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5 Tips to Guide Your 2022 Nonprofit Strategy Plans

The term, “goal” originally meant the “end of a race” or “boundary”. We now think of this as an “end” or “aim”. In short, a goal is an outcome that we seek to achieve, usually a good outcome, one that benefits us or our family, friends, and colleagues. And in our hyper-administrated lives, we track time and manage lists of tasks (micro-goals) by the hour, the day, the week, the month, the quarter, the year. We do things and tire of doing them. And when we want to find new ways to do them, we begin to strategize. We start thinking in terms of “how” rather than of “what”.

A goal is something you want to happen, sometime in the future, maybe even soon. It should take a simple form: “To write this blog, I will commit to 30 minutes of brainstorming this Friday”. Or perhaps something a bit bolder: “To raise $345,000 dollars in unrestricted gifts this year–a 25% increase from last year–we will generate 3 new ads to bolster our paid media efforts.” 

“Strategy”, whose original sense is that of “the office or command of a general” is a plan for achieving long-term and complex goals carefully and deliberately. You can’t have a strategy without goals, though you can have goals without a strategy. Think of a strategy as the process of accomplishing goals that matter, with sufficient risk and reward and failure baked in. If it’s not risky, it’s not strategic. 

Resources on “strategy” and goal-setting are vast. Here are 5 things I’ve learned from working on both the client and agency side. 

1. Focus on What You Won’t Do

If you’re like most nonprofits, you don’t have a 10-person marketing team of specialists. You’ve got a handful of marketing, PR, and development folks, and an external agency. Or maybe it’s just you and perhaps one other. You’ve got ambition up to your eyeballs and invariably a lot of awesome do-good humans on the roster. Temptations abound. You will hear, see, and smell various ideas on a regular basis. And you must be ruthless in what you won’t do. 

James Clear has written extensively on goal-setting, one aspect of which is helpful in this regard: think of your goals as competing for your attention. Your goals don’t care about your workload. They want to be achieved. And the more goals you create the more opportunities you have for not completing the ones you created last week, which may have in fact cut the line ahead of those you created last quarter. As a mortal on this beautiful, dangerous planet, rest assured that your achievable goals are finite. So keep your team laser-focused on a few key activities at all times by being vocal about all the things that you could but won’t do (at least not yet!). 

2. Document It Simply, Don’t Perfect It 

Funders, donors, and board members may want a polished deck to look at, and there’s no substitute for aesthetically pleasing infographics that inform and delight. But what your internal and external team members need is a strong direction on a daily, weekly, quarterly, and annual basis. PDFs will start to pile up. What’s worse is that they’ll have slightly different names with strange numbers at the end of each surrounded by parentheses. You’ll start veering into file management best practices territory, which I love, but which is not, likely, what you’re after in terms of strategy. 

Document your strategy into no more than one-page, and don’t try to perfect it. It’s going to change and if it’s not changing, then you’re probably not responding to the wilds outside your office. Your strategy is your intellectual workshop in the face of uncertainty. It gets messy in there sometimes. Provided that everyone who needs to can easily understand where you’re going and why, that’s good. And what’s good is not perfect — what’s good should move with you as your organization adapts constantly. Perfection, after all, would require knowledge of what’s going to happen.

3. Partition the Established and the Experimental

Consider partitioning off the more established elements of your strategy from the experimental ones. Preserve those hard-won metrics that tell you stories about your progress from the latest trend. At the same time, make sure you’re allowing a safe space for exploring new ideas while keeping the progress going. Get everyone on the same page regarding the type of exploration you’ll be doing together. Be clear about the difference between new ideas and established initiatives, and make sure that you have a place for storing and returning to ideas when they come up. 

Continuously undeceive yourself and your colleagues of “permanent” solutions and decisions, and get everyone involved in thinking about the big picture. Not only will everyone realize how difficult it is and how lucky they are to have you there to guide them. They’ll also want to simplify because small to medium-sized nonprofits don’t need 50 metrics updated every week. Don’t forget that data are only as useful as the time that you put into thinking about them. If you don’t have time to put into thinking about how 12 metrics contribute to your success each week, then maybe focus on 5 instead. 

Oh, and constantly reviewing the strategy is exhausting and resource-intensive, so find a cadence (e.g. quarterly) to gather together with your team and discuss successes and failures candidly and playfully.

4. Is Your Strategy Emergent and Adaptive? 

An emergent strategy is one that–as you might guess–emerges from the practice and work itself. It bubbles up. It comes to be “organically” out of the situation that you and your team members find yourselves in.   

An emergent strategy is also participatory. Hopefully, you’ve invited others to the ideation party and brought doughnuts. And that’s true not just of juniors who’ve just joined your cause, but also of those you actually serve. They’re part of the practice of strategy. 

A linear or “classical” strategy is mostly predetermined. It’s the document that feels perhaps too much like a plan. You have a map or a blueprint of varying levels of detail and you execute it. And this type of strategic planning has been criticized for lacking risk. If your strategy is feeling more like a concrete plan, you may be getting too comfortable.

Adrienne Maree Brown’s Emergent Strategy riffs on a number of principles common to ideas and plans and goals that emerge from the work in non-linear ways. A few of my favorites are: 

  • Change is constant. (Be like water).
  • There is always enough time for the right work.
  • Move at the speed of trust. 

If you’re an advocacy organization with four distinct audiences who (you know) are pulling you in constantly different directions, you might want to plan less because you know that you must move with them (to an extent). As a coalition-builder, you’re there to influence and be influenced by external forces, but not to push or pull too hard. 

If your organization provides a concrete service to an underserved population, then you may be able to plan more since your stakeholders are fairly straightforward and you’re less subject to wildly contradictory forces. 

5. Campaign Internally for Your Strategy

Distraction is at an all-time high, and your team (even you!) is no exception. Learn the art of creative repetition, of continuously reinforcing the value of the strategy that you have created, how you did so, and why it’s important at every opportunity. If you’re not getting teased about how often you bring it up, then you haven’t talked about it enough. If you’re starting to receive internal memes on a regular basis, then you’re probably doing it well. 

On a concluding note: everything might go to sh*t, everything might be beautiful. It’ll likely be somewhere in between. Don’t attempt divination or engage in too much magical thinking along the way. You can dream big AND be a hardened realist about the ways of the world. Moving between the two can even be exciting.