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The Strategic Plan: What It Is and How to Build It in Days, Not Months

So it’s time for strategic planning—the process that typically involves three to six months of meetings and splinter groups and task forces.

And just what is a strategic plan?

Typically, it begins with comprehensive agendas ruling the day, along with copious note-taking and prolonged brainstorming that drifts off-target. The management team tries to assess the organization’s position using market data and employee feedback and a SWOT analysis.

Then comes freeform bantering about strategic goals and objectives inspired by mission and vision statements that haven’t changed in years.

Lastly, revenue is forecast based on past performance instead of desired growth, prompting budgets and timelines for a high-level project roadmap.

And Voila—The Nonprofit Strategic Plan!

Unfortunately, oftentimes the best way to feel good about this voluminous, information-heavy document is to let it sit in  a lonely drawer. Which is not what a strategic plan is supposed to do.

Why is this? What’s missing from the mission-driven strategic planning process that makes the result virtually unusable?

We’ll sum it up in one word: STRUCTURE. It’s the secret ingredient of planning, and by extension, the core concept of strategic development.

Though it sounds counterintuitive, structure doesn’t restrict thought or creativity in meetings. Nor does it inject an element of rigidity.

Rather, in the right venue, structure actually encourages things like new ideas, challenges, opportunities, strategy insights, goals, and consensus and then channels them into a realistic action plan.

And the right venue is a strategy sprint that we call a Rapid Growth Workshop. Here it is, in a nutshell:

  • Four half-day workshops consisting of structured exercises over a three-week period
  • Clarity and tangible action replace fluff and pie-in-the-sky thinking
  • In just three weeks, the nonprofit leadership team:
    • Aligns on purpose and critical challenges
    • Identifies specific actions to overcome the challenges and to achieve success
    • Designs a winning, action-oriented roadmap capable of real growth–the essence of strategic planning
    • Has all it needs to inspire the organization and execute a coordinated plan

How in the world can we get an actionable strategic plan in just three weeks? We won’t keep you in suspense!

First of all: Assign one person as a Decision Maker (someone with the authority to make final determinations) and another as a Facilitator to keep things on track. Now we’re off!


Aligning on Your Purpose

DISCOVERY – Starting the process

The Decision Maker has a bit of initial homework to do. Information is needed to gain insight and greater clarity about what’s working, challenging, missing, or confusing. This includes a survey and one-on-one interviews with each member of the leadership team. After that, we’re ready for Week One’s only workshop.

WORKSHOP NO. 1 – Putting structure to work right off the bat

What you do in this first workshop anchors all things that follow. It aligns your leadership team on the real purpose of your organization–and ultimately, the purpose of strategic planning for your nonprofit.

Wait a minute, you say. Don’t we already have mission and vision statements? Isn’t our purpose in there somewhere?

Not really.

Vision is an organization’s inspirational desire for its future, the horizon toward which it sails (say, ending hunger in your community).

Mission states what an organization does and for whom (providing food to underserved neighborhoods on a regular basis). Essentially, it’s how to achieve the more idealistic vision.

Purpose, however, makes clear the reason you do what you do, why you exist. For example, why do you want to end hunger in your community?

Purpose should provide clarity for all in your organization, enabling them to know that their work has meaning and that what they do contributes to real impact.

A thorough purpose statement is (a) practical, (b) likely unchanging when reviewed a few years from now, and (c) foundational for every decision you’ll make in the Rapid Growth Workshop.

Ready to see how it’s done?

Let’s take a look at the structured exercise we use with our nonprofit clients to determine their purpose statement.

Team Rubicon, one of the nation’s foremost disaster relief organizations, is staffed primarily by military veteran volunteers.

We’d start by asking them to answer: “Ideally, two years from now, what purpose will we fulfill in the world and for our beneficiaries or clients?”

And now for the structure:

  • Every attendee completes these three sentences to form a purpose statement, each on a separate sticky note:
    • We exist to…
    • We do this for…
    • We do this by…
  • They have 10 minutes to write as many versions of the three sentences as possible
  • Attendees then mix-and-match their favorite parts to create their best purpose statement
  • Everyone puts their best purpose statement up on a board
  • All but the Decision Maker vote on which purpose statement best encapsulates why they are personally excited to do the work
  • Whether it’s the top vote-getter or a pick-and-choose from the various components, the Decision Maker will select the final purpose statement for the organization

In this case, the final version could be:

We exist to ensure that disaster victims don’t face recovery alone. We do this for those in every county, borough, and parish in the country. We do this by providing immediate relief using local, veteran-led teams who are properly organized, trained, and equipped.

And just like that, Team Rubicon has a purpose statement defined in an inclusive way that could guide the remaining three strategic planning workshops.


Define and Decide

The second, third, and fourth strategic planning workshops occur in week two, all of which (like the first workshop) are centered on deliberate structure.

Workshop two focuses on identifying challenges that stand in the way of achieving your stated goals.

Number three helps the team define testable initiatives (or, experiments) to overcome those challenges, while the last workshop produces actionable steps to put the initiatives into play.

Although you can create your own ways to collaborate, we offer a host of strategic exercises that facilitate idea generation and decision making.

These workshops are carefully designed to ensure your team enjoys the key components of a strategic plan.



Documentation and Handoff

The Rapid Growth Workshop brings your leadership together to forge a path forward.

Upon its completion, you’ll have a one-page strategic plan (that’s right—one page!) to share with your entire organization. At the very top is your purpose statement, followed by the goals and recommended actionable steps determined during the workshops.

And you didn’t even need to take notes! A shareable executive summary contains all of the structured exercise results, ready for easy reference. Not to mention all of the vital elements that characterize a strategic plan tailor-made for your organization.

The bottom line? All you really need for a long-range plan is a short-term sprint!