Keep your course steady with a strategic plan

Author: Elisa Warner

Implementing a strategic plan gives an organization focus and flexibility.


Without a strategic plan, a non-profit organization can drift from its mission and underserve its stakeholders.


Design and implement a strategic plan.


Strategic planning presents an opportunity for an organization to examine its mission and set goals for the future. As a document, the strategic plan provides a stable reference point for board members and staff to develop organizational programs.

Business expert Dr. Carter McNamara (1999) lists three major planning models are:

  • Goal-based planning – The strategic planning document is mission-oriented, with an associated action plan.
  • Issues-based planning – The process originates from the intent to resolve certain issues facing the organization.
  • Organic strategic planning – A vision-oriented plan is developed in keeping with the values of the organization.

In general, non-profit strategic planning differs from that of for-profit corporations in that the strategies and goals relate to issues rather than financial profits.

Who Should Participate in Strategic Planning Sessions?

The board of directors and the executive director are at the heart of the strategic planning process. While some organizations involve staff members in the strategic planning process, care should be taken not to overlap goal setting (a board responsibility) with implementation (a staff responsibility). The executive director is the link between the board and the staff.

Is an External Facilitator Necessary?

Although smaller organizations may be able to perform self-directed strategic planning, an independent facilitator can provide valuable planning skills, an independent perspective, and neutrality during debates and disagreements.

What is a Strategic Planning Document?

The structure of the final strategic plan document will vary based on the needs of the organization. However, typical components include:

  • Mission: The fundamental purpose of the organization—why it exists.
  • Vision: A long-term view of what the organization will look like in the future.
  • Values: What the organization views as important—the principles that guide goals and actions.
  • Goals and Objectives: Accomplishments the organization wishes to achieve in the near future.

The final document should be short and concise – no more than one page. The plan should not include lengthy discussions of strategy and specific outcomes, as this will be accomplished in the next step of the planning process.

How Will the Plan be Implemented?

One common criticism of strategic planning exercises is that the final document is sometimes filed away while “business as usual” ensues. Developing the strategic plan is only part of the process. Mediation expert Ivor Heyman comments, “The strategic plan is not a self-executing document.”

An implementation plan translates intangible goals into specified outcomes. Following the completion of the strategic plan, the organization’s staff develops an implementation plan – specific actions that will be taken over a specified timeline. The board of directors then reviews the implementation plan every three months.

How Often Should the Plan be Updated?

In order to effectively plan for the future, the strategic plan should be updated at least once a year. Many organizations schedule strategic planning sessions in advance of the end of their fiscal year, to inform their financial planning decisions. A special strategic planning session can also help organizations during times of transition.


Elisa Warner develops research and training programs for non-profit and educational organizations. She is the former editor-in-chief of The Educational Facility Planner.

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