Long term vs strategy vs tactical planning for your organization

planning flow chartI love Seth Godin and his ability to make you think with what must be some of the world’s shortest blog posts ever. Did you see his recent post titled A ten-year plan is absurd? I swear to you this 28 word post has been rattling around in my head for the last five days. If you haven’t read it, it is really worth the click. Seriously!
Here are some of the thoughts I cannot seem to shake:

  • Back in the days when we had more time and the luxury of being thoughtful, it wasn’t uncommon for an organization to develop a long-range plan. This document was akin to a vision statement, but it had more depth and long range goals.
  • Strategic plans were three to five years in duration and stemmed from the long-term plan. This document “chunked down” the long term plan into shorter term vision, goals and strategies.
  • Every year a tactical plan (aka operational plan) were developed and stemmed from the strategic plan and turned each strategy into a detailed action plan for that particular year (e.g. specific tactics with information on who would do what and by when). These tactical plans would commonly provide direction to development of individual annual performance plans as well as committee work plans for each standing committee of the board.

As our world seems to have accelerated and time has evaporated, it is very common for organizations to pick-up the phone, call a planning consultant/facilitator/coach like me and ask if I’d be willing to help them scrunch all of these plans into one convenient document called “The Strategic Plan.”
Seth’s blog post has me wondering if I’m doing a disservice to my clients by agreeing to help cut these corners?
Does your organization know where it wants to be 10-years from now? 20-years? If not, then what have you done during your “visioning process” for strategic planning that instills confidence that your organization isn’t simply floating from one board’s big idea to the next generation of board members’ genius thought?
Here’s to your health!
Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC

Just say NO to planning for the sake of planning

It happens all the time in my line of work. A new executive director or board president gets it in their head that they need a strategic plan because it “cures all that ails you“.  With this vision, they call a planning consultant to facilitate creation of this perfect solution. Of course, the problem is that . . .

Not everyone is ready for strategic planning

The other day I was clicking around the internet looking for readiness assessment tools to share with a client, and I came across a wonderful white paper published by the The Nonprofit Center at La Salle University’s School of Business. It identified the following five instances when many non-profit organizations tend to instinctively reach for the strategic planning tool and should definitely resist doing so:

  1. not readyWhen they are in (or starting to slide into) financial crisis
  2. When the board realizes the executive director “isn’t right” for the organization
  3. The board is fuzzy when it comes to their roles and responsibilities
  4. There is tension throughout the organization (either in the boardroom or on the front line)
  5. There is a pervasive attitude of “We don’t do it that way” or “We tried that and it didn’t work”)

When any of these circumstances are present, then strategic planning isn’t something you should engage in. Click here to read more of that article from The Nonprofit Center. They offer some nice solutions to each of these five situations.
Of course, even if your agency passes this initial test, there are still additional readiness questions you should ask before proceeding. The following are just a few questions I found online embedded in a survey tool developed by the Community Foundation of Monterey County:

  • Is our board proactive in preparing for the future instead of waiting for emergencies to react?
  • Are key community leaders and partners willing to participate in our planning process in a meaningful way?
  • Are the board and staff knowledgeable about current trends in nonprofit management?
  • Does our organization keep good records? Does it use data to support decision‐making?
  • Are board and management aware of the time and resources required to engage in meaningful strategic planning?

There are 10 other readiness assessment questions included in that tool. Click here to read more from the Community Foundation of Monterey County about strategic planning readiness.
questions2My advice to those of you considering a strategic planning engagement is:

  • ask yourself a few questions first
  • make sure the right people are sitting around the table for a potential planning engagement
  • engage a variety of key stakeholders in a collaborative discussion around readiness
  • do a little research about various planning models
  • develop an informed decision about which planning model fits your internal and external circumstances
  • if you decide to hire an external consultant . . . define the project, develop and RFP, and hire someone with experience using the planning model you’ve chosen
  • if you decide against strategic planning, what needs to happen to position the agency for planning and who is doing what and by when to address those issues

Are you considering strategic planning for your non-profit organization? What considerations are you weighing? Who is involved in this decision? Please scroll down and use the comment box to share your thoughts and experiences. We can all learn from each other.
Here’s to your health!
Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC

Is your organization well positioned for strategic planning?

readiness1I believe there is a misconception out there about strategic planning because I keep running into executive directors who think just because the current plan is expiring that is must be time to begin work on a new strategic plan. I also oftentimes run into folks who believe it is a perfect time to start planning when their agency is experiencing instability, blurriness, and confusion. In my humble opinion, there is a time and place for strategic planning and embarking on this journey at the wrong time can be at best frustrating and at worst damaging.

