Nonprofit Branding: Don’t Panic! Strategic Planning needn’t be complicated!

Here is a minority view that may lighten your mood. It seems to me that nonprofit thought leaders – especially consultants and blog authors (including me) – are sometimes just a bit overwrought and doctrinaire.

Especially when discussing strategic planning.

Let’s look at a more relaxed viewpoint. We’ll begin with advice I was given by a mentor, an old corporate warhorse. (Identified below)  He calmed me down when I was anguished over figuring out the future path of the nonprofit I managed. Uncertain about how to proceed, I had been thinking of involving the board of directors in a master planning initiative. Even thought about hiring a facilitator. He urged a more common-sense approach to plotting our nonprofit’s future:

“If you can run a peanut stand, you can run a company. The numbers will be different. The basic principles will be the same. All the planning in the world won’t replace common sense.”

I accepted his advice. Stopped breathing so hard. Quietly figured out what we needed to do over the next few years. Ran my ideas by the board. Benefited from their advice and put our ideas into place. It became Our Plan.

Between that 1972 incident and today I have been involved in dozens of strategic planning adventures – large and small.

Here’s an example of large: restructuring a university of 12,000 students; closing one college; creating another through merger of two units; reducing faculty by about 80 positions at direction of state legislature; all of which was done properly and ethically. We spent a couple years in federal courts, won all lawsuits – and the university flourished,.

Here is an example of small: developing the Comprehensive Plan for a county-wide Humane Society, a year-long exercise designed to maximize citizen inclusion by inviting the views of every resident and all his or her cousins, friends and associates. We received enormous feedback – and little information.

Consider these stray recollections – all real, and maybe examples of things you experienced.

  • Planning can be informal and fun…. but I have seen highly-focused, strategic planning Gurus turn it into a life and death matter that grimly drains pleasure from the exercise.
  • Planning involves records and written input…..but I have seen it generate enough paperwork to decimate the Adirondacks.(Documents actually filled a large office wall to wall to about 5 feet high.)
  • Common terminology is useful…but there was no need for a screaming fight between a college president and another vice president (not me) about the difference between planning goals and planning objectives. One was devoted to an over-defined planning template; the other was using his native language – English.
  • Constituent involvement is important…. but I cringed when fifth graders were recruited to advise town government on resource allocation.(More parks, a swimming pool, more fast food restaurants, a dirt bike track, a skateboard park – who would have guessed?)
  • Idealistic viewpoints must be respected…but how many lectures about raising unicorns and weaving rainbows can one endure?

My experiences and observations confirm this minority viewpoint: every time a strategic planning process ran into the ditch, the fault is likely to be that it operated under a rigid template that required excessive input from people who would not have responsibility for implementation and had insufficient knowledge about the nonprofit’s reality to offer actionable advice. When a plan finally emerges, it begins to lose relevance, fade from consideration and gather dust. Until the next strategic planning cycle!

Process is nice. Results are essential. The two are not always compatible.

I have seen so many consultants and authors (and later on, bloggers) form a nonprofit priesthood that preaches about strategic planning as a jargon-filled orthodoxy replete with templates and procedures and mandates and ritual. Their emphasis on complex planning structure can get in the way of meaningful, actionable results.

Better to be measured by what you achieve, not how you plan. My own experience in nonprofits large and small, both running them and consulting with them, indicates that good management and good planning are intertwined… are ongoing.…are based largely on common sense and on a commitment to measurable results.

You might not need to make it more complicated than that!

BOTTOM LINE: Like marketing, strategic planning is a way of doing business. It need not become an episodic, all-consuming preoccupation. Instead, it should always be seen at the board and administrative levels as an essential aspect of stewardship, one that becomes most effective when rooted in common sense and handled in a low-key, disciplined, informal manner. Kept in its proper role, strategic planning is the ongoing act of setting measurable goals, fine-tuning the elements of the organization to reduce risk and enhance results inherent in those goals…. and then plowing ahead with enthusiasm and confidence.

Planning is a day-to-day responsibility, not a highly-complex, periodic exercise.

NOTE: In a paragraph above I mentioned the “old corporate warhorse” who encouraged me to regard administration as essentially a function of common sense. He claimed that attribute is at least as important as the doctrines of process, method or common-practice. His name was Herb Mossien and at the time he was Executive VP of Bausch & Lomb. Herb turned down the company’s presidency to become professor of management at RIT, where he preached and wrote about the splendor of relying on informed straight thinking. He saw this as a counterbalance to the growing reverence for complicated methods of analysis conducted by layers of management, which was even then resulting in elevation of the MBA to sacred status.  (Reminder to self: in a future blog post, tell about the time you asked corporate leaders to advise if you should seek an MBA to advance your nonprofit management career.)

One thought on “Nonprofit Branding: Don’t Panic! Strategic Planning needn’t be complicated!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *