With December upon us, and the end of the year drawing near, we like to assess the landscape of the social sector and share our insights. We always start the new year of Social TrendSpotter in the same way – sharing our trend report. This year, though, we’re adding a new tradition – answering the key issues on your mind at year-end, before closing the books on 2014.

Through input gathered in conversations, social media and an online survey, we have seen a strong theme emerge – everyone is talking about strategic planning right now. Such discussions are not uncommon at the end of the year, when you reflect on what you have accomplished and plan what you want to do better in the following year. But, we think there is greater focus on strategic planning this year than in the past. We believe this increase is connected to some important shifts in the sector. Many nonprofits are using strategic planning as a tool to ensure their organization stays relevant and impacts the communities and clients they serve. To help you make the most of your strategic planning conversations, we collected your most pressing questions and quizzed our staff for their best answers.

How often should a strategic plan be created?
Five years used to be the standard. In the last few years, we have seen a definite shift to a shorter time span of two or three years. However, we recommend that every organization review their plan quarterly, track progress toward goals, and reassess their relevancy and timing in terms of any environmental shifts. We also highly recommend an annual strategic planning “refresh” to examine internal and external dynamics that could impact the organization.

What type of planning process should we follow?
It depends. First, if your last strategic planning process was extensive and your environment has not shifted much, you can do a “refresh” and focus more of your attention on execution rather than planning. However, if your environment has shifted and you need objective feedback to ensure that you are on the right track, we strongly encourage a more extensive review of internal and external research to build a new plan. Second, if you have accomplished a majority of the goals in your existing strategic plan, you most likely have a good tracking process, including a dashboard. If you have not accomplished most of your strategic plan’s goals or you don’t use the strategic plan to guide decision-making, you may want to re-evaluate the role of planning and execution in your organization. You may need a third-party to help develop a process that will lead to better planning, prioritizing and execution of your organization’s key goals.

What type of research should the planning process include?
Whatever process you follow should include an internal and external assessment. It should cover the core areas of a high-impact (impact, branding) and high-performance (revenue, operations) organization and describe the connection between strategy and culture.  It can include a variety of tools – surveys, focus groups, comparable/best practice research and interviews. As with all data collection, you have to consider the value of the tool relative to its cost. Ask yourself, where will you get your greatest insights? Who needs to be involved? Ideally, you use both quantitative and qualitative analysis to cross-reference and validate themes, and to build a concrete argument around prioritization.

How long should the planning process last?
The best timeline is three to five months from start to finish – depending on the complexity of the organization and the plan needs. We always remind organizations that it is important to stagger the timeline to prevent planning fatigue and to ensure adequate time and energy for the execution of the plan at the end. If you do it right, you should be energized at the end of the process and ready to execute the plan.

Who should the planning process include?
We recommend a joint process between the board and staff, but this can include many possibilities and variations. It is important to get buy-in into the final priorities from all parties. We find it very helpful for board and staff members to “vote” on their top priorities to narrow the plan’s focus and help prioritize timelines.

If you have questions specific to your strategic planning situation, please do not hesitate to reach out to us via our Contact Page. We also welcome your feedback. Join us next week for our discussion of culture. We will be sharing insights from the top for-profit culture guru, Southwest Airlines, and answering your questions on how culture can be a major force in your success.

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