“We need a new strategy.”
“How can we be more strategic here?”
“It’s time to refresh our nonprofit strategy.”
If you’re like us, you’ve heard these types of phrases countless times. In fact, you’ve probably used them yourself (we certainly have).
But what exactly is strategy?
What makes a project, plan, or tactic strategic? And, most importantly, how can nonprofit leaders use strategy to strengthen their organizations?
Down to Basics: What Is Strategy?
According to the Harvard Business Review:
A business strategy is a set of guiding principles that, when communicated and adopted in the organization, generates a desired pattern of decision making.
That seems simple enough. As Funding for Good has shared before, creating your nonprofit strategy is about more than drafting a written plan. A stack of papers hidden in a drawer won’t help your organization achieve its mission.
Strategy is about decision-making.
When you’re inevitably faced with hard choices—whether it’s adding expenses or cutting costs—how can you ensure that your decision is in line with your organization’s goals? Your nonprofit strategy holds the key.
Articulating Your Nonprofit Strategy: Consider the Competition
Unlike CEOs of companies, nonprofit leaders don’t often think about competition.
Competition in the business world can seem obvious. If you’re launching a new coffee company, you’re going to start by articulating to potential customers and investors how your coffee is different (and better).
If you’re a local bookstore competing with Barnes and Noble, you know you need to offer an experience—whether it’s unbeatable book recommendations, curated book selections, or unique community events—that a big chain bookstore simply doesn’t provide.
This is where strategy comes in. A recent Harvard Business Review piece about how “Strategic Planning Should Be a Strategic Exercise,” explains that:
Strategy is about positioning an organization, whether it’s a business, a government, or a not-for-profit entity, relative to its competitors. And before you protest, let me make this clear: All organizations have competitors—for customers, for staff, for funds, for resources.
This is where an environmental scan and SWOT analysis are critical for your nonprofit strategy. An environmental scan helps you identify external realities that may affect your organization. Whereas a SWOT analysis—which stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats—focuses on internal conditions.
Funding for Good recommends that all organizations conduct these assessments at the start of a strategic planning process.
That way, the “strategy” in your strategic plan can be grounded by both guiding principles and an understanding of how to best position your organization for success.
Knowing When to Invest in A Strategic Plan
The best time to invest in a strategic plan is today.
Why? Because a quality strategic plan—and strategic planning process—brings together all the elements of strategy that we’ve unpacked here:
- Understanding how to best position your organization in the marketplace (with donors, with clients, with partners) and honing how to articulate your unique “value add.”
- Polishing your vision and mission so that it inspires your internal and external audiences.
- Aligning your staff and board leadership around a set of guiding principles that will inform all of your decision-making going forward.
- Creating a “travel guide for growth”—meaning a roadmap that spells out what you’re trying to achieve, how you’re going to go about accomplishing it, and how you’ll know when you’ve arrived.
Plus, with a strong strategic plan in place, you won’t need to bother with phrases like, “It’s time for a new nonprofit strategy.” Because you’ll already have one.