Finding the Right Questions: Recommended Resources on the How and Why of Strategic Planning

by Lisa Barnwell Williams, Instructor for Strategic Planning and Board Development

At a recent conference I attended, nonprofit leaders seated around the table with me confessed to nagging anxiety that despite conscientious attention to strategic planning, their organizations never seem to address the big questions.  Planning happens, they said, but it seems less strategic than tactical. An organization can be very clear on where it's going, and how to get there, without ever considering why.

A young, rapidly growing arts organization I've worked with provides a good example. The founding leaders, both staff and board, did an excellent job launching the organization, establishing strong governance structures and efficient management systems. Conscientious strategic planning retreats carried the group into year 3, and year 6, and year 9, with systematic responses to the challenges posed by growth. But as the organization entered adolescene, dramatically larger and more impactful than anyone anticipated, unexpected pitfalls began to appear. Despite well-functioning organizational machinery, questions began arising for which there were no easy answers: was the target audience still small and local? How about the board? Who should be the organization's “face”?  Should growth continue to be more—much more—of the same, or should they seek diversity in programs, geography, audience, or do something else entirely? In short, what does the organization want to be when it grows up? It was clearly time for another strategic planning retreat, with a very different agenda this time around.

In the last couple of decades, strategic planning has become a standard tool in good management, in both the nonprofit and for-profit worlds. But at the same time, there's a real lack of clarity, among experts as well as practitioners, about what, exactly, “strategic planning” should entail. Goals? Vision? Numbers? Timelines? Are the resulting plans proclaimed from the top down, or generated from the bottom up? Engraved in stone or scribbled, lightly, in pencil? Shouted from the rooftops, or whispered to insiders only? As with the organization I've described above, the answers we get are determined by the questions we ask. 

The literature of nonprofit management offers a host of different perspectives on both the WHY and the HOW of strategic planning. As you dip into the samples listed below, I encourage you to keep one fact in mind: the day-to-day demands of organizational management offer few opportunities for introspection and deep thought. Strategic planning is one of those opportunities, so it's important to use it well, finding the right questions that will lead to the answers your organization needs.

Lisa has over 30 years of  fundraising experience, pioneering online prospect research and having led development efforts for several nationally-recognized organizations, including Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Cincinnati Ballet, and the Agnes Irwin School. Co-founder of Chanticleer Consulting and co-author of Building Strong Nonprofits: New Strategies for Growth and Sustainability, Lisa has given seminars and workshops to countless audiences around the country on various aspects of organizational development, fund development, and communications. Lisa will be teaching AES' Strategic Planning course this spring, and Board Development course this summer. You can read Lisa's bio here.