Consider strategy before setting goals

Your Planning Process Matters

It seems there is a new book or formula for better organizational planning and strategy published every few weeks. Most people have to be reminded about what all the terms mean, and the differences between mission, vision, and values statements. It can get overwhelming. And, what about the process itself? What is the best way to develop a new strategic plan?

What most organizations call their strategic plan is more appropriately described as an operational plan. Too often these plans are created from within the organization, and they are largely based on what the organization did last year. Think about how your fundraising goal was established for this year. Is it largely based on what you raised last year?

Strategy is about making choices, and solving problems. Strategy is future oriented.

If your organization is using an operational plan to define its future strategy, then you may be better served by a process that is focused on strategy first, before setting goals. Why focus on strategy? Strategy is about making choices, and solving problems. Strategy is future oriented. Effective strategy is best developed at the organizational level, while goals, objectives and tactics are created for individual action within a department or team.

One of the first things we ask our clients to do is to describe their planning process and who was involved, even before we ask about the plan itself. If there wasn’t much process to the plan, and if the organization didn’t involve varying perspectives from their stakeholders, the result will likely be an operational plan that is largely devoid of strategy and a framework for making decisions.

Think about it. Operational planning is typically the domain of the manager, and they will too often focus exclusively on goals and objectives. These operational plans can be effective management tools, and are appropriate for the annual business cycle of a nonprofit organization, including annual fundraising goals. But major donors considering a large philanthropic investment may be more interested in the organization’s strategy, the approach you will take to achieve larger societal goals, and how you will impact your constituents in a changing world.

Clearly the goal of a strategic planning process is to develop a plan, yet the value of the exercise will often lie in the process. Developing effective strategy requires the involvement of stakeholders … and we all know, nonprofit organizations have many varying constituent perspectives.

Too many people confuse strategy with goal setting, and one needs to know the difference before initiating a new planning process. Developing strategy is an exercise in problem solving. Goals are essential, but goals do not solve problems. Goals are a measure of progress toward our mission and purpose, progress toward solving our problems. Goals support our strategy.

There’s doing the work and planning the work. Solving a problem is doing the work. Strategy is planning the work. Strategy is the plan you make to solve the problem, then you execute your strategy which hopefully solves that problem.

Strategy defines the organization’s decision making on things such as which programs and services to offer, or not offer; which markets or constituents will you serve, or not serve; and what capabilities you have, or need to deliver your programs and services to your constituents to deliver the intended impact and outcomes. Tactics that are devoid of a rational strategy will likely fail to produce the stated goals.

If you want a better plan, one that inspires and drives more philanthropic investment in your organization, then invest in a process that includes your stakeholders and one that considers strategy before setting goals.

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For more on Strategic Leadership, HAdvancing the Organization from Planning to Reality access Goettler Series Volume 5