Simple is Best for Strategic Planning

Strategic planning should be rewarding…not a chore. It should leave board members and staff re-energized and re-invested in the essential, life-changing work of your organization. And it should give everyone, particularly the Executive Director, a short-term direction for the next 12 months and a longer-term direction for the next 3 years.

Linked In features many comments on multiple tools for strategic planning including a basic SWOT (Strengths/Weakenesses and Opportunities/Threats) analysis, Lands Growth Curve (S-curve), EOS-Traction, Product-Market Matrix, and Force Field Analysis, etc. These may be exactly the right fit for some organizations. If you’ve never heard of any of these tools other than SWOT, don’t worry. In strategic planning, the issues organizations confront should be complex, not the tools! We don’t want board members and staff feeling stupid (and less likely to participate fully) because they are intimidated by a tool they don’t understand.

For the vast majority of organizations, a simple process is best so that the complexity of the organization’s work can be the focus. I believe strategic planning should focus on the triumvirate of mission, impact, and sustainability. The most important questions are: 1. What is our impact and what does our data teach us? 2. Do we need to course-correct with our mission, or programs and/or services to deliver more powerful impact for our clients & constituents? And, last, how do we guarantee our sustainability (i.e. our ability to guarantee our impact over the long-term)?

The strategic planning process should identify the 3 most important goals for the next 3 years, and break these goals down into the 3 most important action steps that can be taken in the next year. These should be revisited in a brief strategic plan check-in during a half-day retreat each subsequent year of the strategic plan. During this check-in, you will ask 1) Do we need to course-correct on our strategic plan? And 2. Identify the 3 most important goals and action steps for the coming year. This brief annual check-in is essential as course corrections may need to be made depending on a) what you learn as you implement the action steps, b) if things don’t go as planned, or c) if new issues/opportunities/threats have emerged in the past year.

Strategic Plan goals can also be assigned to board committees for discussion, progress check-ins, and review at regularly scheduled meetings so that there are sound issues to bring to the table at the annual check-in retreat. It’s helpful for brief strategic plan updates to be provided both verbally and in writing to the board and staff each month. Yes, each month. Action steps need to be kept in front of both board members and staff for effective implementation to occur.

Strategic Planning: Engage Your Stakeholders!

In conducting Grantwriting Readiness Workshops this fall, I gathered Assessment Data on a variety of issues from 70+ individuals throughout Northwest, North Central, and West Central Minnesota.  These individuals represented small, mid-size, and large organizations ranging from food shelves and senior nutrition programs to tribal health, grantwriting, and planning departments, a tribal homeless shelter, public health departments, a city, a watershed district, community action programs, and Soil & Water Conservation Districts. What was common to many of these organizations, whether nonprofit, tribal, or public agencies, was that only 50{fc6ceb31d80ec6fabac42d0f5acbad593f1794ee702287db734e3a34db1da57f} (or fewer!) included their line staff, clients/constituents, community partners, and funders in their planning process.

The Strategic Planning Group on Linked In has been besieged with questions about strategic planning, how frequently it should be done, whether 3 or 5-year plans are advisable and useful in today’s swiftly changing world, and how to encourage organizations to follow through on their plan’s goals and action steps.  Strategic plans are very helpful for setting organizational direction and creating a plan that can be widely shared so that an organization’s key stakeholders know where it’s headed.  But perhaps the single most important reason to do it is to gather feedback from your stakeholders, especially clients/constituents, line staff, community partners, and funders.  This is a golden opportunity to review impact data and assess satisfaction with your services, partnerships, and funder relationships.  It can even provide opportunities for your major donors to give feedback on what they value most highly about your agency.  As a donor, have you ever had a CEO or Executive Director call you to ask your opinion on the organization and its direction and services?  No?  You’re not alone.  As a client or consumer of medical or other services, you’ve probably received a customer satisfaction survey.  But have you ever been asked to participate in the provider’s strategic planning process?  No?  Again, you’re not alone.  Requesting feedback during strategic planning is a simple way to engage your stakeholders…and let them know that their opinions matter to your organization.

Funders know that your line staff are the reason your clients return for services.  And, they also know that length of participation in services is closely tied to positive outcomes.  This is especially true in communities facing multi-generational poverty and historical trauma such as those we serve in Northwest, North Central, and West Central Minnesota. So, what does it say to funders if your line staff aren’t included in your strategic planning process?  More importantly, what does it say to your staff?  We need to think of our staff as stakeholders, too.  Even though we pay our staff, in mission-driven nonprofits, our staff are also stakeholders.  Treating them like stakeholders improves job satisfaction and morale.  Strategic planning processes that primarily involve executive and senior management and the board aren’t nearly as useful to your organization (nor as interesting to funders) as more widely inclusive processes.  While their voices are important, senior managers and your board are the people in your organization who already make most of the decisions.  Funders want to know that you are taking planning feedback from stakeholders seriously and that you have done all that is possible to include the voices of your clients/constituents, community partners, and others in your planning process.

