Synthesis Partnership - Critical Issues in Strategy, Planning & Organizational Development for Nonprofits

Twelve reasons why planning is more critical in challenging times.

Critical Issues is intended to highlight the complexity of issues facing nonprofits, and the opportunities imbedded in them for advancing mission. For a more detailed discussion of any of these issues, please contact us.
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...and, by the way, what planning really is.

The purpose of planning is not to write a plan - it is to increase your ability to serve your mission. The several different kinds of planning - most prominently strategic, program, business and facility planning - each with its own purview and approach, share some basic principles. The discussion below is framed to convey the many benefits of strategic planning in challenging times. With some adjustments of who is involved (professional staff or faculty, rather than all stakeholders), most points apply to program planning as well. The first three points apply to most forms of planning.

In challenging times organizations have to find ways to cut back wherever possible and forgo any apparently discretionary expenditures, not only of cash, but also of time and energy. The problem, of course, is to determine what to eliminate and what to protect.

Organizations plan for a number of reasons. Many of them sound as if they would best be done reflectively, in quiet times:

  • a new organization may need to articulate and agree on purpose and means
  • a mature organization might need to
    • - find new challenges
    • - shake complacency
    • - invigorate stakeholders
    • - move to the next level
  • a challenged organization might need to solve a problem of direction, consensus, or funding

Notwithstanding these usual intentions, the real reasons to plan are even more pressing during periods of impending crisis. When strained resources are about to require a choice between cutting programs or cutting staff, strategic planning can seem to be pretty far down the list of priorities. However, planning is not a luxury that is best sacrificed when stresses and strains mount. It can be exactly what is needed to illuminate a path through difficult times.

Here’s why:

  1. If you don’t take the time to step back and re-evaluate when conditions change, when will you?
  2. H.L. Mencken said that “for every complex problem there is a simple solution... and it is always wrong.” The simple solution of doing less of the same - or taking other ostensibly obvious steps - in times of heightened need may not be the best approach to serving an organization’s mission.
  3. In the face of a complex situation, the combined experience of many minds is likely to identify options and suggest nuances that any one decider would miss. Looking at a situation from a variety of perspectives is more likely to flag the truly critical issues and to find the new opportunities in them, as well as the challenges.
  4. Challenging times provide an opportunity through a good strategic planning process to move everyone out of their comfort zones, to challenge their own assumptions and to find better strategies to support the organization’s mission. This will produce a benefit that will last well beyond the precipitating crisis.
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