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Sep 10, 2013
Posted Under: Sustainability

Strategic thinking is important for all nonprofit leaders. It’s how they know what success looks like. Many put more emphasis on developing a strategic plan than on having ongoing strategic discussions. Looking ahead and adapting to the emerging environment is a critical behavior for sustainability. But in addition to ongoing discussion and reflection about the future, you also need a written strategic plan at least every five years.

The strategic plan we develop typically fits on one page. Brevity makes a plan more useful, memorable, and therefore more relevant to the actual operations of the organization. We believe it is critical that everyone is on the same page. The shorter the plan, the less likely the organization will stray from its core ideology.

Our strategic plan includes three sections: core purpose and values, an envisioned future (long-term goals), and three to five strategic directions (one to five year priorities). A one-page plan can easily remain at the forefront for all board and staff decisions. By avoiding detail, the plan encourages big picture thinking.

Boards should work at this strategic level. But it is important that boards not only develop the strategic direction, but each year identify and set priorities based on that direction. So, strategic planning and establishing annual priorities is the board’s responsibility. All other planning is the staff’s job. Staff should further define the big picture vision of the board through more detailed plans such as development, technology, marketing, human resources, facility operations and business planning. In most cases these staff-developed plans will require board comment and approval.

Share with us your process in getting your board engaged in big picture, strategic thinking.


Dennis McMillian is President of The Foraker Group, a nonprofit capacity building organization based in Alaska, and the author of Focus on Sustainability: A Nonprofit’s Journey.