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Even planning takes planning: Five questions to answer

Alyce Lee Stansbury, CFRE, Notes on Nonprofits

Strategic planning is on the priority list as nonprofit leaders move beyond their 2020 and 2021 COVID response activities and look to the future.

Based on several conversations and questions about strategic planning, I wanted to share a few reasons why the planning process is important, what questions the plan should answer, and the different types of plans.

Strategic planning should answer 5 questions

I agree with, which states, “strategic planning helps navigate the important decision they need to make to best deliver impact.” It is a highly collaborative process and allows nonprofit leaders to adapt to new conditions and capitalize on opportunities.

It should be a living, breathing document rather than one that sits on a shelf collecting dust. Ideally, the strategic plan should answer five questions:

  1. For what impact and for whom, do we want to hold ourselves accountable?
  2. How will we achieve that impact based on what we are positioned to do?
  3. What specific priorities and work will we focus on?
  4. What resources – financial, human, and organizational – will we need to pursue this work?
  5. How will we know we are making progress?

Benefits of strategic planning

If you are new to strategic planning or haven’t been part of the process in a while, here are a few benefits to consider. Strategic planning:

  • describes a shared vision, mission, and values of the organization.
  • is a roadmap that defines a desired future and a path to achieve it.
  • builds teamwork by galvanizing the board and staff around agreed-upon priorities.
  • incorporates input and feedback from staff and key external stakeholders.
  • creates a culture of accountability and accomplishment.
  • grows the maturity of the organization and enhances its credibility.
  • helps to determine financial goals and guide development of the annual budget.
  • serves as a fundraising tool to seek funding and philanthropic investments in goals and strategies that are clearly defined and measurable.

A strategic plan should drive the work of staff and board. For boards, especially chairs, this includes board meeting agendas and decision making, committee focus and structure, and board recruitment efforts. A well-designed strategic plan is also an effective tool to evaluate board performance and help develop a future leadership succession plan.

Not all plans are strategic plans

Here’s a brief overview of different types of plans.

The standard strategic planning model is an in-depth process designed to help a nonprofit identify where it wants to go and what actions it will take to get there. The process includes seeking internal and external feedback of board, staff, donors, partners and key stakeholders; conducting a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis; seeking information about trends in your industry and among similar organizations. The result is a strategic plan, perhaps three years in scope, comprised of priority goals, objectives, key strategies, and outcome measures including who is responsible for each goal’s success.

Action plan

An action plan is focused on short-term priorities to get the right things done in the right order. This type of plan typically results from an extended board session or one-day retreat and is an effective step prior to developing a more extensive strategic plan.

Bridge plan

A bridge plan is a continuation of an existing plan. Many nonprofits adopted a bridge plan in 2020 and 2021 in response to the pandemic.

Tactical plan

A tactical plan is an ad hoc plan that has a single focus and defined end that outlines detailed steps to accomplish a specific project or objective. This can be a support to the overall strategic plan or a catalyst to tackle a major issue that needs to be addressed before a strategic plan is considered. Examples include a board development plan to add, replace, or recruit new board members; an advocacy campaign to impact proposed legislation; or an outreach effort to raise the organization’s profile and enhance public perception.


A scenario plan results from developing plausible alternatives and a relevant course of action in response to an unexpected event. Examples include the loss or addition of a new program or service, the catastrophic loss of funding, or an economic recession.


A turn-around plan is focused on maintaining continuity while working to ‘right size’ organizational goals with the financials. Reasons for a turn-around plan include financial recovery of a nonprofit that has underperformed for an extended time, the cash is running out, the mission and strategy no longer meet expectations, leadership cannot agree on what to do, or some combination of these.

Extensive resources for strategic planning for nonprofits are available from the Council on Foundation, Bridgespan, BoardSource, and the free Management Library at You may also want to consult the state or national organization to which your nonprofit is a member.

Please share your thoughts on this topic and ask questions you would like addressed in the column. I love hearing from you and our conversations are always confidential.

Notes on Nonprofits is a column in the Tallahassee Democrat produced by Alyce Lee Stansbury, CFRE, President of Stansbury Consulting, and includes resources, responses to reader questions, guest columns, and timeless topics. This column first appeared on Sunday, July 31, 2022. Please send your comments and questions.

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