Strategic planning for NFPs

By Ken Tysiac

Bob Mims, CPA, CGMA, controller and director of investments at Ducks Unlimited, and Mary Legakis Engel of The Management Coach provide tips not-for-profits can use to make their strategic planning successful.

Pick a strategic-planning team. It's important for the team to represent the whole entity. Groups that are not represented may feel left out and fail to embrace the plan. Representation from finance is critical because the finance leader has a broad view of the organization and a critical understanding of the resources needed and available to accomplish the plan's objectives.

Choose a team leader. The leader should be the person in the organization who can bring the group together. If a program representative becomes the leader at a not-for-profit, it may be important to remind him or her of financial constraints. The CEO has the most at stake in the strategic plan but may not be the best leader of the planning team unless he or she is someone with whom employees feel very comfortable sharing honest feedback. At this point, a timeline for completing the plan should be finalized.

Build consensus on the team. This can be one of the most difficult parts of the process. Everyone's thoughts must receive careful consideration because the plan may fail if somebody on the team whose input is ignored starts complaining to co-workers and criticizing the plan. Ultimately, the goal is to develop fundamental objectives for the plan.

Keep objectives simple. Ducks Unlimited had just three objectives for a five-year strategic plan it rolled out in 2012, encompassing the organization's program, fundraising, and administrative missions. Ducks Unlimited sought to conserve landscapes, perpetuate waterfowl hunting tradition, and strengthen the organization's long-term sustainability.

Move toward a business plan. The goal is to develop metrics that define success in striving toward the objectives. Ducks Unlimited set its metrics at protecting or restoring at least 480,000 acres of wetlands over five years, reaching 700,000 members, and achieving a $2 million annual operational surplus. Those goals were reached by 2015, the fourth year of the five-year plan.

Implement the plan. This is where strategic plans often fail. It's important for employees to understand and embrace their duties related to the plan and be motivated to achieve the goals, Engel said. She said an organization's leaders must communicate to employees the changes that the strategic plan will bring for them; make sure employees understand the changes they need to make; and give employees an opportunity to figure out how they are going to accomplish the new goals and get approval of their methods.

Establish accountability. Ideally, job duties and merit pay increases will be tied to the accomplishment of the strategic plan, Engel said. At a not-for-profit, a strategic plan should successfully integrate volunteers and staff and encourage cooperation between departments.

Editor's note: This checklist is adapted from the article, "Tips for a Successful Not-for-Profit Strategic Plan."

—By Ken Tysiac (, a JofA editorial director.

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