The Best Laid Plans
“The best laid plans.” We generally say this when things go astray from our original intention. We say this with the assertion that we had a plan in the first place. We have all sorts of plans in our nonprofit world. We have big picture definitions of success like strategic plans and theory of change, and annual plans that address budgets and operational priorities. And we have plans that are both strategic and tactical like fund development or communication plans.
Planning can get a bad reputation in our sector both from our own team and from those outside our organization with whom we partner. The root of those concerns generally falls into four categories:
- What exactly is a plan?
- What difference will the plan make?
- Who is responsible for creating it?
- Who is responsible for living it?
What is a plan anyway? First and foremost it is a written document. An idea of success in your head doesn’t count as an organizational plan. It might be a good idea, but if your team can’t see it, own it, and live it, then it’s just an idea. This is often the first stumbling block. When I say it is a written plan, some of you immediately imagine a plan that looks like a big city phone book (remember the paper versions?), while some of you envision a scrap of paper with a simple, yet inspiring phrase. Generally, neither of these versions gets us what we are after – clarity. The phone book or great American novel version is too much to absorb and generally too polished to feel real, while the scrap of paper is poetic and inspiring but not usually enough to keep a whole team moving together. So the kinds of plans we are referring to, regardless of topic, have a few common characteristics: they have clear definition(s) of success, articulated major milestones, and are placed in context with your other work plans. For example, from our perspective a strategic plan can be a single page and answers two questions: (1) who are you and (2) where are you going? Those two questions are spelled out in your purpose, values, long-term and short-term goals and, importantly, they are accounted for in both future budgeting, annual planning, fund development planning, etc. Our plans support each other and inspire our work together as we move from strategic to tactical.
What difference does the plan make? One answer is that it doesn’t, but I hope that is not your answer. My experience is that a plan can be motivating for board and staff. It can energize. It can catalyze. It can bring more partners to the table, it can drive your communication and your funding strategy, and it can help you know who you need on your team to be successful. Plans are not magic – I recently wrote about that in a blog post on the power of fund development plans – but they can be a force in an organization. Finding the force is a fine balance between having enough information about the past to be able to focus all the goals on the future. Plans don’t generally need to document where we have been or how to maintain or continue our work, Instead, they need to spur us forward toward a new definition of success. The plan also needs to have a balance between what inspires us without seeming fool hardy and out of touch with the reality of our organization or the community. They need to motivate us to move ahead without getting mired in too many details. It’s easy to get off balance and spend too much time looking in the past or too much time daydreaming without any data to ground us to achievable goals. It’s easy to spend a lot of time creating a plan that is less relevant and less useful than we hoped for. If we want the usefulness of a plan than we must commit to it as a living document by not just making time to plan but to making time to live the plan. A living plan can take on a number of characteristics but some examples could include: the plan is used to make decisions at board and/or staff meetings; it is used to say “yes” or “no” to new ideas with confidence; it is shared widely within the organization and referenced publicly with key stakeholders. The plan has champions for each goal – board, committee, staff etc. Some plans are operational and tactical and others are strategic. Either way, these characteristics apply.
Let’s pause for a moment and consider these two big questions together: what is a plan and what difference can it make? Recently, we released new research on nonprofits in our five-state region. We have now looked specifically at Alaska’s data and we are pleased to bring you a report focused just on our state’s nonprofit sector. The results give us some insights into these two questions and how they are playing out.
Below is a list of common planning tools. We asked nonprofit leaders to tell us if they have these written plans, but more specifically we asked them if they find them effective. This year’s results indicate that Alaska nonprofits are using more planning tools than in previous years. However, while almost three-fourths have annual budgets and strategic plans in place, all other planning tools are used less than 50% of the time. At Foraker, we are concerned with the findings that any Alaska organization is operating without a basic budget or an articulated strategic and annual plan. Additionally, we are concerned that while in the same study organizations express an interest in strengthening their ability to raise more charitable funds and revenue from earned income, the majority lack appropriate planning tools that would guide them toward those goals. Notably those who do have these funding plans do not rate them as highly effective. This could be, as I mentioned in the blog, because of the typical mistake of confusing a list of asking strategies with a comprehensive donor/customer driven plan – thus often resulting is an ineffective plan that does not guide the organization toward financial stability or long-term relationships.
