What’s the difference between a project plan and a strategic plan? Plenty it turns out.
Sometimes it seems like the business and nonprofit worlds are drowning in plans. We’ve got annual plans. We’ve got project plans. And then we’re also supposed to have strategic plans?
How are we supposed to get anything done if all we do is plan?
The truth is, yes, sometimes we do spend too much time planning. But it’s not planning that’s the issue. The problem is not creating the right plans for the right purposes.
To start, let’s dig into the difference between a project plan and a strategic plan.
Project Plan vs Strategic Plan
At first glance, a project plan and strategic plan include some similar elements.
- Focusing on a project within an organization, a project plan outlines goals, activities, and benchmarks.
- Focusing on the organization overall, a strategic plan describes an organization’s vision and mission, and details the goals, strategies, and benchmarks that will be used to achieve that vision.
However, there are several major differences:
- Scope: A project plan covers a single project, whereas a strategic plan covers an entire organization.
- Purpose: A project plan is designed to keep a team on track to achieve project goals and deliverables. In contrast, a strategic plan is designed to create alignment across an organization by developing a shared vision for the future—and how the organization will turn that vision into reality.
- Timeline: A project plan covers the duration it will take to achieve a project’s goals. That could be two months or two years. A strategic plan generally covers a 3–5-year period.
- Process: Perhaps most importantly, a strategic plan is less a product than a process. Strategic planning is only successful when a group of key stakeholders come together to conduct an intensive consensus-building process. A project plan, however, is often prepared by a single person who has bottom line responsibility for a project’s success. Team members and other stakeholders are brought in after the plan is drafted to provide feedback and confirm their individual roles.
When to Create a Project Plan
Project plans are best when you need to align a group of people to accomplish defined goals in a time-limited period. For example:
- When preparing your non-profit’s year-end appeal, you’ll want to create a project plan to keep moving pieces on track and meet deadlines.
- When organizing an annual gala, you’ll definitely want a project plan.
- When executing on organizational changes, such as shifting to a four-day workweek, a project plan will be invaluable.
- On a less positive note, if your organization is undergoing financial challenges and planning staff layoffs—such as the job cuts over at Goldman Sachs—you will need a project plan for communicating with staff.
When to Create a Strategic Plan
An organization can undertake a strategic planning process at any time. Indeed, we recommend that all nonprofits ensure they always have a current and relevant strategic plan. An old strategic plan that no one has looked at in three years doesn’t count!
Organizations often start thinking about strategic planning for a few reasons:
- Growth: If your organization is growing, a strategic plan can help you make the smartest investments to create long-term sustainability.
- Lack of Growth: If your organization is struggling to achieve stability, a strategic plan can help you pinpoint the issues and develop actionable solutions.
- Impact: If your organization is eager to grow its impact, a strategic plan can help focus on the most effective strategies to do so.
- Leadership Changes (or Challenges): Especially if an organization is still led by the founder, a strategic plan can expand the leadership table and create a shared vision for the future that isn’t reliant on a single charismatic leader.
- Because Donors Ask: For nonprofits, foundation donors especially are increasingly asking to see organizations’ strategic plans. Why? Because it demonstrates that a nonprofit is committed to sustainability and impact.
How Can Project Plans and Strategic Plans Work Together?
A strategic plan should be the foundation of your planning. Project plans, business plans, annual plans, and more should all flow from the vision spelled out in your strategic plan. This way, you can ensure every project and plan directly supports your organization’s long-term goals.
So, if you’re drowning in a pile of plans and not sure you can handle yet another planning session, take a step back. Start with a strategic planning process so you can focus less on planning and more on impact.