the question, “What is most important to us?” and provide guidance for day-to-day decisions and behavior.

Think of values in terms of compassion, integrity, leadership, collaboration, and inclusion. Such values describe how an organization goes about the business of achieving its mission.

Guiding Principles

defined as basic truths that drive the development of an organization’s strategies. They are the fundamentals underpinning the motivation for providing a service. Among the guiding principles that I have incorporated into my strategic plan are Strong and Diverse Focus, Results Driven, Agile Innovation, Efficient Operations, Building on Strengths, and Volunteer Oriented.

Mission Pillars

Now comes the section where an organization sets forth a critical part of its plan. Think about mission pillars in terms of programmatic objectives that must be accomplished in the coming years to advance towards the vision. These can be iterative or sequential steps, but each pillar (and there should be close to five) should be supported with individual strategies that will help realize that goal. For example, here is a pillar and underpinning strategies:

Mission Pillar example — Expanding Educational Opportunities. Expand the active involvement of families and teachers in the development and execution of the organization’s mission objectives to ensure greater affiliate programming across a wider geography (inner city and rural locations) that meets more children’s needs.

Strategy A: Engage families and teachers (as volunteers, spokespersons, or members of an Advisory Council) who represent the diversity of hearing loss needs in all mission activities to ensure that funding of affiliate programming is inclusive and responds to the different needs of children.

Strategy B: Ensure that best practices (obtained from attending conferences and CE courses) for engaging children, their families and teachers are developed and are used as standard practices across mission programming, including advocacy, awareness, education, support, and speech research.

Strategy C: Partner with similar organizations or schools to offer specialized services, training or other programming that are not yet fully developed or lacking in that location.

Revenue Pillars

Without a strong plan for growing revenue to fund Mission ambitions, there is no plan, and more importantly, no further advancement of Mission. Another crucial component is to specifically state a revenue goal and net asset objective for the term of the plan. However, detailed dollar objectives for strategies should be relegated to annual budgeting. The big picture here is to focus the development staff, the Chief Executive and the Board on what is required to achieve mission goals and how/where revenue will be sourced. Depending on the size of the organization, I usually have about five revenue pillars.

Revenue Pillar example — Become a $50 million net asset organization by 2029. Grow outreach to key donors and grantors. Expand the total number of people connected with the organization through direct involvement with mission programs, awareness-building efforts, and fundraising activities to drive greater volunteerism and support.

Strategy A: Test and launch activities to attract new constituents including those who represent the diversity in the hearing loss community through multiple channels, including awareness and familiarity-building methods, and leveraging new communication and messaging approaches. Form an Advisory Council with dual intent to support fundraising and community awareness.

Strategy B: Ensure that new constituents are appropriately and consistently stewarded from the moment they first make a connection with the organization, regardless of the channel through which their organization journey began.

Strategy C: Invest in marketing and technology solutions, people, and processes as well as analytics to support the above strategies for attracting and stewarding new donors, grantors and constituents, and to learn what works in order to continually refine strategies and achieve greater outreach.

In preparing any plan, the Chief Executive should work in tandem with the CFO on scenario testing. As there is always a degree of uncertainty, preparing three different cases using various assumptions for fundraising, resource availability and other variables will allow a quick pivot should things change. It will also give the Chief Executive more fluency with the inevitable board question of “what happens if…”. If anyone had told me thirty years ago, the amount of time and effort required to create an effective plan and that it would never really be complete, I might have shied away from the process. Having written half a dozen plans since then, I can’t imagine not doing it. And once you do it, you will be glad you did.

For additional guidance on nonprofit strategy:

https://www.wallacefoundation.org/knowledge-center/resources-for-financial-management/pages/governance.aspx

https://www.bridgespan.org/insights/nonprofit-strategy/make-your-organization-more-resilient-with-adaptive-strategic-planning

https://www.councilofnonprofits.org/running-nonprofit/strategic-planning-nonprofits


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