4 Essential Elements of a Strong Nonprofit Strategic Plan

Friday, April 26, 2024

How can your nonprofit plan for the future in a sustainable, measured way that sets your entire team up for success? By creating a nonprofit strategic plan!

A strategic plan is a document that identifies the goals your organization needs to achieve in the next one to five years to get closer to accomplishing its mission. It also outlines how you’ll work toward those goals.

A strong nonprofit plan can help you ensure your current and future projects are aligned with your larger values and mission, engage your community of stakeholders, and make the most of limited resources.

To help you get a strong start on your own organization’s strategic planning process, we’ll walk through four essential elements you need to make an effective plan. Let’s begin.

1. Input from Stakeholders

A strategic plan isn’t something that you and your employees should tackle on your own. Instead, take the opportunity to get key stakeholders involved in shaping your organization’s future.

Specifically, you should invite the following stakeholders to join your team:

  • Community partners: Your organization is likely connected to corporate organizations and community leaders who are invested in seeing you accomplish your mission. Invite them to weigh in on your strategic plan—they can offer a unique perspective on how your organization impacts its larger community.
  • Major donors: Reinforce the importance of your major donors’ financial investment in your cause and strengthen their sense of ownership in your operations by seeking their input on your long-term goals. This will be especially important as you plan out your fundraising activities for the foreseeable future. Major donors can provide insight into what strategies work for getting people excited to give and what adjustments may be needed.
  • Volunteers: Your volunteers have the most hands-on experience with your organization’s work besides your paid staff members. They know what it takes to deliver your services and can help you determine what needs to be done to improve how you serve your beneficiaries.
  • Board members: Because it is responsible for steering your organization toward sustainable growth and success, your board of directors must be involved in your strategic planning work. Your board members are familiar with your operations, your resources, and what your organization is capable of accomplishing, which will all need to be top of mind during strategic planning. They can also assist in engaging other stakeholders.

In addition to these stakeholders, many nonprofits opt to work with a nonprofit consulting firm when engaging in strategic planning. Consultants bring to the table years of nonprofit experience and can provide your organization with a more objective view of what needs to be done to take your work to the next level.

2. A SWOT Analysis

In order to set strategic goals that will truly move your organization’s work forward, you first need to critically assess your current situation. You can do so with the help of a SWOT analysis, where you look at your nonprofit’s:

  • Strengths: Identify what is working well at your organization. What programs are being used the most? What marketing channels are working best for your fundraising campaigns? Which team members consistently go above and beyond? Pinpoint these strengths so you can make the most of them as you build out your goals.
  • Weaknesses: Also figure out what isn’t working so well at your organization. For instance, maybe you have a tech stack that desperately needs updating, or perhaps you’re lacking diversification in your revenue streams.
  • Opportunities: Based on your strengths and weaknesses, identify opportunities for growth and change that can turn into more concrete goals. For example, you may see a clear opportunity to grow your donor retention rate through a recurring giving program. Or you might notice that by expanding your most popular program, you could serve more beneficiaries.
  • Threats: You should also be aware of any external factors that might affect your organization’s progress toward accomplishing its mission or achieving its strategic goals. Economic turbulence, social unrest, or political tensions, for instance, might affect your ability to move your work forward, and planning around them will be crucial.

Assistance from a consultant will be especially helpful during the SWOT analysis step in strategic planning, as they’ll approach it with a more objective, big-picture view than team members and stakeholders close to your organization can. Make sure to be both realistic and optimistic during this step so you can set impactful, achievable goals.

3. Goals Tied Closely to Your Mission and Vision

With your team in place and a full understanding of your organization’s current standing, you’re ready to begin setting goals. Keep your overarching mission and vision top of mind to ensure that you’re creating goals that will truly benefit the community you aim to serve.

Let’s look at a few examples of goals you might set and the next steps you might outline to get started on them:

  • Build a new facility to serve more beneficiaries. In this case, you’ll want to work toward launching a capital campaign by conducting a planning and feasibility study. This is your opportunity to gauge the amount of support you have for your project from stakeholders and prepare preliminary campaign materials like a case for support.
  • Expand our digital marketing strategy into new channels. There are several different ways to do this, and your way forward will depend on your current marketing strategy and your audience’s needs and preferences. One option may be to drive more traffic to your website by applying for the Google Ad Grant program. Or, you may want to expand your presence on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, or X (formerly known as Twitter.
  • Strengthen our volunteer program. Whether you want to recruit more volunteers or retain the volunteers you already have, you can strengthen your program by revamping the training and support you offer, rewarding volunteers for their accomplishments, and fostering a sense of community by hosting volunteer-only events.

Whatever your specific goals are, take the time to view them granularly, identifying what specific steps you need to take to start making progress on them. This will set your team up to succeed by (or even before!) the deadlines you set during the strategic planning process.

4. Flexibility

As your team begins creating its strategic plan, you’ll find that it is very easy to get invested in the goals you set and the timelines you have for reaching them. After all, these goals will directly impact your ability to actually see the needle move on a mission that you’re passionate about.

However, even the most thorough strategic plans aren’t immune to unexpected challenges and changes. As you begin following your plan, you may find that priorities need to change, team needs shift, or world events leave you scrambling to know what move to make next.

This is why flexibility is also an essential element of a strong nonprofit strategic plan. After all, as the old saying goes, “Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape."

Build flexibility into your strategic plan by doing the following:

  • Identify alternate paths to achieving your core goals and objectives.
  • Prioritize continual and transparent communication with your team.
  • Regularly check in with your team to review the progress you’re making toward your goals.

Whether economic uncertainty leaves you wondering how you’ll encourage donors to keep giving or you discover you need to invest in new tools to get the most out of your donor data, you will be more agile in changing course if you cook flexibility straight into your nonprofit’s strategic plan.

Remember, too, that being flexible and embracing Plan B (or Plan C!) doesn’t mean your organization has failed in its goals or mission. It simply means that you’re adapting to new circumstances and re-routing your journey to success.

Strategic planning is an essential part of setting your nonprofit up for long-term success and growth. Keep these four elements in mind as you begin your own strategic planning journey, and don’t forget to turn to a consultant for guidance should you need it!