Making Your Nonprofit's Strategic Plan a Reality: A Step-by-Step Guide

August 8, 2019
5 minutes
Illustration of four people on a walk. Art by Sophie Cunningham.

You convened your board and staff, hired a facilitator, and cast a strategic vision and goals for the next three to five years. Well holy schnappers, nonprofit friend, you have a strategic plan! Creating a new strategic plan for your nonprofit is an exciting time. You set a big, bold vision to work towards in the coming years. Something that can truly help your organization make huge strides towards its mission. That's no small feat.

But we’ve got a question for you—now that you’ve got your strategic plan neatly typed up and laid out in a digital document, what’s next? What will you do to ensure your plan isn’t collecting dust while you’re busy fighting urgent (though not necessarily important) fires? 

Planning is important for all aspects of nonprofit work, but putting that plan into action is another can 'o' worms. After all, our best-laid plans sometimes go sideways. If you're not about that sideways life, here are some tips to help make your nonprofit's strategic plan a reality (because follow-through is sooo satisfying!). 

From vision to boots on the ground: Creating initiatives

Strategic plans are a great exercise for nonprofits because it gives staff and board members clear visionary priorities for the coming years. What happens next is the need to translate strategic goals into initiatives that can be carried out by the team. These are the projects and tactical things staff and board members will do to fulfill the strategic plan goals.

It can be helpful to determine these initiatives for each year of the strategic plan. For example, if you have a goal of expanding and diversifying your fundraising program you might have initiatives like:

  • Year 1: Audit our current fundraising program; develop a new fundraising plan that aligns with the strategic plan
  • Year 2: Implement one new channel for fundraising; expand major donor portfolio by 10 donors
  • Year 3: Expand major donor portfolio by 15 donors; build infrastructure for legacy giving program

Once you and your team develop initiatives for each year, The Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit management consulting firm, suggests asking these questions to ensure that they are realistic and work well together.

  1. Do any initiative timelines need to be shifted due to interdependencies or pinch points? Does one initiative need to reach a milestone or finish before another can start or continue?
  2. Are timelines realistic considering current workloads?
  3. Do you have sufficient financial resources to complete the initiative?
  4. If planned progress is made on each individual initiative, is the organization on track to achieve the strategic priorities? Are any critical pieces or phases missing

We know that was a mouthful, but these are questions that are gonna help your org get real about what's achievable and what's not when it comes to implementing your strategic plan. 

 Action Jackson!

Creating initiatives and ensuring those initiatives work soundly together is a big step in the right direction of strategic plan implementation. From there we can drill down further to make these plans a reality. We’re talking about creating action plans or work plans for your initiatives. This might be hard to do for initiatives 2 or 3 years out. But it’s likely something you can do for 6 to 12 months at a time.

Ideally, all of your initiatives and projects will have specific milestones that are recorded in the implementation plans that folks can then report on during these strategic plan check-in meetings. More on that in a minute.  

Illustration of hand holding a phone with a GPS map on the screen. Art by Sophie Cunningham.

Find a keeper of the plan

If you were going on a road trip to a new place, chances are you’re probably going to depend on your GPS to get you there. The voice that comes through your GPS keeps you on the route and gets you where you need to go. Just like a big road trip, a strategic plan also benefits from a navigator who acts as a keeper of the plan. This could be a team of senior-level staff or a single staff member. Their role is to periodically chair strategic plan check-in meetings and keep track of who's carrying out which projects and initiatives. 

Mind the budget

You’re swimming along when it comes to making your strategic plan come to life, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about the moola. Yep, if you’re implementing a strategic plan you need to consider your budget. Start by bringing your budget in line with strategic plan priorities. You can have each team or department add a line item to their budgets for “strategic initiatives” to ensure they have the money they need to carry out their pieces of the strategic plan work. 

If you run up against resistance about allocating new or additional money for strategic plan work, remind folks that there were important reasons why you set the goals you did. They are a statement of your organization’s priorities and they deserve financial priority. 

Support focus and encourage consistent action

Sure, there’s a lot of excitement and momentum coming out of a strategic planning process. The trick is keeping it going for the long haul. It’s not always easy, but it boils down to the smaller habits that happen on a daily or even weekly basis. For instance, encouraging team members to set “top 3” action items at the beginning of the week that prioritize strategic plan work, or celebrating the progress made on strategic plan initiatives to encourage staff. There are so many ways to support focus and encourage consistent action. Get creative with how you support your team. 

As you probably guessed, your organization’s strategic plan is a really important piece of work. It has the ability to rally your team and unite everyone towards a shared vision for your nonprofit. By following these tips, you’ll be well on your way to implementation success. You can do it and we’re right here cheering you on, nonprofit friend! 

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