Is Nonprofit Planning an Oxymoron?

Mon, May 30, 2016 at 10:25AM

Hardy Smith, Nonprofit Speaker and Consultant

This article originally appeared on the Boardsource blog

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When I ask audiences of nonprofit leaders to indicate how many of them engage in strategic planning, have an annual action plan, or make time to plan out the projects and activities that are critical to their success, the all too familiar response is that many don’t.

Ironically, those same nonprofit professionals confirm they are well aware of the benefits of good planning. It creates structure and focus, identifies potential solutions to anticipated problems, saves time, and establishes measurable goals with strategies for achieving them. Planning also sets desired performance levels, which allow for evaluation and accountability.

Yet they don’t do it. It’s a puzzling situation.

My own experience that planning is a missing tool in the nonprofit toolbox is reinforced by two significant reports.

The first, the Evelyn and Walter Hass, Jr. Fund/Compass Point report Under Developed, A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising shares that more than 23 percent of nonprofits nationwide don’t have plans for their fundraising efforts. Imagine, almost one-quarter of the country’s nonprofits are not planning for the financial lifeblood that enables them to achieve their all-important missions!

Moreover, if an organization doesn’t plan how it will get necessary financial support, isn’t it reasonable to assume it probably isn’t applying planning to any of their other activities?

The second significant report, BoardSource’s own Leading with Intent: A National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices 2015, points out further deficiencies in planning. According to survey findings, strategic planning remains among the top five areas needing board improvement.

Furthermore, the report includes this strong statement challenging those not utilizing planning: “Organizations that do not have a formal written strategic plan, or have not revised it within the past five years, do a disservice to their mission, constituents, and boards.”

Why is the lack of planning so prevalent?

The answer I hear most frequently is, “Everyone is just too busy.”

That reasoning is hard to accept.

With all of the challenges nonprofits face, time for planning should be a top priority. Don’t we all want to find ways to reduce pressure, alleviate stress, save money, get more done in less time with fewer people, and find answers to a seemingly never-ending list of other problems?

Sure we do. Yet the truth is that nonprofits are wasting time, money, and human resources when they don’t plan.

My translation of the “too busy to plan” excuse is nonprofits are really saying they’re too busy to waste time planning.

When I work with nonprofit clients on planning process development, we discuss challenges they may have had in the past.

I’ve learned that for many, either the planning process was a less than positive experience or it was a waste of time because those plans are now gathering dust on a shelf. Each of these contributes to the negative perception of planning.

Often a plan’s failure to deliver the desired results can be attributed to three critical omissions in the process: (1) participant buy-in, (2) implementation, and (3) evaluation.

Sometimes nonprofit leaders decide to save time and money, and avoid the hassle of uncooperative board members, stakeholders, or staff by writing a plan themselves.

Big mistake.

Certainly, the do-it-yourselfers can write a plan, but then whose plan is it?

Planning doesn’t work without buy-in

Leading with Intent made this telling observation: “While 81 percent of boards approve the final strategic plan, only 20 percent of CEOs give their boards an A for effort in adopting and following it.”

Individual buy-in does not arise from merely voting to approve a plan that someone has no involvement in developing.

Without needed support, implementation of the plan goes nowhere.

Consider exchanging an exclusionary approach to one of inclusion. Take these steps:

  • Use planning as an engagement tool.
  • Get needed participation by making the development of your planning team a project.
  • Carefully recruit and reward participants.
  • Show them the benefits your new or revised plan could have.
  • Build enthusiasm that creates ownership.

Then exercise patience. Allow the team to identify the goals, objectives, and needed action steps that they actually have enthusiasm for. Jack Hawkins, president of Troy State University, shared this piece of wisdom with me: “If they help bake the cake, they own the cake.”

It may be a challenge in the short term, but, in the long term, engaged planners will be much more willing to accept and follow through on implementation tasks.

Planning doesn’t work without implementation

For a plan to evolve into reality, implementation steps must be included. What specific actions are needed? Who will execute them? And what are critical timelines to meet?

A plan that requires answers to these questions builds in measurable accountability.

It’s also important for organizations to rethink how implementation responsibilities are assigned.

As with buy-in, announcing to people that they have a job to do doesn’t automatically get a commitment for performance.

Recruit task implementers based on passion and ability for getting their assignment done successfully. Try asking rather than telling. Make sure you have acceptance of your task request.

Planning doesn’t work without evaluation.

Another pitfall to avoid is failing to include ongoing evaluation and status reviews. Scheduled progress assessments should consist of not only reports but active discussion by board members and staff. Making necessary adjustments to stay on track allows your plan to be a living document that your implementation team can stay connected to.

Use facilitation for positive outcomes

Finally, if previous planning exercises haven’t produced desired results, examine how they can be improved.

Involving an outside facilitator can help keep the process moving, get engagement, and provide guidance for staying focused on the task at hand. Facilitation can also help ensure the process remains positive and productive.

Doesn’t your cause deserve success?

As a youth basketball coach, I admonished players who didn’t go the full distance in a conditioning drill.

Nonprofits shouldn’t stop short of achieving their mission by denying themselves benefits of good planning.

Imagine the change in the nonprofit sector if planning for buy-in were associated with enthusiasm, if planning for implementation were associated with passion, and planning for evaluation were associated with the road to positive outcomes.

And now imagine if all this were the case at your nonprofit.

Incorporating these many action suggestions will help move plans from languishing on dusty shelves to propelling nonprofits to mission success.

Additional BoardSource resources to assist with planning include this post on planning by Ann F. Cohen and BoardSource’s publication, Driving Strategic Planning-A Nonprofit Executive’s Guide.

What suggestions would you offer to help nonprofits struggling to implement a good planning process?

I invite the BoardSource community to share your planning success experiences.


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