Talk is cheap, implementation is not
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“A mediocre plan well implemented will outperform the most brilliant plan accompanied by mediocre implementation,” say the coauthors of The Nonprofit Business Plan.
The strategic planning process is an exciting time for many nonprofits because of the potential the plan promises. However, the emphasis should be placed on potential. Without the ability to implement a strategic plan, the process is entirely useless. In other words, talk is cheap and implementation is not.
Nonprofit Quarterly’s recent article “1 Year Later: Assessing Your Strategic Plan” by Dennis Miller is an excellent overview of how evaluating a nonprofit’s ability to execute its plan is as important as its ability to conceptualize one. An essential component of implementation, of course, is the operational viability of the plan. For example, Execute Now! is currently involved in providing our clients with three-to-five year projections so they can assess the alignment of financials with their planning.
Historically, strategic planning happened in isolation of the financials. Now organizations and consultants are savvy about economic questions surrounding vision. For example, LaPiana Consulting published The Nonprofit Business Plan: A Leader’s Guide to Creating a Successful Business Model (Fieldstone, 2012) with a focus on financial aspects of strategic and business planning. Specific financial tools are covered in the book as part of the framework for creating a winning business plan.
According to Miller, 60 percent of nonprofit management and staff have difficulty executing the strategies previously agreed upon. Some of the reasons many nonprofits fall into this statistical category are:
-Difficulty managing change
-Poor implementation training
-Conflict of interests
-Silos and political in-fighting
-Lack of communication and reporting
–Disconnect between plan objectives and operational realities
The reason on the list that hits closest to home at Execute Now! is the last one-a disconnect between planning objectives and operational realities. If there’s one liability that is the Achilles Heel for most strategic plans, this is it. Most of these reasons for failure can be corrected along the way but without the proper financial and operational support from the beginning, the strategic plan will most likely join the others that gather dust on the shelf.
Another observation we’ve made at Execute Now! is that most strategic plans lack the essential tactical information about how it will be implemented. Beyond the financials, questions surrounding staff resources, technical infrastructure and professional training are among the missing elements in many plans. Miller recommends five questions to ask when assessing whether a nonprofit is ready to launch its strategic plan:
1. What goals have been achieved to date?
2. What obstacles exist that may prevent further goal achievement?
3. Where has performance expectations lagged behind?
4. What needs to happen before you move forward?
5. Who is resisting change?
Miller recommends having an assessment performed after the first year of your plan’s completion. Either a consultant or another specialist with a fresh perspective can help you answer these questions and more in Miller’s article. In this benchmark assessment, some of the areas for examination include documented records of financial improvements; increased donors and philanthropic dollars; expanded and enhanced programs or services; and indication of strategic affiliations and collaborations.
According to David La Piana and his coauthors, a nonprofit needs a business plan as much as a business does. A good nonprofit plan incorporates the strategic, operational and economic implications of questions and decisions relating to a plan. At Execute Now!, we echo La Piana Consulting’s sentiments. Without financial scenarios and projections to accompany strategic initiatives, the process really turns calculated planning into strategic guessing.
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