Why Don’t You Do Strategic Planning?

Recently, Jim, a long-time friend who leads a nonprofit service organization, asked for my help with some program development work.  The project sounded interesting and fun, and as we talked Jim became increasingly animated as his excitement grew—that is, until I asked how this work fit into his strategic plan.  Silence.  Then, “Well, we don’t really do strategic planning.”

I was not surprised when Jim said that he does not do strategic planning.   Although many companies and organizations in all industries, in all sectors and of all sizes do utilize strategic planning, many do not.  But given the potential benefits of having a consciously-chosen and clearly-defined framework for moving forward towards achieving the organization’s mission, I am always curious about the reason why an organization doesn’t do strategic planning.

We’re Too Small

In the case of my friend Jim, he believes that his nonprofit is too small for strategic planning to be relevant.  But size in not a factor when it comes to strategic planning.  Jim talks about growing his nonprofit and improving his services—and he says he just needs to “work harder and smarter.”  Admirable, but not a recipe for success.

If you are not perfectly happy with your small organization’s current state and future outlook—if you want to grow your organization, improve the services you provide, take advantage of untapped opportunities, or mitigate the risk presented by a changing environment—then you need to plan for success.  You don’t need the same sophistication and time-consuming strategic planning process of a Fortune 500 company, but you do need a plan.

We’re Too Busy

My colleague, Alexa, tells me that she would love to do strategic planning, but there is never enough time.  She’s just too busy.  Of course, there are the day-to-day operations.  But she barely gets out in front of the grant cycles before she needs to throw her energy into local fundraising.  And there’s the budget to plan.  And …

Strategic planning does take time.  A half-day or full-day retreat rarely produces a well-crafted and effective plan.  And if the process is not well-managed, strategic planning can become a time trap.  But consider that most top management in every organization already devote some portion of the day (estimates range from 2 to 10 percent of their time) to practical strategic planning.   Structured strategic planning isn’t something more to do; it’s a better way of doing something that is already being done.  In the long-run, it will probably save you time.

Been There, Done That—and It Didn’t Work

Another colleague, Bill, rolls his eyes every time the subject of strategic planning comes up.   Bill has had to work on several strategic plans efforts that he considers failures, and he cannot be convinced that strategic planning is worth his organization’s investment.

Strategic planning can fail for many reasons.   For instance, organizations may do strategic planning for the wrong reasons (“to get board members engaged” or “to get everyone on the same page”—objectives that could be achieved in much more efficient and productive ways).    Burn me once, shame on you.  Burn me twice, shame on me.  A bad experience is difficult to overcome.

Having a strategic plan—a consciously-chosen and clearly-defined framework for moving forward towards achieving the organization’s mission—offers many potential benefits ranging from improved performance, greater client satisfaction and saving time and money.  But organizational leaders have countless excuses for not having a formal strategic plan.  Does your organization do strategic planning?  If not, why not?


–Kevin Dincher, Strategic Advisor, Professionals in Philanthropy