When your nonprofit gets a few years under its belt, you might start to notice ghosts cropping up in conference rooms. Ghosts of meetings past. Specters of initiatives that succeeded—or those that failed. The spirits of strategic plans that were never implemented.
While leaders might be ready to move on, ignoring history can leave us to repeat the same mistakes.
So before you embark on a strategic planning process or other major initiative, take a moment to exorcise those ghosts.
If you need a breather before getting down to ghost-hunting—and a reminder that nonprofits aren’t alone in dealing with reminders of the past—you can check out how James Cameron’s “Titanic” is still haunting internet memes today.
Step One: Understand Why Strategic Plans and Other Major Initiatives Fail
According to the Harvard Business Review, over 60% of strategic plans fail during the implementation process. In our work with nonprofit organizations, Funding for Good has identified a few key reasons why:
- Lack of Leadership Investment: Leadership can make or break a strategic plan. If your past strategic plan failed, the first place to look is your leadership. Were board and staff leaders invested in not just the product but the process? Did leadership commit to using the strategic plan to jumpstart strategic decision-making? Or did leaders leave the organization’s strategic plan on the shelf to gather dust?
- Lack of Broader Organizational Buy-in: Even if an executive director is fully committed to a strategic plan, they can’t implement it alone. Research shows that “on average, 95 percent of a company’s employees don’t understand its strategy.” If you didn’t have the right people in the room during your strategic planning process, that means your plan will only be half-baked. And asking staff to give their all for something they don’t feel invested in is a recipe for failure.
- Poor Implementation: At the end of the day, strategic plans are only as good as their implementation. No matter how fabulous your written strategic plan is, you still need to commit to ongoing implementation and evaluation. Your strategic plan comes to life through consistent day-to-day work. Which is why some organizations choose to also invest in implementation plans.
Step Two: Create Space to Acknowledge a Past Failed Strategic Plan
Imagine this: You’ve been leading a great nonprofit for the last five years. As a smart, forward-thinking executive director, one of the first things you did when you first came onboard was launch a strategic planning process. Unfortunately, that plan never got off the ground. And some staff and board members have been grumbling about it ever since. Heck, that failed strategic plan still keeps you up at night sometimes, rehashing all the ways it went horribly awry.
Now, five years later, you’re ready to try again. But those ghosts seem to be everywhere. And when you announce the new planning process, you get more eyerolls and grumbles than excitement.
What’s a nonprofit leader to do?
- Don’t hide from the past. Acknowledge the past failed strategic plan up front—before someone else does it for you.
- Create space for people to express what went wrong and why it matters. Consider launching a staff survey, joining department meetings, or even holding one-on-one conversations. Speak to your board to get their insights. Asking people for their analysis will likely illuminate more than your late-night ruminations do—and point to areas of focus for your next planning process.
- Share a post-mortem of your past strategic planning effort. Once you’ve gathered input from your board and staff, reflect their ideas back to them. Show that you have heard what they had to say. And explain how you’ll act on it.
Step Three: Be Clear on How the Next Initiative Will be Different
Now that you understand what went wrong last time—and everyone has provided input—it’s time to turn toward the future.
- Explain why the organization needs to give strategic planning another try. Describe the benefits of strategic planning, not just for the organization but for staff and board members too.
- Get clear on how this process will be different from the last one. Be specific. If you pulled out five key contributors to why your last plan failed, then outline how you will address each one.
- Be transparent about how the strategic planning process will work—and provide regular updates throughout.
- Model how you are giving the new strategic planning process a shot and ask your team to do the same.
Luckily, just because your last strategic plan failed, doesn’t mean your next one will. With the right mindset—and a little bit of work to clear out the ghosts—a new strategic plan can put your organization back on the road to success.