Readiness questions

Just the other day, I was talking with a friend about this issue, and they asked the obvious question, “How do you know when the conditions are right?” I started off saying something stupid like: “You’ll know when the time is right.” I knew it was dumb advice as it was coming out of my mouth.

So, I went home and started digging through my library of planning materials. I came across an old strategic planning document from a previous employer who had partnered with BoardSource to create the manual. So, you know it is good stuff.  😉

readiness3As I had hoped, I found a section titled “Key Questions to Assess Readiness and Capacity”. Here are those questions:

  1. Do your regular board meetings (apart from retreats) include at least one strategic, or “Big Picture,” issue on the agenda?
  2. Is your current strategic plan based on realistic and comprehensive assumptions about the agency and its external environment? What considerations are missing?
  3. How might changing demographics and other economic, social, and political trends affect a constituent, client, or membership base that provides a primary revenue stream?
  4. What goal should the agency strive to achieve for financial reserves (for example, at least one-half of the operating budget)? Are there some potential revenue streams to consider?
  5. Are new priorities clear and the proposed means of paying for them realistic? Which programs should be self-supporting? Which might be operated at a loss in order to fulfill the agency’s mission?
  6. What metrics do you use to monitor organizational effectiveness?
  7. Have you considered all the options and chosen a planning method (aka planning model) that works best for the agency? Are you flexible enough to combine approaches if that suits our culture?
  8. How do you include board members who are not on the planning committee as participants in the process?
  9. What performance measures should be included in your strategic plan?
  10. How do you keep our strategic plan active and visible within and outside the agency?
  11. How often do you conduct strategic planning? Does that cycle make sense for the agency?
  12. When you are ready to undertake a planning process, are you clear about why you are planning?
  13. Are you clear about the roles of the board, executive director, and staff in strategic planning? Do you honor the distinctions?
  14. Have you used consultants in the most effective ways possible? If you have never used a consultant, should you consider doing so?

I’m not thrilled with these questions because I think they blend together two different issues — capacity and readiness. So, if you’re just trying to decide whether or not your agency is ready to start down the strategic planning road, I suggest you and your board governance committee spend some time chewing on questions 7, 8, 11, 12, and 13.

The other questions are important, too. I just think the five question I just highlighted cut to the heart of the matter.

readiness2We’re not ready, but we still need a plan!

If your board governance committee determines that you’re not ready, but you see difficulty down the road and think you need a plan to guide your efforts, you may not be out-of-luck.

You should look into developing a short-term tactical plan focused on the next 12 months.

Perhaps, a business plan or a something addressing a specific agency function (e.g. resource development, program, facilities, etc) might be a better use of time for you and your volunteers.

Did you mention consequences?

Earlier in this post I said, “. . . there is a time and place for strategic planning and embarking on this journey at the wrong time can be at best frustrating and at worst damaging.”

I been down this path many times, and I encourage you to please learn from my mistakes.

If you start down a strategic planning road when you aren’t ready to do so, I’ve seen the following things happen:

  • It feels like you’re spinning your wheels, and you end up spending LOTS of time of stuff that you thought were obvious.
  • Volunteers get frustrated. They feel like they’re going nowhere fast. Some even express that it is a waste of their time.
  • I’ve seen board members resign in the middle of difficult strategic planning processes.
  • I’ve seen major disagreements result in boardroom rifts.
  • I’ve also seen executive directors get fired.

How has your agency determined readiness? Do you have other questions to add to the list? Please use the comment box below to share your thoughts and experiences. We can all learn from each other.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC

What is your non-profit vision?

visionAs with most things in this world, there are different schools of thought on different things. While working with a client recently, I was reminded of the two camps that non-profit professionals tend to fall into when it comes to writing vision statements. So, I thought it would be fun this morning to explore both perspectives.

