What comes to mind when you think of nonprofit strategy? Multi-day retreats? Long, dry, planning documents that are unfrequently read? SWOT analyses? Heady jargon?
These “pain points” sometimes discourage nonprofits from dedicating resources to strategic planning. Other organizations may undergo a strategic planning process, but fail to operationalize the plan.
Every nonprofit needs strategy: it’s essential to making mindful choices. Strategy is a set of unified actions undertaken to advance a nonprofit’s mission by leveraging its competitive advantage.1
Here are a few tips to help your nonprofit think about strategy:
- Strategy is not planning: While planning can improve the chances of successfully implementing a strategy, the plans themselves are not strategies.
- Strategy is knowing your organization’s business model: This may seem obvious: it is important to know yourself and what you do and don’t do. This is the foundation for any good strategy. There are a number of good resources out there for mapping your organization’s business model, including The Business Model Canvas.
- Strategy is not setting goals: The words “strategy” and “goal” are sometimes used interchangeably. This is imprecise. Strategizing can lead to setting goals, but the goals themselves do not constitute a strategy.
- Strategy is assessing your nonprofit’s place in its environment: Competition is ubiquitous. Nonprofits face competition not only from other nonprofits or businesses but from alternative ways individuals could meet their needs. For example, a nonprofit music lesson provider might face competition from school music programs, but also from sports and other after-school activities, or from video games. To begin to assess your nonprofit’s place in the marketplace, ask three questions: Who are my most direct competitors? What is their business model? How does my organization compare?
- Strategy is not simply improving operational efficiency: Improving efficiency is certainly a worthwhile goal, but does not constitute a strategy. You might produce more of an impact per dollar of revenue, but a competitor who is less efficient may still prevail because of a unique asset or capability.
- Strategy is understanding your organization’s unique strengths: What assets do you have that other organizations don’t have access to? Is it a particular skill or expertise, a great website, a network of connections, or a tangible item such as a building? Identifying your unique strengths means you can leverage them to differentiate your nonprofit from its competitors. Appreciative Inquiry is a useful model for analyzing your nonprofit’s strengths and creating strategic change.
- Strategy is doing: Many nonprofits undergo strategic planning only to have the plan gather dust on the shelf. The next step is to transform the planning document into an operational blueprint divided into concrete actions. Ensure that the strategy is understood clearly by those who will implement it. Figure out the “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” and “how” and follow through!
- Strategy is a continual process: Your nonprofit’s environment is continually transforming. The arrival of a new technology, an abrupt decrease or increase in available funding, or a change in demand for services are all examples of changes that can occur. In one fell swoop, change may render your last multi-year strategic plan unhelpful. To stay nimble, it may be helpful to revisit strategy on a more frequent basis, perhaps every few months, as part of regular organizational upkeep.
 David La Piana, “The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution,” Fieldstone Alliance (2008): 32-33.
Rose Gear is a second-year Masters of Business Administration candidate in the Bolz Center for Arts Administration at the Wisconsin School of Business.