Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Wick Swain hauls off landscaping pavers while volunteering at the Pioneer Craft House during the United Way Day of Caring in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012.

Not long after his presidency, Dwight Eisenhower was quoted as saying, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensible.”

Anyone with experience in a nonprofit organization has been through at least one planning effort which involved painful committee work, meetings that ran too long, consultants who made too much money for little return, and a final product that sat on a shelf or hard drive never to be seen again. If the organization you are serving is one you have been engaged with for years or decades, you have likely seen a graveyard of vision documents, all of which form a “flavor of the month” sensation in your stomach. When we think of our most precious resource: time, negative experiences can make it easy to write-off all planning exercises as wasteful.

Ike was right. It would be folly to expect that life would or could go according to our planning efforts in the larger sense. But, it would be a gross dereliction to relegate our service-oriented enterprises to a fate determined by happenstance.

If you are running up against resistance to a planning effort, or simply finding it difficult to keep your own eyes from rolling, it is important to properly frame expectations for the process.

  1. Plans are not formulas. When we expect events to unfold in a serialized fashion simply because we wrote them that way, we are simultaneously setting others and ourselves up for frustration.
  2. Know how formal and detailed your plan needs to be. There should be some congruence with the size of your organization in terms of staff size, budget, individuals served, etc. (For example, if your annual operating budget is $70,000 per year and your plan takes twelve months and a three-inch binder to compile, something needs to be dialed back.)
  3. Strategic planning is a chance for a new beginning. The myopia that results from mundane everyday concerns can wear us down and blind us to new opportunities. At a minimum, your planning effort should be a chance to question why certain things are done the way they are, and whether or not they should continue to be done at all. In fact, any and every variation of, “we’ve always…” is a data point supporting the need for the planning exercise.
  4. Balance the involvement of fresh eyes and institutional memory. Consultants and new contributors can oversimplify issues or take you back to places you’ve already been. While typically attributed to hubris, a more common cause is simply that most people don’t know what they don’t know. Likewise, do not feel threatened by the possibility that you may have been looking at the same patterns so long that you are no longer seeing as clearly as you could. Both types of contributors must actively listen to and be open to the other.

Once you have confronted the ghosts of plans past and set expectations, the temptation will be to focus on future action plans immediately. Before allowing the organization to hop into a time machine, conduct a meaningful discussion and analysis of the current state while keeping assumptions at bay.

There exists a myriad of tools to get a sense of where your organization stands. For nonprofits, the “Six Forces Framework” outlined by Sharon Oster is a gold standard. Many outstanding books can walk you through the proper use of this model, so rather than duplicate them, a few suggestions:

  • Start at the center of the model and define your “industry” carefully. The risk here is that you define it too narrowly or too broadly. For example, “animal shelter” might be what you are, but it’s not the industry you are likely in. It is more likely that you are an “animal welfare organization”. If so, pet food pantries, dog trainers and even pet stores may compete for resources or at least share some of the same space as your own programs.
  • Do not think about competition too rigidly. If you are a church, your competition is not limited to other churches. It can be other organizations that serve those in need, practitioners of yoga or other holistic spiritual care, it can be the growth of virtual ministry in the online world. Just because you may not consider these alternatives in the same class as your own beloved congregation doesn’t mean strangers make such distinctions.
  • Think about your core offerings when identifying suppliers. For the majority of nonprofits, people (staff and volunteers) are the real suppliers of expertise, skill or talent. This may include people with credentials or experience in environmental science, early childhood education, or music.

You might be wondering why there is nothing written here about how to plan your next moves and new ideas. Generally speaking, action plans and next steps enter the process naturally when the foundation work above is done and done well.

John J. Brady is the Chief Operating Officer of HigherNext, Inc. With 20 years in the education sector, he writes on matters of higher education, transitions into college and career, non-profit management and standardized testing.