Tools for Not-for-Profit Leaders: The Strategic Plan

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Both staff and elected leaders of not-for-profit organizations can be well served by basic "tools of our trade". These include:

  1. A strategic plan
  2. A communications plan
  3. Policies and procedures
  4. A volunteer handbook
  5. A succession planning strategy
  6. A risk management strategy
  7. Board and committee self-evaluation tools
  8. A website strategy
  9. A crisis management plan
  10. Templates (for minutes, agenda, PowerPoint presentations, newsletters, etc.).

Through a series of articles, each month we will review one of these tools to help readers understand their purpose and adapt them to their own organizational circumstances.

We begin with the master tool:

The strategic plan

A well articulated, concise strategic plan is a roadmap for everyone involved in an organization to follow. It is a directional statement that conveys what the organization's vision and mission are, what their three or four key strategic goals are, and a summary of the key activities that will serve the mission and goals.

The mission expresses what the organization stands for - its purpose. A short mission statement gets the point across succinctly and is literally memorable. High performance organizations refer to their mission statement frequently. It is the banner that cloaks their meetings, their annual report, their website, their agendas; it is everywhere and everyone who comes in contact with the organization has access to it. An effective mission statement ensures that people who read it "get" what the organization is about in a way that distinguishes it from other similar organizations.

The vision statement is an expression of what the organization's aspirations are - what it intends to achieve. It, too, is directional.

Strategic goals are the three or four broad objectives the organization sets for itself. Within those strategic "pillars" (as they are sometimes referred to) are the functions and services the organization offers. By limiting the number of strategic objectives in a plan, strategic focus is generated. Every staff and volunteer leader is able to relate their role and contribution to the key strategic objectives. The board can discipline its policy and decision making by addressing how issues and activities relate to the approved mission and strategic goals. If an issue is proposed that does not directly serve a strategic goal, they should ask themselves "why are we discussing this?" Sometimes the answer is valid and unveils a new and critical issue that was not foreseen when the strategic plan was developed. In such cases, a revision to the plan is warranted.

Strategic plans work best when actively used. High performance organizations construct their meeting agendas by using the three or four strategic goals as the framework for the agenda. That focuses everyone on how their work fulfills the mission and serves the strategic objectives of the organization.

Once the directional strategy is set and pronounced by the board, staff and volunteer leaders need a supporting tool:

The operational plan and budget

The strategic plan sets the direction of the organization. The operational plan lays out the activities required to fulfill the organization's mission and strategic objectives as expressed in the strategic plan.

The operational plan should be structured to follow the strategic objectives (keeping focus on the broad objectives). It details the activities that both staff and volunteer leaders will undertake to achieve the desired outcomes. It is specific about who and how and when and a good operational plan includes measurement criteria.

The operational plan needs to be accompanied by a detailed budget that sets the financial objectives for each activity. In a policy governance model (where the board sets policy and the staff implement) the operational plan is a staff tool that guides their work. The budget, however, is a tool that requires board approval, and monitoring budget results is a task shared by both the board and staff members.

So now we have a direction plan, a tactical plan and a budget to follow. The next tool in our toolbox should be a:

Plan evaluation strategy

High performance organizations rigorously evaluate performance against plans. They set performance standards and criteria and regularly check to see if the organization is accomplishing its intended outcomes. Having predetermined standards and criteria helps prevent subjective evaluation.

When the mission and goals are not being adequately serviced, the plan is tweaked and budget considerations are studied. Using changes brought forward to them, the board votes on plan or budget revisions. The same applies to staff and volunteer plans and budgets; changes required are recommended with rationale and the decision-making authority votes on changes.

Good planning is a circular activity that keeps an organization on track. But we have one more tool at our disposal:

Celebrating accomplishments

Work can be fun! People share a sense of accomplishment when their efforts to achieve agreed upon objectives are realized. This calls for celebration. High performance organizations recognize, thank and praise those who contributed and attained shared goals. This can be done through words, events or tangible symbols of appreciation.

Being appreciated is an intoxicating experience that begs being repeated and can motivate people to want to do more and better for the organization.

If you need help with creating your tools, refer to other sections of this library. There are lots of "instruction manuals" at your disposal.

Paulette Vinette, CAE, is the co-author of Risk Management - A primer for directors of not-for-profit organizations, which was recently published by the Canadian Society of Association Executives in 2005 (ISBN 0-921998-01-5). Paulette in President of Solution Studio Inc., a consulting practice that serves the not-for-profit association community. She can be reached at 1-877-787-7714 or

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