Conversely, the data reveals that while smaller numbers of nonprofits have documents such as a theory of change or board improvement plan, those that possess the plans generally find them effective. Overall these findings offer an important reminder that planning work is not only about making time to craft more comprehensive plans, but it’s about making time and space to integrate the plans throughout the organization.
PERCENTAGE OF GROUPS WITH SPECIFIC WRITTEN PLANS
|SPECIFIC PLAN||Have plan||Find plan effective|
|Board improvement plan||20%||50%|
|Emergency succession plan||26%||61%|
|Executive transition plan||18%||56%|
|Theory of change||19%||59%|
Who is responsible for creating the plan? Who is responsible for living it? Maybe plans get a bad rap because of who is in the room or more likely not in the room when they are created. We teach and facilitate a lot of different kinds of plans. We know that strategic planning is a function of the board and staff leadership, not staff alone. I have seen hundreds of staff-driven plans. They are rarely at the altitude necessary for strategic thinking. Instead, they deal with improving operations. That is fine, but let’s agree not to call it a strategic plan. I have looked at fund development plans that appropriately start with staff but then don’t include the board in any part of the process except final approval, which only furthers the frustration between board and staff about engaging in philanthropy. I have watched boards struggle to own a staff-created budget with no steps to create understanding or accountability, let alone approval. I have seen board members make recommendations on communication tactics with no mention about how it fits or doesn’t fit into a plan, again creating frustration and confusion. The list goes on.
There are certainly best practice recommendations that focus the board on strategic thinking and the staff on operational tactics, and there is certainly room for collaboration between board, staff, and stakeholders working at the right levels of the organization to collectively move a plan forward. There are ideal ways to work but they mostly work for organizations with appropriate staffing and healthy boards, which is not always the case for all organizations. Instead of one answer that has a clear division of labor, consider this: if we want our plan to be useful and we want it to drive mission forward, then what is the right strategy that engages the right people at the right time in the planning process? Consider that most plans need board approval and staff buy-in. Consider that the plan will likely drive your funding strategy or determine the key messages that board or staff or volunteers will use to communicate. Consider who you need to implement the plan and mostly consider how the plan can move the mission forward. And, finally, consider what support you need to succeed both in creating the plan and implementing the results. These considerations have the potential to create an environment for a plan that is owned and lived by all the right people to make it a success.
If having the right people in the room matters to the success of the plan, let’s consider what happens when we ask organizations to rate themselves based on their use of planning tools relative to their own assessment of capacity. Capacity in this case means having the right people and it also speaks to an adequate financial position. The results show us the obvious contrast between high and low capacity organizations in their use of plans. Interestingly, the medium capacity organizations can take note of the tools that can drive them toward high capacity, like fundraising, strategic, and annual plans. Notably when it comes to the topic of right people, all the organizations rank remarkably low in their use of board development plans. This incidentally confirms an ongoing struggle in Alaska nonprofits to get the right board members at the right time for the organization to meet its projected goals.
PERCENTAGE OF GROUPS WITH SPECIFIC WRITTEN PLANS
|Board improvement plan||14%||24%||23%|
|Emergency succession plan||23%||21%||36%|
|Executive transition plan||17%||15%||23%|
|Theory of change||20%||9%||32%|
Plans come in many shapes and sizes. They are tactual and strategic. They are inspiring and realistic. Yes, there are some who get stuck in planning to plan and, yes, there are some who hold their plan so tightly it withers, and, yes, there are those who believe that planning is a waste of time. I believe that if we don’t know where we are going, any road will take us there. Our missions often allow for every idea to sound like a great idea. But we can lose our way. We can drift toward misaligned funding opportunities or we can simply tread water for a long time through lack of any definition of success beyond maintaining and continuing without improvement. We can be fine. But what if we want our missions to be great? What if we want to take our work to the next stage of strategy, collaboration, funding, or communication? Then we need a plan – a living, effective, plan or two. What are you doing to live your plan? Are you stuck? Give us a call. We are happy to help you take the next step.