Do you have a “strategic plan?” If you aren’t very careful, this document could be an illusion. It talks about what you do, but will it guide your choices and the behavior of your team? 

This is because these plans are very hard to do well. If you are a nonprofit, take heart in the fact that people in the private sector struggle with planning as well. Consider this terrific article from the Harvard Business Review: Your Strategic Plans Probably aren’t Strategic, or Even Plans.

Take a careful look at your document, or one from any socially minded organization. While they are typically filled with evocative terms like “empower” and “equity,” when you examine the architecture and measurements around how the work is actually supposed to happen, there is usually a lack of both specificity and direction.

An effective plan is very specific about what the organization wants to make happen. It is light on adjectives and heavy with measures and numbers: ambitious goals measured in quantitative terms and specific, timed outcomes; clear, concise strategy that describes a coherent, integrated set of choices the organization is going to make; a sustainable, scalable program and business model;  milestones and key performance indicators; and, critically, a detailed organizational chart and financial projection. And they also contain all the ways the organization will raise money, earn it, and/or harness investment.

And all this information needs to be crafted into a presentation-ready format of 10 pages or fewer, preferably with an accompanying set of 12 slides that summarize everything.

While a challenge to do well, this type of “investment grade” business plan is far superior to the garden-variety nonprofit strategic plan. Yes, it requires that the organization do the hard work to create consensus on direction as well as transparency and accountability of execution. But the benefits are incomparable. Without such a plan that guides the daily behaviors of staff and volunteers, the organization is likely doomed to ineffectiveness. They may have an attractive plan with pretty pictures, but precious little social impact will happen as a result.

Take a look at your organization’s plan

  • Does it have a goal expressed as a number? And does this goal make sense compared to the total size of the problem or challenge you are addressing? (Or is it arbitrary?)
  • Is this goals backed up with metrics, timelines, and reporting?
  • What about scale? Are the goals aiming for growth that is meaningful, compared to the size of the problem you are addressing?
  • Is there a detailed, 3-5 year expense projection that calculates how much all this will cost?
  • And has the org projected out how all this is going to get paid for?
  • Is there a clear, concise, compelling picture of revenue generation from individuals, foundations, corporations, gov’t agencies, and earned income?
  • And is all this boiled down to a compelling, concise, comprehensive, 5-10 page document that people can actually read and understand?

While a good nonprofit business plan is very similar in terms of architecture and format to any other type of business plan, there is one very unique feature: at heart, they are public documents. Unlike a proprietary business model that needs to be closely held lest its valuable ideas get stolen, the last 20% or so of a nonprofit business planning process should be completed in partnership with all the nonprofit’s relevant stakeholders, funders and partners.

Not only does this help socialize the organization’s goal, the planners hopefully get supportive feedback and constructive criticism before putting the plan into action. In this way, the nonprofit authentically positions itself as the vehicle for the community– not an inward-facing organization struggling for gifts, but an outward-reaching organization seeking to develop and refine its goals and strategy in consultation with community leaders and experts.

Taken as a community-building exercise, then, the challenging process of business plan drafting becomes an exercise in mutual support– exactly how communities are supposed to function.