On one hand, you have the folks who believe a vision statement must focus on the community and the future state that the non-profit is striving to bring to the community. While digging around on the internet for examples, I came across great examples at Top Nonprofits blog in a post titled “30 Example Vision Statements“. The following are just a few examples from that post:

  • Feeding America: A hunger-free America.
  • Human Rights Campaign: Equality for everyone.
  • Make-A-Wish: Our vision is that people everywhere will share the power of a wish.
  • ASPCA: That the United States is a humane community in which all animals are treated with respect and kindness.

Wow! Big expansive visions. They are packed full of inspiration, and clearly explain in just a few words to donorswhat they are investing in. They are chock-full of aspiration, and guide the organization’s decision making.

Of course, this isn’t the only way to write a vision statement.

On the other hand, you have folks who believe a vision statement should focus on the organization and the change it strives to bring to itself and its clients. The following are a few more examples that illustrate this way of thinking:

  • The United Way of Elgin will be a recognized catalyst for mobilizing resources to build a healthier, more compassionate community.
  • Greater Elgin Family Care Center is known in the communities it serves for high quality, patient-centered care, delivered by a team of competent and committed staff. GEFCC will grow responsively and responsibly to fulfill unmet health needs, enhance community relationships and maintain financial viability.
  • It is our vision that the Rappahannock Youth Symphony will become a major regional youth orchestral organization that nurtures young talent and enriches the greater Fredericksburg community through the performance of orchestral literature.

OK . . . perhaps, these vision statements aren’t as grand as the ones previously cited, but they are certainly very utilitarian and functional. I suspect donors are no less inspired by these visions, and the organization is much clearer on what decisions it must make and actions it must take to get from point A to point B.

Let me be clear. I find both schools of thought to be perfectly acceptable when it comes to writing non-profit vision statements.

Is your organization reaching the end of road with its current strategic plan? Have you fulfilled your vision? Are you getting ready to develop a new vision and plan?

If your answer is ‘YES’ to the previous question, my first piece of advice is to make a conscious decision about which school of thought you subscribe. Recognize that you are at a fork in the road and must make a decision on which road to travel. Once you make this decision, then you may want to check out some of the following resources on how to go about developing and writing your vision statement:

How is your non-profit vision statement written? To which school of thought do you subscribe? What process did you use to develop your vision statement? How do you use your vision statement?

Please use the comment box below to share your thoughts and experiences. We can all learn from each other.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC

Working for boards is tough stuff

We all have friends who work for bosses who are absolute nightmares. As a matter of fact, I was on a business trip a few months ago driving in my rental car  listening to a call-in  radio program all about horrible boss stories. While I sympathize with friends in those situations, I can honestly say they have no idea what real workplace pain is like until they’ve had to work for a cantankerous non-profit board of directors.

I believe in my heart of hearts that working for a board has got to be one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do in my life. Here are just a few reasons I’ve come to this conclusion:

  • If a board has 15 members, then the non-profit CEO is working for 15 different people.
  • 15 different board volunteers have 15 different personalities.
  • 15 different board volunteers can have 15 different ways of wanting to do something.
  • Have you ever tried to appease 15 different egos? OMG

Don’t get me wrong . . . working directly for a board has also yielded some of the best experiences in my life. However, I’ve seen too many of my non-profit friends reduced to a puddle of tears recently as a result of “politics” in the board room and “personal agendas” run amok.

So what is the solution? Where is the silver bullet? What can a non-profit professional do to make working with a board of directors less difficult?

Let me start by saying: not everyone is cut out for this kind of work. So, get your feet wet early in your career possibly by helping your agency’s CEO with a board project. Take this time to assess whether or not you like it not. If it doesn’t feel right, then chalk it up to a learning experience and decline future opportunities to interview for non-profit executive leadership jobs.

