“What is the best process to use to create our strategic plan?” “Do we really need a strategic plan?” “We are meeting for four hours to update our strategic plan, what do we need to be sure to include?”  These and similar questions about strategic planning have come up a lot lately. Feelings board members and executive directors express when posing these questions range from dread to bewilderment to steadfastness and, yes, even excitement! It is a big topic with no one right approach.

I think of strategic planning as the process of engaging in asking and answering important questions—questions that enable you as nonprofit leaders to envision, and ultimately realize, a desired future. There are three questions that can encapsulate the process.

1.  “What are the trends, challenges, and/or opportunities that will influence our nonprofit over the next three years?” It is important to know the context in which you are planning. Use whatever time frame works for you but three years is common these days (five years is too far out and one-to-two too short.) As board members and executive directors you need to consider—and perhaps even make some best guesses about—what the future holds for your nonprofit and its mission.

2.  “Given those (trends etc.), if we are very successful in advancing our mission, what results will we achieve in the next three years?” (Or, what will be different?)  Be sure to focus on outcomes—results.  Your answers to this question will create your strategic vision—the picture of success that you all will work to achieve. Be aspirational! Sometimes we want to start with the reality we know—answering: What can we achieve? Instead, think about what William Arthur Ward said: “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it. If you can dream it, you can become it.”

3.  “What results do we as a board (or me as the CEO/ED) need to achieve in this coming year to progress toward realizing our strategic vision?” This question brings you to action. But it is still results-focused. Once you know the short term outcomes you (board member, board, or executive) are committing to achieve, you can work on defining the strategies you will use that fall within your scope of work. Board members note: be clear about the scope of work that is “governing.”

Of course, as we all know, the devil is in the details. But I have found these three questions provide a powerful framework for defining a desired future and making it a reality!

As always, I want to hear your reaction to these ideas—your thoughts and experience. What has worked for you in strategic planning? What are the critical success factors from your point of view?  Please comment below and share your wisdom with us all!