Luckily, there are tools like Survey Monkey and focus groups that can be used on an almost free basis.  Most people are willing to complete short surveys.  Focus Group facilitation for your clients can sometimes be bartered or exchanged with one of your skilled community partners so that you use a neutral facilitator who doesn’t control client/consumer access to agency benefits and services.  At the staff level, you may want to invest in paid facilitation or use a Survey Monkey tool, which guarantees anonymity.  Regardless of the approach you choose, do include your agency’s stakeholders in your planning process.  It’s hard to course-correct if you’re missing essential stakeholder feedback. And, it’s an incredibly powerful argument to make to a funder when you can state that all stakeholders in your organization provided the feedback that led to the programmatic strategy or initiative you’re asking them to fund.

Do you have a question you’d like to ask but are feeling reluctant to use your limited funds for paid advice? Contact me at with your question, and I’ll consider blogging about it if I can make a meaningful contribution. Or, if it’s a really super question, and other nonprofit and tribal colleagues can also benefit, I may develop a training to address it! Feel free to contact me, it’s free.

Internal Grant Review Panels: Develop Your Staff & Volunteer Capacity

In fall of 2017, l I worked with 70+ participants who attended Grantwriting Readiness Workshops in Bemidji, Crookston, and Detroit Lakes.  One of the most significant “take aways” the vast majority of participants commented on was the Internal Grant Review Panel.  We reviewed a state funder’s scoring criteria as well as a grant review template I provided.  This template can be used internally with a group of staff, volunteers, and community partners to help review, edit, and score grants prior to submission.  There are paid services you can hire to do this, including Rebecca Schueller Training & Consulting.  But, the truth is that for most grants you don’t need to pay for an outside review. Save your money for paid outside reviews for those major state or federal grants that are highly competitive for which you know you can’t afford to lose points.  The internal agency grant review panel represents an opportunity to develop staff and volunteer capacity in your organization. Public and private agencies and tribal organizations have tremendous untapped staff capacity for grantwriting support.  Often grantwriting expertise and responsibilities are concentrated in the hands of a few, most commonly an Executive Director and/or a Resource Development Director. In larger agencies, program directors often take on this role. There are many roles besides the actual writing that go into effective grants, including needs assessment data, internal outcome results and client demographics, partner support letters, gathering current copies of required electronic attachments, and more. Staff are much more invested in helping when they understand the tremendous work that goes into proposals.

We also need to remember that staff and volunteers become good grantwriters in part through the process of reviewing grants and seeing grants reviewed through the eyes of peers and colleagues.  It is a tremendously useful process when it is done well…meaning the process is organized and has a good facilitator (who is not the grantwriter!). It is also an opportunity to expand the knowledge and understanding of your staff and volunteers regarding the amount of work and complex content that goes into grants.  One of the most rewarding comments I read from workshop participants was a young staff member who said, “Now I understand what my supervisor needs when she asks me for help with grants.”  This is why I love this work.

Do you have a question you’d like to ask but are feeling squeamish about using your limited funds for paid advice?  Contact me at with your question, and I’ll consider blogging about it if I think I can make a meaningful contribution.  Or, if it’s a really super question, and other nonprofit and tribal colleagues can also benefit, I may develop a training to address it!  Feel free to contact me, it’s free.

Grant Budgets Brief Q&A

In a recent Grantwriting Readiness Training in Crookston, a participant asked:  “Should the grant budget zero out or should it show a surplus or deficit?”  My reply is that there is a difference between your organizational budget and the budget submitted for a project or program grant.  Propel Nonprofits in the Twin Cities makes the incredibly important point that “Nonprofits need capacity, which includes leadership, infrastructure, and systems.” They note that this requires a surplus in your organizational budget, which becomes an operating reserve at the end of the year.  [Visit for great budget, merger, and other resources] It’s helpful to include a note at the bottom of your organizational budget explaining why you show a surplus and what your agency reserves are used for.  In a program or project budget, I believe it works best to zero out your budget or show a reasonable surplus.  If your surplus is too large, funders will ask why you need their support.  If you show a significant deficit, funders will question whether your organization can implement the project or program without full funding. I always recommend that your program and project grant budgets include full costs for your management and administrative support, as well as occupancy, phone, internet, a share of your audit, liability insurance, and other costs.  If the grant isn’t large enough for you to include these costs, show them as in-kind support from your agency…but do show them.  It’s often more compelling to funders when you can show multiple revenue streams for your proposed program or initiative.  Your agency’s in-kind support counts as a revenue stream.  And, it’s important for funders to understand the true costs of your projects and programs…and for you to understand also!  Seeing true actual costs laid out in your budget can be a great visual reminder.

When you’re feeling stressed over your budget, just remember what another nonprofit colleague said at the Community Resource Connections Networking meeting earlier in December:  “Budgets are like the weather forecast.  They’re a guideline.”

Do you have a question you’d like to ask but are feeling reluctant to use your limited funds for paid advice? Contact me at with your question, and I’ll consider blogging about it if I think I can make a meaningful contribution. Or, if it’s a really super question, and other nonprofit and tribal colleagues can also benefit, I may develop a training to address it! Feel free to contact me, it’s free.