A strategic plan is simply a plan for where the organization wants to go, how it wants to get there, and how it will know it has arrived. As described by the Management Assistance Program for Nonprofits (MAP), strategic planning can help an organization define its purpose, establish realistic goals for achieving that purpose, communicate these goals and objectives both internally and externally, ensure that the organization's resources are used effectively, provide criteria for measuring progress, and build consensus.
Strategic planning is an ongoing process and does not end with the production of a strategic plan. The plan itself—the actual document—is far less important than the organization's experience of the process. As the Nonprofit Genie explains: "Strategic planning is a systematic process through which an organization agrees on—and builds commitment among key stakeholders to—priorities which are essential to its mission and responsive to the operating environment."
The Facilitator's Guide to Strategic Planning, by Carter McNamara, defines the strategic planning as the process of locating, through group participation and expertise, the intersection between the organization's mission, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, to create a planning document that includes goals, strategies to achieve each goal, measurable objectives to ensure that the organization is continuing to move toward those goals, and descriptions of who is responsible for each objective and when objectives are to be achieved.
A strategic plan is not a mission statement. Developing a mission statement is one step in strategic planning, but a strategic plan also includes an assessment of the environment in which the organization operates, an evaluation of the organization's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (known as a SWOT analysis), and a description of the steps that are needed to achieve the organization's mission. While a mission statement alone may be sufficient to launch a new NGO, strategic planning is a vehicle for periodically reviewing that mission, assessing whether it corresponds to reality and to the needs of the community, and determining whether the organization is continuing to move toward achievement of its goals. These added perspectives help ensure that the strategic plan is not merely a "to-do" list, but guides the organization when it must make difficult decisions.
NGOs might find it useful to consult MAP's Basic Guidelines for Successful Planning Process for an overview of general planning stages before beginning strategic planning.
The following stages of strategic planning are descriptive only. There is no "correct" or "incorrect" way of conducting strategic planning. Each organization must determine what is appropriate in its particular context at that particular time.
The information in this section on strategic planning is adapted from MAP's Free Management Library, Carter McNamara's Facilitator's Guide to Strategic Planning, the Nonprofit Genie, the Internet Nonprofit Center, and Jan W. Lyddon's Strategic Planning in Smaller Nonprofit Organizations: A Practical Guide for the Process (1999). Anne Focke, in Plans and Planning: Perspectives from Grantmakers, provides helpful insights into what funders look for in plans and planning processes.
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