Why Strategy Matters™

Every nonprofit organization faces at least one central strategic issue vital to its continued wellbeing and effectiveness. Whether large or small, wealthy or poor, old or young, complex or simple, there is typically a fundamental strategic concern — or concerns — on which the future of the organization depends.

The strategic issue confronting an organization will vary, depending upon its particular purpose, circumstances, history and leadership. It may, for example, be one of the following: Should we grow, can we afford to grow, can we afford not to grow? What should we make of emerging competitors? How can we reverse a decline in our audiences? How do we deal with too many applicants, visitors, patients or regulators? Why can’t anyone accurately articulate our mission? Is our mission, as currently stated, still relevant? How will the disruptive nature of information technology transform our business model? How can we become more visible? What do we want to be when we grow up?

An organization is significantly handicapped without clear answers to questions like these — particularly in a world that is changing so rapidly and in such unforeseeable ways — for it otherwise runs the risk of blindly responding to opportunities or challenges, failing to transform itself, and becoming troubled or, worse, irrelevant.

Rigorous and continuous strategic thinking offers the best shot for an organization to recognize clearly who it is, where it is and where it wants to go and thereby increase the odds that it will constructively determine its future. And when an organization’s ambitions are clearly and concisely expressed, its leaders and managers gain guidance about how to evaluate and solve particular issues.

What Strategic Thinking Is All About

At its simplest level, strategic thinking is continuing, thoughtful attention by its leadership to the longerterm future of an organization. It is a mindset, an active alertness to the circumstances and possibilities of an organization and how that organization can best move forward. By continuously scanning the horizon, taking account of emerging trends and new ideas and seeing how other organizations are dealing with similar matters, an organization’s leadership is better prepared to make informed decisions about future directions and then act upon them.

The best strategic thinking focuses on a big, audacious, long-term goal and sustains a long-term commitment to realize it. By looking ahead rather than behind and focusing on opportunities and possibilities rather than being overwhelmed or discouraged by current constraints or limitations, an organization has the best odds of successfully thriving in today’s complex environment. New York University decided in the 1970s that it wished to become the equal of an Ivy

The best strategic thinking focuses on a big, audacious, long-term goal and sustains a long-term commitment to realize it.

League institution, then an unimaginatively bold aspiration — and look at it now. This clear strategic aspiration linked the work of many leaders, across time and divisions, making growth not solely dependent on any particular individual. Similarly, Columbia and Harvard are planning extensive expansions of their campuses that will require decades and billions to realize — but are necessary for them to thrive in the years ahead.

The best strategic thinking also recognizes the old saw that “nothing succeeds like success” and incorporates integrated approaches to create — and maintain — a sense of active forward momentum. Because nonprofit organizations are immensely complex organisms and need to be highly and carefully managed, significant thought and attention must be given — day in and day out — to making certain that each program and each activity bespeaks, at least incipiently, the longer-term goal.

By thinking continuously about opportunities, vulnerabilities, changes in the environment and the like, strategically oriented institutions can adapt more thoughtfully to changing circumstances, make better tactical decisions and achieve greater levels of sustained performance.

Benefits of a Disciplined and Well-Articulated Strategic Perspective

There are a number of reasons why continuous and informed strategic thinking can be beneficial to an organization:

  • Everyone connected with an organization wants to know what its mission is, where it’s going, how it can be more effective. A robust strategy provides the ideas and the words to build commitment, strengthen morale, improve communications and gain supporters — and, fundamentally, build organizational confidence.
  • Good strategic thinking can help an organization dispel myths it may have about itself and allow it to confront, directly and honestly, what it does well and where it is not up to speed; what its true strengths are and where it needs improvement.
  • Most organizations have unrealized potential in both people and context: leaders, staff and volunteers are energized by bold organizational ambitions and will stretch to help gain them; reframing of mission or vision often excites the world-weary board member or discouraged executive; looking analytically at key trends, evolving competition and new opportunities helps unlock unseen institutional possibilities and generate new organizational energy.
  • Patterns of competition — and the intensity of competition — are increasing rapidly in the new “flat” world created by the Internet and globalization. While no institution is safe from a competitor down the block or on the other side of the world — particularly as the cost of communications continues to fall, unmet needs for service increase and ambitions for organizational success grow — vigorous strategic thinking permits institutions to understand the character and nature of their competition and deal with it proactively and effectively.
  • Successful fundraising depends upon clear strategy. Those organizations that have gone through the difficult work of thinking through their mission, aspirations and objectives have the best shot at raising significant philanthropic resources. Those institutions that have not done so lack a compelling rationale to discuss with prospective donors, may raise money for the wrong purposes and are likely to underachieve their financial targets, possibly significantly so.
  • Successful branding also depends on clear strategy. Branding involves developing and consistently communicating a clear vision of the organization’s aspirational identity. Branding helps an institution move toward its own envisioned future by establishing and maintaining a clear identity, a process that is more likely to be successful when built on a foundation of a clear and vigorous organizational strategy.
  • Being clear about strategic directions allows every executive, every staff member and every volunteer to decide whether a meeting, telephone call or e-mail helps him or her — and the entire organization — move towards the agreed-upon goals or is a waste of time, energy and resources.

