How Responsive Strategic Planning can maximize your nonprofit's impact
The dynamic nature of the nonprofit sector requires efficient and effective problem-solving for the challenges and opportunities organizations encounter in pursuit of their missions. Because they function in a state of constant change, from new information, and new technologies to unexpected crises, nonprofit leaders must equip their organizations with the tools to solve strategic questions.
While the normal response to such challenges may be to engage a traditional strategic planning process, nonprofit leaders now seek strategic thinking and action that provides the same positive outcomes, but at a pace and in a system that meets the constantly changing and info-rich world of the nonprofit sector.
Responsive Strategic Planning is an ongoing strategic process that maximizes an organization’s greatest assets, responds to its dynamic environment by making intentional, innovative, and timely decisions, and achieves organizational continuity and resilience to achieve scaling for lasting impact through empowerment and inclusion of its stakeholders. The valuable components of traditional strategic planning such as mission, values, and visions, are inherently encapsulated in the responsive strategic planning process but are not the final outcomes of the process. Instead, the aim of responsive strategic planning is action that responds to an organization’s environment, bolsters its resilience, and spurs greater impact.
Responsive Strategic Planning begins by creating a sound and flexible organizational architecture. The architecture provides the framework to maintain significant momentum while also responding to challenges where and when they arise.
Elements of the organizational architecture include:
- Crafting or recommitting to the organization’s mission statement as the primary guiding principle around which all other elements can adjust.
- Identifying an organization’s greatest assets to set the organization and its programs apart from its peers and offering different and separate values to its constituents.
- Determining how an organization provides this asset to its constituents, including funding, program offerings, and initiatives.
- Determining an organization’s stakeholders, including constituents, staff, volunteers, board members, constituents, and partners both within and across sectors. This moment allows an organization to evaluate and improve the diversity of its stakeholders.
With the organizational architecture in place and communicated to its stakeholders, an organization is prepared to authentically evaluate potential strategies for answering the strategic challenges it encounters.
- Craft the strategy assessment criteria, often called Go/No-Go list in the private sector, to select strategies that best meet an organization’s mission, direction, and capabilities.
- Assess the brutal facts of your organization by gathering both quantitative and qualitative data and leaning heavily on the stories and lessons from the front lines.
- Perform the assessment.
- Select the strategy that most reflects the organization’s identity and goals. Review the decision with stakeholders to verify meeting mission integrity and address important issues such as diversity, equity, and inclusion.
- Act. Drive the decision into your programs and operations.
Responsive Strategic Planning works in concert with an organization’s efforts to bolster resilience and scale impact. When an organization makes relevant and effective decisions in a timely manner, with few interruptions to the flow of everyday life, its resilience is bolstered. As resilience is fostered, through healthy leadership and other means, an organization’s impact grows. As its impact grows, the greater opportunities and challenges it will encounter that increase its momentum and ultimately produce mission achievement.
Factors that advance an organization’s resilience and expand its impact include:
- Select leaders who empower a diverse group of staff and stakeholders. The strategies they create will take on greater value as these committed people infuse them with energy.
- Create a culture of informal learning, that encourages experimentation, and nurtures innovation. Learning that is carried out by people who are deeply involved with the specific issues at hand, produces new perspectives and solutions.
- Measure and evaluate to drive an organization’s impact. Data creates an understanding of an organization’s history and provides lessons for its future. When reframed, this information helps an organization identify and capitalize on game-changing opportunities that unlock its momentum.
- Scale what works. By putting its unique assets to work, a nonprofit endures adversity, maximizes its flexibility, and propels the organization forward. By developing its people and honoring their commitment and sacrifices to the organization, it ensures the continuity of the organization and catalyzes its impact.
As you can see, Responsive Strategic Planning provides a shared knowledge of itself, a framework for decision-making, resilience to bounce back from struggles, and the motivation for its stakeholders to continue the good work they do long into the future.
Rebecca Ohman is 2022 graduate of the Masters of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University and a member of the Nu Lambda Mu Nonprofit Honor Society. She studied at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and received her bachelor’s degree in Landscape Architecture. She has worked for 11 years as the Garden Director of Garvan Woodland Gardens, a public botanical garden in Hot Springs, AR. A center of the University of Arkansas Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design, Garvan’s mission is to enhance a unique part of the Ouachita Mountain environment; provide a place of learning and research; develop exceptional gardens, landscapes, and structures; and serve its communities. She lives and works in her quirky hometown of Hot Springs National Park, AR with her husband and two sons.
Learn more with training for your organization
The ASU Lodestar Center offers organization facilitation, training, individualized consultation and leadership development as part of a comprehensive strategic planning program. Center staff works directly with organizational leaders to customize the program to the organization’s specific needs and desired outcomes.
Effective, motivated boards are critical to a nonprofit organization’s ability to develop its capacity and achieve its mission. Board Governance Training consists of a series of topics that break down the best practices and responsibilities of an effective governing body. It's available in-person, virtually or hybrid, depending on your organization and needs.
Illustration by Lillian Finley, ASU Lodestar Center.