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  • Ryan Brooks

Your Nonprofit Needs a Two Year Strategic Plan

Strategic Planning for Nonprofits: Why Shorter is Better

Ask a strategic planning expert or consultant how many years a strategic plan should be and you will get all kinds of answers. This gives you one more opinion - one that's more practical for the most nonprofits. Your nonprofit needs a two year strategic plan.

Have you ever been part of a strategic planning group or committee that spent days, weeks or even months creating and perfecting a strategic plan? Haven't we all?

One thing that so many of those perfect strategic plans have in common is that they end up sitting on a shelf - you know, never to be looked at again or maybe dusted off once a year to reflect on what we are and aren’t doing. Perhaps even worse is that strategic plans are often digital, so they get lost in some folder on your computer. There's not even an annoying dusty binder to grab our attention.

Strategic plans are too expensive - in money and time - to be shelved and forgotten. We can do better. Today, I'll make a case for using a 2 year strategic plan.

You might be thinking a 2 year plan sounds too short - we wouldn’t even be able to start a project before the plan was over. But, few organizations need a plan that's longer. If you are a very large institution with thousands of employees, then a longer, more detailed plan might be needed. But 2 years is plenty for most organizations and most new projects.

Here are the three reasons a 2-year plan is ideal for most nonprofits.

1. Mission and Vision Should Provide Strategic Direction

The main reason a strategic plan should be short is that your mission and vision should provide strategic direction, not the plan. If your mission and vision are clear and concise, and your staff and board buy into them, then you should have a strong sense of where you want the organization to go in the future.

Mission and vision are your driving forces. A strategic plan is the roadmap to help you meet the goals inspired by your mission and vision.

The problem with long, complex, many-year strategic plans is that they often take on too much without clear guideposts, resources, or organizational champions (i.e. leadership) to get there. On the other hand, if your team spends some time reflecting on your mission and vision, then you should be able to map out the key priorities and initiatives that you can achieve in the next two years. Importantly, you should be able to get there because your goals are ambitious but realistic.

2. Being Nimble Enough to Meet Needs

The entire world has been reminded that massive disruptions like COVID-19 happen and create chaos. But, we also know smaller disruptions happen all of the time in the nonprofit space. Changes in federal or state policies affect critical funding for the people you serve. Foundation priorities change and grants are often one-time, one-year revenue. New issues, like the opioid epidemic, inflation, or gun violence, come into our communities and challenge the status quo.

Nonprofits need to feel the pulse of the communities they serve, and their strategic plan should enable them to respond to changing needs - rather than preventing it. That is much easier when strategic planning is a biannual process, not something you dig out twice per decade.

When your nonprofit is tied to a 5-year strategic plan that isn’t supposed to change, you can't nimbly respond to the emerging needs of your community and your nonprofit will be less impactful. This is the opposite of what you hope for when you dedicate resources to strategic planning.

3. There are Many Ways to Count Progress

Organizations can point to their strategic plans to determine whether they are successful and making progress, but they can’t possibly capture all of the successes of an organization. Strategic plans tend to focus on the new and improved, and it is important to keep in mind that there are many ways to measure progress.

The day-to-day work that you track (perhaps in a software like countbubble) to measure key performance indicators for your board or report to funders are just as, if not more, important for you and your team to understand the health of your organization.

Organizations of all sizes should engage in regular strategic planning because they can help you work toward your mission and vision with intention. And, by having a 2 year strategic plan, it reminds us that this is one of many tools we have to advance our mission and vision. We also need to count our work in many other ways as part of the broader view of tracking progress and telling our stories.

Think about how a 2 year strategic plan might work for your organization. Admittedly, you might not accomplish every goal in 2 years. But, if they are still in progress and they are still important 2 years later, then you can add them to your new plan or just “refresh” the one you have.

I would much rather do that than look back at a 5-year strategic plan and say “hey, does anyone remember what this goal meant or why we included it?”

More Benefits of 2 Year Strategic Plans

Still not convinced? Do you need more reasons to try a 2 year strategic plan?

Here are a few more.

You Can Create a 2 Year Strategic Plan Faster

Since it’s a 2 year plan, not a 5 year plan, your nonprofit probably won’t spend 6-12 months and 25 meetings creating it. You won't be bored of your plan before it's even printed, hole- punched, and put in that nice blue binder that held your last plan.

Long Strategic Plans Give You Too Much Time

Yep. Your 5 year plan is too long because it's too long.

It gives you too much freedom. It lets you believe that the future is incredibly far away because it is.

First, nothing feels urgent when it's 5 years away. Be honest, you probably won't even have this same job in 5 years. With a 2 year plan, you need to get to work now because the clock is ticking. Imagine watching the show 24 knowing that Jack Bauer had 24 days to solve a case, not 24 hours. There would be no urgency.

Second, the bigger, more complex, and more unique a problem, the worse people are at estimating how long it will take. We deal with this in software development every day. It's terribly hard to estimate how long a new feature will take to develop. Now, imagine you are doing something as complex as creating a new job training program or a new housing program? If you've never done it before, you can't know how long it will take or all of the obstacles you will encounter.

A 5 year plan gives you too much flexibility to push hard things down the road and too much freedom let your timeline slip because "5 years is a long time from now". Short strategic plans demand you gather data, decide, and act right now.

But we will always be in planning mode...

That's kind of the point. Constant attention to your strategic plan and regular reflection on how you are doing is precisely why a shorter plan is better for most nonprofits.

Strategic thinking and planning will become part of what you do and how you operate; not a thing you do sometimes, but not most of the time.

Reporting your impact is hard when you’re juggling spreadsheets. countbubble makes it easy for nonprofits to manage program data, so you can focus more time on the people you serve.

Learn how countbubble can help your nonprofit simplify data collection and reporting. Email us or contact us on our website.

Founder, CountBubble, LLC

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