Successful fundraising depends upon clear strategy.

Where Strategic Planning Fits In

From time to time, an organization may make a concentrated effort to summarize its strategic thinking and undertake strategic planning, which will typically involve individuals throughout an organization who are formally charged with thinking systematically about its direction over the following five to ten years. The purpose of strategic planning is to chart a multiyear road map — a strategic plan — that will provide a framework for action, but not a detailed blueprint. But process is as important as the resultant planning document — without the right process, the document will be useless.

Strategic planning is time-consuming and demanding for executive leadership, staff and volunteers, and there are better and worse times to undertake it. A strategic planning process is not likely to benefit organizations whose raison d’etre is in doubt, organizations in financial crisis or organizations without stable governance or executive leadership. But it is likely to benefit organizations that are stable, but face difficult and complex choices of future direction in the context of a rapidly and continuously changing environment.

Critical Ingredients of Successful Strategic Planning

The experience of Anthony Knerr & Associates suggests there are several critical ingredients for making strategic planning work:

  • The planning process should be tailored to the culture, dynamics and personality of the organization — there is no effective “one size fits all” way of doing it. It is crucial to ensure that the process is appropriate for the organization, engages the right people in the right ways at the right time and has all of the participants pleased and excited with both the process and the strategic plan at the end of the process. A process that works for the American Red Cross is not likely to be effective for Swarthmore College. Thus, for example, a planning process we helped design for a leading liberal arts college began with establishing the deep involvement of the board, whose members would fund the plan. By contrast, a strategic communications plan we devised for another institution was created with extensive faculty input, not only because their input helped strengthen the messages, but also because the faculty would decide whether the themes and messages were credible.
  • Strategic planning needs to focus on the most important issues and opportunities. At any point in time, organizations face more strategic issues than they can usefully analyze and resolve. If strategic planning attempts to be comprehensive and address all of the strategic issues, it is likely that nothing will be accomplished. The strategic planning agenda should include — or aim to identify — a relatively small number of highly important issues that need to be resolved. One organization may need to focus on rethinking its mission and realigning its program focus whereas another may be fine with its mission and programming but confront significant issues about its governance and fundraising. For an international service organization that effectively operated as a franchise with a central headquarters, our analysis disclosed that the key challenge of sustaining and increasing membership depended on solving two other issues: developing a consistent international positioning, and revising standards for chapter activities that balanced flexibility with the need for alignment with international goals. The power of strategy is that it signals choices about both what to do and what not to do.
  • The planning process should be designed to permit sufficient opportunity for rigorous analysis that lays out “the facts of the case.” The process should be structured to ensure that the right questions are squarely on the table, analyzed in an appropriately tough-minded way and discussed collegially and openly. But because key insights often arrive serendipitously, it should also include appropriate time for reflection about key ideas, issues and objectives. The strategic planning process for one college was suddenly “unlocked” when it began to imagine where it wanted to be in 20 years rather than five — there was instantaneously a cascade of bold and exciting new ideas on the table.
  • While the planning process should be focused and rigorous, it should also be informed by a sense of fun and lots of good humor. Strategic thinking is hard enough without its being dreary, overly serious or just dull. Building in a cocktail hour or a non-working lunch provides more than liquid or solid refreshment — it creates bonds of trust that make it easier for people to venture insights, propose different ideas and, importantly, tolerate disagreements about goals and strategies.
  • The document coming out of the strategic planning process — the strategic plan — should be concise, crisp and “big-picture.” It should include the organization’s mission and vision; delineate four to five key strategic objectives, with underlying goals for each objective; lay out means of measuring progress towards the realization of the objectives and goals; and provide an implementation plan and, often, a financial plan in an appendix. Moreover, it should do so in as few pages as possible.
  • Strategic planning needs to be action-oriented to be effective — there should be a seamless process linking planning and implementation, a consideration that has a major impact on who should be involved in each stage of the planning process. A strategic plan that is too comprehensive and not linked to action usually ends up as a “book on the shelf.” As the Chinese general Sun-Tzu observed 2,500 years ago, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

The planning process should be tailored to the culture, dynamics and personality of the organization.

