8 Signs of a Great Nonprofit Strategy

When I work with clients on strategy, one of my greatest responsibilities is to shift their thinking so they can look at things in new ways, step up to a higher plane, and think big. Boards of Directors and staff alike are usually too mired in today’s challenges to envision a dramatically improved future, let alone a path that gets them there. Without a shift in thinking, most strategic plans are incremental at best with the biggest changes focused on internal operations that may save money, but won’t measurably increase the organization’s ability to make a difference.

Strategy in business

At the same time, I have to keep my clients grounded in reality. Blue-sky proponents lobby for lofty earth-saving missions without any concrete ideas about the specific products and services that will make a measurable difference. They shoot down dissenters and leave too many details for later. These grandiose plans are wrapped up in shiny binders and delivered with great pomp and circumstance.

So how do you know a sensible and strong strategy from a bad one? Today’s list is geared toward nonprofits. Stay tuned for an equivalent list for businesses. 

1. A strong strategy ignites the passions of those who must implement it.

If your strategy is boring, you are on the wrong track. Nonprofit directors and employees are eager to make a difference. A good strategy can be measured in part by the excitement in the room as people create it and embrace it. It must be bold and ambitious to keep people inspired, determined, and confident.

2. A strong strategy is outcome driven.

Gone are the days of easy money for any cause that sounds important. Today, people are bombarded with requests for money for seemingly endless causes worldwide and they don’t want their money wasted. A strong strategy is clear about creating concrete outcomes that will make a difference in world.

3. A strong strategy is aligned with stakeholders who care enough to open their wallets.

Money follows value. If you can convince people that you can make a difference they care about, they will support you. But you have to know who cares and and how to engage those resources so that they will join you in your cause.

4. A strong strategy is built on existing capabilities.

To have the impact you desire, you may need to double in size or amp up your in-house expertise by hiring some top notch talent. That’s fine. But you must have a track record in some aspect of your proposed initiatives to be a credible player and attract both funding and qualified employees.

5. A strong strategy is clear about ends and flexible about means. 

People like certainty. They want to know exactly what is going to be done, when, and how much it will cost. Unfortunately, those crystal balls have not yet been invented. But that doesn’t keep some people from demanding endless analysis and exhaustive plans. This is the end of many great strategies. Certainty doesn’t exist. Those who seek it rarely cross the starting line. The stakes in the ground should represent your destination, not the route you must follow to make it a reality.

6. A strong strategy includes details, but not too many. 

Planning is essential. Obviously. But the transition from planning to fiction is insidious. Lots of specific action items, detailed budgets, and milestones every three months makes an impressive document, but only the “illusion of control.” It is far better to chart more general phases, reserve the details for the immediate future, and plan check points to regroup, figure out what you’ve learned, and strategize next steps.

7. A strong strategy has been vetted for potential problems.

Before running off to chase those exciting opportunities, you must pause long enough to ask what could go wrong. Because things will go wrong. The most likely and most serious problems require attention:

  • What can you do to prevent the worst and most likely potential problems?
  • Can you live with the risks you can’t eliminate or reduce?
  • What contingency plans are needed should your preventive actions fail?

This important step is frequently skipped.

8. A strong strategy is easily conveyed to staff, members, donors and more. 

Keep it simple and be crystal clear about the outcomes you wish to achieve – the impact you want to have – and you won’t need any laminated cards or repeated pep fests to to get them to drink the Kool-Aid.

How does your strategy measure up against these criteria?

 

This article originally appeared on Forbes.com on May 15th, 2016.