Nonprofit Strategic Planning: A Guide to Implementation That Gets Results

Author: Bridgespan Group on 28 June 2011 | 0 Comments

(This introduction to the Bridgespan Group’s “Living Into Your Strategic Plan: A Guide to Implementation That Gets Results” shares the challenges nonprofit organizations face during implementation and suggests a process your organization can follow to most effectively live into your strategic plan. A link to the full PDF can be found here.)

In the Bridgespan Group’s work developing strategic plans with clients, we’ve often heard a collective sigh of relief when the planning process is over. It’s understandable. Strategic planning1 is hard work. It involves articulating the results for which the organization will hold itself accountable and the actions it will take to get there. Because it is hard work, it’s tempting to think that finishing the written plan is equivalent to crossing the finish line.

But, of course, it isn’t. Writing a strategic plan is only the first step towards achieving impact year after year. The next step is implementation, and often, that is where organizations stumble. In fact, when responding to the Bridgespan Group’s most recent organizational diagnostic survey, staff members at more than 120 nonprofits rated their employers’ capacity to implement their strategies 10 percent below their average rating for all other organizational capability areas. Respondents gave their organizations especially low marks on their abilities to break down their strategies into manageable pieces, communicate their visions and the change required to achieve them, allocate the staff and resources needed to achieve plan goals, and monitor progress and adjust course when change is needed. Those weaknesses can result in a lack of awareness of an organization’s strategic priorities, and disengagement between what staff members do on a daily basis and progress on those priorities. They can also result in under-resourced priorities that are important in name only, and ultimately, disappointingly slow progress toward achieving the organization’s goals.

When Is It Time to Update Your Strategic Plan?

This guide focuses on implementing strategy. But before taking action, it’s important to be confident that your strategy is as strong as it can be. In Bridgespan’s experience, changes in any of the following can signal that it is time for an organization to develop a new plan:

Funding environment: Are you seeing major shifts in the type and level of support your traditional funders are offering? Do you have a new funder who is concerned about the viability of your organization?

Policy environment: Have new policies created opportunities or challenges that will dramatically affect what you can achieve as an organization?

Competitive environment: Are new program models emerging that create opportunities for you to serve your beneficiaries more effectively and efficiently? Have new competitors or potential collaborators entered the space in which you’ve been operating?

Organizational leadership: Do you have a new executive director or new board leadership at your helm?

Alternatively, it may simply be time to revisit your strategy if your current plan is expiring (i.e., if you are in the third year of a three-year plan). If any of these circumstances pertain to your organization, it may be useful to review Bridgespan’s article “Business Planning for Nonprofits: What it is and Why it Matters.”

If any of those symptoms sound familiar, this guide is designed for you. Its contents share Bridgespan clients’ experiences as well as insights from other nonprofits that have excelled at building momentum as they moved from planning to implementation. To create the guide, we conducted in-depth interviews with selected leaders of these organizations and solicited input from members of Bridgestar’s LinkedIn peer networking groups for chief executive, operating, and financial officers. Our goal was to better understand how they’ve successfully lived into their strategic plans and to distill lessons from organizations that have moved from setting strategy to achieving impact. (A complete list of the nonprofit leaders we interviewed is included in the Acknowledgements section
at the end of the guide.)

The organizations we interviewed share an orientation towards change. They’ve used practical approaches to convert their visions into tangible actions, and they’ve been diligent about monitoring progress and correcting course when circumstances change. It’s this combination of mindset and implementation management that gets results. This guide presents their methods for implementation in six steps. Within each step, you also will find references to templates (found at the end of this guide) that illustrate the types of tools these nonprofit leaders used to lead implementation within their organizations.

Peer-to-Peer Advice for Living into Your Plan
The nonprofit leaders we interviewed were candid about how they moved their organizations from having a plan on paper to living into their strategy. Below we synthesize key insights and learnings from their implementation experiences.

