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  • Pat Libby

Strategic Planning is a Waste of Time (unless you do it right)

I just read a brilliant report that summarized in-depth research conducted for a San Diego-based nonprofit in 2016. I was impressed with how well the survey results were summarized, how neatly the competitors were charted, and how detailed the focus group findings were. The research was so comprehensive that it consumed a binder that was four inches thick!

The report went on to list the things the organization needed to do as a result of this research.

List after list after list.

The forest got lost for the trees. And, as a result, nothing happened in the ensuing years. Nothing.

The problem was this: Data, while critically important to creating strategy, can’t stand alone.

The difference between a good strategic plan and one that sits on a shelf involves:

  1. Using data to make strategic and often difficult decisions about which programs/efforts/work etc. will be prioritized, and

  2. Outlining a clear plan of action for accomplishing those goals.

Strategy, my friends, is all about how you’ll get your nonprofit from point A to point B which involves setting priorities and action planning.

For example, it makes no sense to state “our goal is to increase the number of people we serve,” or “our goal to diversify the types of people we serve,” or even, “our goal is to provide targeted services to different types of constituents” unless you have a specific plan for how you’ll go about achieving that goal. The plan should lay out:

  1. A set of actions your organization will take. Each set of actions should be tied to a specific goal and a series of objectives.

  2. The timeline for these actions to take place.

  3. The persons responsible for advancing the work: a. What will be the role of staff? b. What will be the role of board members or volunteers? c. What role, if any, will partner organizations play?

  4. The (approximate) financial cost of these efforts and the anticipated sources of those funds.

  5. A plan for evaluating if this work is on-course to succeed (and if not, the process you’ll use to determine a mid-course correction).

Good strategic plans involve research, deliberation, and strategic thinking.

This isn’t work that can be done in a day with flip charts and markers or a virtual whiteboard. If you are serious about charting a course for your nonprofit, it takes effort. That means that the staff and board will need to do additional work above and beyond their existing commitments. Since that’s not always easy to orchestrate, your first task will be getting everyone on board with the process and timeline.

Strategy doesn’t come from lists or grow on trees. If you want to create a strategic plan that will move the needle for your nonprofit, you’ll need the time and resources to make it happen.



Pat Libby is a change management consultant working principally with nonprofit corporations. She is author of The Empowered Citizens Guide: 10 Steps to Passing a Law that Matters to You, Oxford University Press, The Lobbying Strategy Handbook, second edition, Oxford University Press, and Cases in Nonprofit Management, SAGE. She has served as an academic, senior executive, board member, and consultant to innumerable nonprofit organizations and foundations for more than three decades.

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