The Sixth Deadly Sin of Nonprofit Strategy: No Annual Review

July 7, 2014

Guest Blog by Rob Sheehan, Principal of Sheehan Nonprofit Consulting and Associate Member of Maryland Nonprofits

Read the original blog here. 

A major complaint about strategic planning is that it is not worthwhile because no one can predict the future—so why try to set a five year strategy? People who think this way don’t understand strategy correctly.

A strategy should not attempt to tell you specifically what you will “do” during the second week of the tenth month of the third year of the strategy time frame. That would be kind of goofy, right?  And yet, when some people hear “strategic plan,” that’s what they think.

As I said in my last blog “a strategy is a general explanation of how you are going to guide your organization’s performance into the future—from here to there. It includes ‘themes’ the organization is going to follow, not exact detailed plans.”

But this explanation is based on certain assumptions you make. And the strategy is also based on your understanding of your internal and external environments—as captured in your SWOTs (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats). Therefore, an organization needs to regularly monitor its assumptions and its SWOTs for significant changes. This needs to happen at least annually in a formal way.  And senior leaders in organizations need to be thinking about these things on a regular basis.

What if assumptions prove to be incorrect or the SWOTs change significantly? Call a time out! It is unlikely that there have been enough changes in the environment that you need to totally revisit your mission and vision. You may need to adjust some of your goals. But then you should rework your SWOTs to see if the strategy you had set still works. If not, then make a new strategy! A strategy is not set in stone.

The other thing to check regularly is your performance on your mission metrics. If your strategy is not providing you with improved results, then—once again—call a time out. Re-examine what you are doing. If you think that you have given the strategy enough of a chance and it is not working, then you need a new strategy.

My favorite story about this is when I was doing some research on Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The group I was studying was very clear on their metrics—they were (and are) committed to reducing the number of deaths from drunk driving crashes. They had a strategy in place and they were following it.  But after two years the results were not what they wanted. “What did you do?” I asked. “We called a ‘time out’ and got everyone together to make a new strategy. If the drunk driving death numbers are not going down as fast as we want then we need a new strategy.” Indeed, if the strategy is not producing results then you need a new strategy. These MADD leaders adjusted their strategy and the numbers started going down faster. Of course an organization can only do this if it has done the hard work necessary to design those mission metrics.

No one can see into the future when developing a strategy. And we don’t have to. All we can do is make certain assumptions that we check regularly.

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