Barriers to the Successful Formulation of Strategy

Successful strategy sometimes seems — and is — extremely difficult to achieve, for a number of reasons:

  • Strategy is inherently messy, time consuming and threatening. It is not easy to figure out — and agree upon — an organization’s future, let alone what the organization, in fact, is. Strategy means wrestling to the ground the most profound issues that any organization faces, reconciling differing perspectives about these issues and, often, overcoming deep-seated anxieties about whether the organization has the ability to change course and (re)adapt itself.
  • The press of the ongoing responsibilities is often so demanding that it seems impossible to find the time to think — or act — strategically. Sometimes it just feels easier to simply show up every day, hoping that somehow things will work out for the best.
  • Bringing together different constituents can seem daunting, particularly if internal communications are not superb. Key players often have different organizational (and personal) ambitions, anxieties or tolerance for risk. Talking candidly about the most essential elements of an organization can reveal radically different perspectives, which then need to be dealt with constructively and thoughtfully.
  • It sometimes seems risky to make key strategic decisions, for in doing so the organization is publicly putting a major stake in the ground about direction, intention and outcomes with no guarantee of success. But not reaching a bold aspiration is surely better than making only marginal improvements and letting the world define the organization’s future by default.
  • Reaching agreement on the exact words to express strategic goals — let alone an organization’s mission and vision — is never easy, and it must be a shared exercise to be successful. Not only does everyone around the table seemingly fancy themselves an excellent writer, skilled editor or superb wordsmith, it is not easy to craft accurate, cogent and compelling statements of purpose and aspiration.
  • Linking execution with strategy on an ongoing basis — by tying the day-to-day and month-tomonth activities of all constituents to agreed upon strategic goals and objectives — is complex and requires persistence, patience and tough choices.

Strategy is inherently messy, time consuming and threatening.

Strategic planning in the nonprofit sector differs significantly from that in the private sector in focus, purpose and design. Nonprofit organizations are, by definition, mission-driven, and so central to every nonprofit is its mission statement, the encapsulation of what it seeks to accomplish, whom it serves and how it does so. Every aspect of a nonprofit’s strategic planning flows from its mission statement — though oftentimes the mission statement needs to be revisited, refined or rewritten in the course of completing a strategic plan.

Though every business firm must be clear about what business it is, statements of mission are not central to them — whereas the “bottom line” is, of course. Thus, a firm’s strategic plan is typically driven from the top down, relatively short-term in orientation and focused on achieving certain clear financial objectives — market-share, revenues, profitability and return to shareholders, for instance. It may (or may not) actively involve many individuals within the firm, but rarely anyone from outside; it will be more concerned with numbers than ideas; and it will be typically updated (or thrown out) within six months to a year. It is usually more of a business plan than a strategic plan — though the wise and profitable firm is continuously thinking strategically and long-term.

Every aspect of a nonprofit’s strategic planning flows from its mission statement.

Successful business people who sit on nonprofit boards sometimes have difficulty understanding why nonprofit strategy is inherently more participatory, long-winded and complex than what they are used to in their day jobs. It’s a different process, serving different purposes and having different outcomes.

The Punch Line

The wise nonprofit thinks strategically, understanding that the realization of its mission is dependent upon a longer view that is periodically reassessed and reset, informed by a set of clear three- to five-year goals and objectives and embodied in a formal plan that serves as a road-map for everything the organization is doing.

It uses its strategic plan as a key tool to measure organizational performance, undergird development planning and management, inform external and internal communications and branding and, in general, serve as the “operational charter” for guiding the organization.

Further, it sees strategic thinking as critical to successful fundraising — for it realizes that major donors are interested in knowing about an organization’s aspirations, take comfort in a track record of successful realization of prior strategic plans and typically concern themselves with a longer-term investment horizon.

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