Use your strategy as a tool to guide decision making
It is easy to get distracted by the day-to-day challenges of running a nonprofit, and also by new problems and opportunities that may arise unexpectedly. But it’s important not to let dust settle on your strategic plan. Once you’ve gone through the hard work of creating it, it’s important to use it as a guide for evaluating opportunities to pursue and how to respond to setbacks. Your strategy will help you stay on track toward your goals only if you refer to it often and continually remind your staff and board of what you are trying to achieve, why, and how you will do so. As one CEO put it, “Having a strategic plan…is what enables you to stay the course, even in times of change.”

Stay flexible in your approach
The best strategic plans provide strong direction and accountability but do not act as straightjackets. The world in which nonprofits operate is not as clean or neat as the paper on which strategic plans are written. Effective implementation means finding a balance between maintaining a consistent strategic focus and adapting to changing circumstances. Leaders with whom we spoke talked about strategic execution as an iterative process: In order to achieve their organization’s intended impact, they needed to be willing to adjust their course. Many organizations experienced unanticipated events that influenced their ability to advance their strategies, such as a major funder shifting its focus or significant changes in government policy. Rather than abandoning their strategies, they changed their tactics, keeping their strategic goals in focus but adapting the specific actions that they were taking based on what they had learned and what the new circumstances required. Ultimately, they mapped out new routes to their destinations.

Maintain constant communication
Successful execution of your strategy requires that all of your stakeholders be acutely aware of your priorities and direction. Many, if not most, strategic plans are formulated between executive teams and boards; too often, the organization’s leaders delay or neglect the crucial act of communicating the new or revised organizational vision to staff members. If your organization doesn’t understand the strategy and hasn’t internalized the need for change, you will lack the buy-in needed to successfully execute the plan. It’s important to provide a consistent, clear, and positive message about why the new strategy is the best course of action, and to encourage staff to own its implementation. It’s also important to repeat that message. Your communications should cover what will be different about the organization, why this change is critical to achieve the impact you seek, and how your staff can play an important role. (More tips on communicating throughout implementation are included in the Communications Plan Template in the PDF version of this guide.)

Empower change champions
Some functions will be affected by the implementation process more than others, and staff in these areas may exhibit signs of “change shock,” needing time and encouragement to get on board. To address this challenge, look for opportunities to empower “change champions” who can speak to their colleagues’ fears and provide compelling messages about why change is necessary. In addition, encourage staff ownership of implementation by enabling them to provide input on changes that will directly affect their individual roles.

Phase in implementation with a designated champion
While some organizations struggle to get started on implementation, others try to take on too much change at once. This can backfire, particularly if your strategy calls for major shifts in the work that your staff and organization are doing. While it may be tempting to launch new efforts, hire staff, and redesign internal functions all in the first quarter of implementation, doing too much at the outset can risk under-resourcing priorities, burning out your staff, and accomplishing less than if you sequenced the work over time. Consider how you can ramp up implementation, and first tackle changes that your organization is most ready and eager to face. Doing so will enable you to make demonstrable progress immediately, while you build a platform for longer-term changes.

In addition, it is important to have one person responsible for driving the change process forward. For some organizations, this means redefining a senior staff role to direct implementation. Others have a more junior staff member serve as a “traffic cop” to ensure implementation progresses efficiently. In the organizations we studied, the person in charge of implementation was identified early (during the strategic planning process), and they reported directly to the head of the organization, signaling that implementation was of the highest priority. While it may not be possible or necessary for your organization to dedicate a full-time staff member to manage implementation, it is critical to have someone take responsibility for coordinating efforts and maintaining momentum. It also is essential for your organization’s leadership to champion implementation as passionately as they did strategy formulation.

Click here to download the full PDF guide, “Living Into Your Strategic Plan: A Guide to Implementation That Gets Results.”

1 For more information on strategic planning, please see the Bridgespan article, "Zeroing in on Impact."
2 Bridgestar, an initiative of the Bridgespan Group, provides a nonprofit management job board, content, and tools designed to help nonprofit organizations build strong leadership teams and individuals pursue career paths as nonprofit leaders.

This work by The Bridgespan Group is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at Bridgespan's Terms of Use page.

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