Fundraising Q&A: The art of strategic planning

About this article

Text Size: A A

Last month's article wrapped up with the benefits of Strategic Planning. That list will have convinced your board and chief executive of the importance of this process! With increasing competition for limited funds, engaged volunteers and dedicated staff your charity needs to be resourceful in order to meet these daily challenges. Effective leadership teams have their finger on the organization's pulse and understand the current state, the potential goals and precisely what it will take to fill the gaps.

Deliberate or emergent planning?

Your organization's strategic plan however, isn't carved in stone. One of my favourite articles on planning is called Crafting Strategy by Henry Mintzberg. It dates back to 1987 and can be purchased through the Harvard Business Review. Consider the image of a potter (Mintzberg's wife) handling clay and the artist's "involvement, feeling, intimacy and harmony" with the materials at hand. Her creations more often evolve than take on the exact form she initially envisioned. Mintzberg feels this "crafting" image better captures how effective strategies unfold.

"Strategies need not be deliberate — they can also emerge. Strategies can form as well as be formulated. A realized strategy can emerge in response to an evolving situation, or it can be brought about deliberately, through a process of formulation followed by implementation. But when these planned intentions do not produce the desired actions, organizations are left with unrealized strategies." Don't underestimate the value of "failed or unrealized" strategies. Provided your organization has a learning culture, they can help create a fertile environment for new growth — errors become opportunities and limitations stimulate creativity.

Artists don't separate their thinking from their actions — hand and mind work in concert. Mintzberg explains that "purely deliberate strategy precludes learning once the strategy is formulated; emergent strategy fosters it." While the former may be more of a logical, left brain activity offering some element of predictability and control, the latter embraces the creative, right brain responses to the circumstances that arise and accepts that life happens. Both deliberate and emergent strategies are necessary.

"To manage strategy is to craft thought and action, control and learning, stability and change. Thus crafting strategy, like managing craft, requires a natural synthesis of the future, present and past."

When to plan

Effective planning is an ongoing exercise but it's especially beneficial when it helps inform your budgeting process. That's one of the main reasons the strategic plan feeds valuable information to the development plan.

The days of ten-year strategic plans (that often collected dust on the shelf) are a waste of precious resources. Typically, organizations develop three to five year strategies; in turn, these direct the one-year operating or implementation plan that plots specific incremental tasks toward the larger goals.

If the leadership team (board and chief executive) is truly planning the work and working the plan then you're integrating both deliberate and emergent strategies and recognizing the need for change or adjustments in order to improve. Status quo doesn't work, particularly in our fast-paced society and yet most people cling to it in fear of what's ahead. What they fail to recognize are the true costs of their denial.

Even before the organization's three to five year plan is finished, a task force of the board should be struck to orchestrate the next process. It's hard to turn back once you've seen the benefits and efficiencies that strategic thinking and planning bring.

Who's included?

Fear of change is understandable when people don't know what's happening. Good strategic planning is a more inclusive than exclusive exercise. The board of directors and chief executive (or a strategy task force) will decide how far to cast the net and whom to include. At minimum, these leaders must be involved in the process. However, in order to build ownership in the strategic directions that are identified "stakeholders" are ideally included. What methods will be used to gather their input depends on the available resources.

How much does a Strategic Plan cost?

That's a really hard question to answer because... it depends! If the organization is conducting the whole process internally then it's primarily a matter of the staff time. However, the sky is the limit if you can reach that high. The bottom line is how much you are expecting consultants to deliver and what you intend to cover yourselves.

Some funders recognize the value of underwriting a strategic planning process. It's worth researching which charitable foundations or government grants are available in your area. Typically, these funds can range from $5,000 - $25,000. You may be able to leverage more by inviting other investors who understand the inherent benefits. My approach is to engage the client...the more your team is part of the process, the less it costs you and the more success you'll have in the implementation.

Avoid these common mistakes

  • Boards not taking responsibility for the planning process — this is one of the most important roles the board must playto ensure the organization's future!
  • Failure to link the strategic plan to the budgeting process — estimate the resources required while developing action plans to strengthen your case for support.
  • Resistance to change — ask the team if the problem is related to: resources, people, systems or the organization in order to clarify your search for a solution.
  • Thinking of strategic planning as an event instead of a process — make planning an integral part of operating your organization.
  • Not allowing enough time — planning is a long-term investment that will pay dividends when discussions have sufficient depth and breadth to inform strategic decisions.
  • Assuming that there is a right path, which can be determined in advance and then implemented — reluctance to revise your strategic plan when something changes significantly could have dramatic consequences.
  • Ask your team (a) how is this change likely to affect our plan? (b) How should we, therefore change our strategy in response?
  • Planning doesn't necessarily mean growth — hold the course or steady as you go may be the best strategy once you have factored in all the variables.
  • Projecting significant growth without the research to back it up — this can be a costly mistake and falls under the category of "wishful thinking".
  • Not looking at the surrounding environment thoroughly enough — that can be a problem when an organization tries to save money.
  • Keep in mind that Survey Monkey is an affordable way to engage outside stakeholders and ensure that those affected inside the organization also have a say.
  • Doing it alone — there is a benefit to hiring a facilitator who can draw out the collective wisdom and focus on the process while participants provide the content.


Further resources

Sample service agency strategic plan
Strategic Planning: A 10 Step Guide
Strategic Planning in Non-Profit or For-Profit Organizations
Strategic Planning Bulletin from OMAFRA

Cynthia Armour is a freelance specialist in fundraising and governance. A Certified FundRaising Executive (CFRE) since 1995, she volunteers as a subject matter expert with CFRE International. She works with boards and senior staff to ensure that strong leadership will enhance organizational capacity to govern and fundraise effectively. Contact Cynthia directly at 705-799-0636, e-mail, or visit for more information about her services.

To submit a question for a future column, or to comment on a previous one, please contact No identifying information will appear in this column.

Disclaimer: Advice and recommendations are based on limited information provided and should be used as a guideline only. Neither the author nor make any warranty, express or implied, or assume any legal liability for accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of any information provided in whole or in part within this article.

Please note: While we ensure that all links and email addresses are accurate at their publishing date, the quick-changing nature of the web means that some links to other websites and email addresses may no longer be accurate.

Go To Top