If you currently sit in the big chair and are looking for tips on how to work with boards more effectively, then here are just a few quick thoughts:

  1. Get in front of your board volunteers regularly. If you are just seeing your board members at monthly board meetings, then you’re doing yourself a tremendous disservice. Set a goal of being in front of every board member at least once in between board meetings (and I go back on forth on whether or not committee meetings count). During these meetings, do more listening than you do talking. Gandhi told us to be the change we want to see in the world. So, if you want the board to listen to you, then you better listen to them.
  2. Respect boundaries. Too many of us want to befriend our board members, and I think this blurs boundaries. These people are your boss. Being social is one thing, but partying all night with them might cross a line. Establishing boundaries is tough stuff, but they always need to see you as a classy professional. These people can become part of your “extended non-profit family,” but never forget how dysfunctional families can get. Are you sure you want to bring “dysfunction” into your employment situation? Carefully thinking through boundaries makes a lot of sense to me and it will probably look different for each of you.
  3. Use planning tools to build consensus. There is nothing more challenging than having to work with 15 people who have 15 different ideas about how to do something. So, a good non-profit leader needs to possess “consensus building” and “facilitating” skill sets. If these are things they are good at doing, then their leadership toolbox needs to include planning strategies and tactics. Guiding a divided board through a strategic planning, resource development planning or marketing plan process can produce consensus and direction. Ahhhhh . . . happy days!
  4. Get serious about every part of your board development process. Approach board building like you would a chemistry experiment.

What do you believe is the most difficult thing about working for a board of directors? What strategies do you use to help make this a little easier?

Please share your thoughts using the comment box below because we can all learn from each other.

Here is to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC
http://www.facebook.com/eanderson847| http://www.linkedin.com/in/erikanderson847

Magic words? Be ‘transparent’ and ask to be held ‘accountable’

When I think of non-profit organizations who embark upon a strategic planning process, I usually get a mental picture of Toy Story’s Buzz Lightyear standing on that bed post proclaiming “To infinity and beyond!” However, in my experience, many non-profit organizations jump and their results are not nearly as good.

What I am referring to is the phenomenon of: engaging stakeholders . . . building consensus around vision/goals/objectives/action steps . . . writing the plan . . .  approving the plan . . . putting the plan on the shelf and letting it die a dusty death.

So, the question being begged here is: “What do non-profits leaders (board and staff) need to do in order to bring their plans to life and avoid that ‘dusty death’?”

The simple and straightforward answer can be captured in two words:




In a nutshell, “transparency” means that everyone can see your plan including: who has agreed to what, where, when, why and how. “Accountability” means that everyone can see your measurement indicators and how well (or not so well) you are doing at accomplishing the various aspects of your plan.

I love what my college alma mater  — University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign — has done in the area of transparency with their strategic plan. Click here to check out how they’ve put everything on the internet for alumni, faculty, students, parents of students, residents of Urbana and Champaign, and especially donors to view.

I also like what Binghamton University did in the area of accountability with their online strategic planning dashboard. Click here to see that dashboard tool.

So, if you find yourself saying “Well, those are large university institutions and we’re different and unique,” let me help you bring these ideas into focus for your unique situation. The following is a short list of questions I encourage you to ask yourself about your specific non-profit situation:

  • Do I want my plans to be implemented or do I want them to sit on the shelf and collect dust?
  • Do I need other people to help with plan implementation or am I OK with doing it all myself?
  • Do the donors who support my organization deserve to see how well (or not well) we are doing with implementing the plan they helped create and pay for?

If you answered “YES” to these questions, then I encourage you to pull that dusty plan off the shelf, identify the measurements and indicators you likely built into the plan, and invest in creating tools like dashboard or scorecards that easily communicate implementation progress (or hire someone who knows how to do it . . . aka an external consultant). Once that tool is developed, post it online and integrate it into all of your committee and board meetings. To quote a number of very famous people who all take credit for this expression:

“What gets measured, gets done!”

These ideas don’t just apply to strategic planning. You can employ the ideas of accountability and transparency to your resource development plan, annual campaign plan, marketing plan, business plan, etc etc etc.

There is a whole flip side to this blog post pertaining to “measuring the right things to get the right results,” but let’s save that discussion for another time.

What is stopping your agency from being bold and asking donors to hold you accountable for achieving your plans? How do you share your currently organizational progress with your donors, supporters and board volunteers? Can you use the comment box below to share examples of how you are transparent and ask others to hold you accountable? If you use online resources to accomplish these objectives, would you please include links to those examples in your comment so we can all see it?

Please take 30 seconds to weigh-in with a comment. We can and should all learn from each other.

Here is to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC