Strategic planning: Is your board focusing on five external forces?

Strategic planning often gets a bad rap. And it’s easy to see why. Usually, we have a board retreat or take the staff off site and hold a big meeting. Much is said and brainstorming is vigorous, but little is written down and less is quantified. We return to the office on Monday, with few decisions made. The retreat or meeting didn’t help your organization change anything.

In order to be successful, organizations, teams and individuals must plan and set a defined course for change. How does planning focus energy, change outcomes and result in greater job satisfaction for the board and staff? In the end, the insights gained during planning should influence the hundreds or thousands of individual actions that take place in an organization on a daily basis. Sounds good, but how do you do this, and what does it look like in daily application?

A case study

Let’s assume you are the CEO of a large nonprofit with international operations scattered across the globe. Your staff and volunteers work with people who have enormous health, education and economic needs in some of the most challenging places on the planet. Information cascades into your organization daily—from the Web, news reports, donor feedback and field reports. Last year, you, your staff and your board worked hard on a five-year strategic plan. What difference is that plan making today on how you face challenges?

An effective planning process begins with rigorous advance preparation. The quality of the end product is directly correlated with the development of comprehensive external and internal scans. An external or internal scan represents a quick check by a planning team of trends in key areas of the environment.  All organizations risk losing touch with those key trends, internally or externally, that signal major changes ahead for the organization. These environmental scans create a context for the dialogue during the planning process. The process focuses the board’s attention on strategic thinking and the forces that are shaping the organization’s future. Which of the rapidly changing forces in this organization’s environment will have the most significant impact on the organizations results in the future? The outcomes of the strategic thinking dialogue are then used to define the organization’s strategic direction, goals, objectives and, ultimately, action plans and budgets. The key is to identify the right questions for the next business cycle of the organization.

The board of this nonprofit focused on the strengths, limitations, opportunities and threats in the external environment. Five forces of change were identified that warranted the board’s attention, not just during the planning retreat, but in ongoing discussions during board and committee meetings for years to come.

The five forces are:

Demographic upheavals
Rising expectations
Explosion of new technologies
New forms of organizing work

Based on the deliberations of the board and staff during the retreat, the specific strategic drivers and key questions for this organization to address over the next five years were identified as:

The world is flat. How does globalization impact the structure of our organization? What new competitive forces will impact our ability to attract the talent and people we need in the regions we serve? How could we organize our work differently and employ technology more effectively to serve targeted populations? How do we, as a board and staff, stay informed and proactive in rapidly changing environments?
Security of operations. Security has the single greatest impact on effectiveness of global operations. There is no service to targeted populations if operations are removed or restricted. Security is an issue for the safety of an organization’s people, capital resources, equipment, programs and technology. How do we enhance our efforts to monitor and adapt quickly to changing security issues? Can our organization be more nimble?
Competition for support. Trends indicate that government support in all forms will be reduced for non-governmental organizations and all other nonprofit organizations in current and future years. This will result in greater competition for remaining government funds. How can this organization compete most successfully to sustain the largest percentage of government support possible, while simultaneously diversifying private support from individuals, corporations and foundations? What are the expectations of our existing and new donors?

The progression from a broad external scan to forces of change to key strategic drivers clarified for board and staff where they should be focusing their attention. Rivers of information are now sorted by how they impact the nonprofit’s structure, staffing, security and fundraising. There were many other worthy issues to focus on, but these priorities emerged as the key ones for this organization over the next five years. The CEO identified opportunities for board and staff to monitor these issues on an ongoing basis, in order to make decisions and take actions to positively impact the result this nonprofit strives to achieve.

Internal environmental scans focus on the core components that are essential to every organization. Regardless of its structure, stage of organizational development or field of activity, every organization consists of five essential components—without which it cannot come into being, sustain its existence or grow.

These five components and their definitions are:

Market. Anyone who uses, or has the potential to use or fund the programs, products and/or services created, distributed or funded by this organization.
Program. The content and methodology an organization creates and distributes through products and services to define audiences.
Organization. The network of structures and systems through which an organization creates and distributes programs, products and services to its market.
People. The human resources available to an organization to create and deliver programs, products and services to its market.
Capital. The non-human resources available to an organization to create and deliver programs, products and services to its market.

Growth comes when an organization energizes one or two of these components. Sustained capacity building depends on an organization’s effort to balance the development of every component. Organizational stress is a signal that the development of one or more components is lagging behind the development of the most energized component. Alignment among and between components can propel an organization to the next stage of its organizational lifestyle (i.e. from start up to growth mode), or a lack of alignment can stymie an organization’s development for years. This analysis of internal capacity must be measured against the challenges this organization will face to achieve success, however success is defined.

Based on an internal scan of this nonprofit, the following key opportunities were identified:

Cultivate new donors while retaining existing donors to raise net contributions and diversify funding sources.
Build development/fundraising/outreach/communications functions and systems to cultivate lasting relationships with funders and collaborators, while raising more money to support the mission.
Coach, develop and grow capacities and skills of the executive management team to build the capacity to deliver on its mission and support the work of the organization.
Clarify goals and quantify objectives for vice presidents to further develop their skills as self-directed managers.

The board and staff identified many ways that this organization could improve performance on the five components. The four opportunities sited above are the ones that are central to the growth and development of this organization during the current business cycle.

The three drivers resulting from the external scan and the four drivers resulting from the internal scan formed the basis of a Statement of Strategic Direction, which captured the seven priorities for this organization over the next five years. There were other worthy priorities, but these seven were critical to the organization’s future growth, development and ongoing success.

The staff took the next step and crafted five-year goals, supported by quantified objectives. The board reviewed and approved these goals and objectives. The staff writes annual detailed action plans to support the outcomes defined in the objectives. The action plan development dovetails with the creation of an annual budget.  The systems are in place to support the desired outcomes.

The key issues are clear: Every board of directors’ meeting must include time for discussions about security, competition for support, growing the capacity of staff, or how the systems support the desired outcomes in donor relations. The board has a greater awareness of and growing knowledge of the most important strategic issues. The staff feels empowered to sort the incredible amounts of information that bombard them daily and use the most relevant information to address the core issues for their organization. Most importantly, the CEO, in conjunction with the board and staff, fosters the ability of the staff, volunteers and key stakeholders to see what truly exists today and, perhaps more importantly, fosters the capacity to see what will exist tomorrow.

See also:

The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution

Nonprofit Strategic Positioning

Nonprofit Sustainability: Making Strategic Decisions for Financial Viability

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