In Defense of Strategic Planning: A Rebuttal

Mike Allison is one of the leaders who defined strategic planning for the nonprofit sector, and he continues to expand and develop his thinking and practice in the area. We're delighted to have his rebuttal to the article in the last issue of Blue Avocado, Strategic Planning: Failures & Alternatives:

I am an unapologetic advocate of traditional strategic planning.

I have to admit I am not a disinterested party in this debate. As a consultant with nonprofits for the last twenty years, much of my work has been done under the umbrella of strategic planning. I continue to do this work because I believe strategic planning is both necessary and provides a unique contribution to nonprofit organization effectiveness. In this piece and from this perspective, I respond to some of the major complaints about strategic planning that were outlined in Blue Avocado's critique.

Strategic planning is made irrelevant by major shifts in the environment.
Funding was cut for some of my clients by 20% to 40% in 2009. In the cases where these clients had recently completed strategic plans, they had frameworks that were incredibly helpful in making a series of very difficult decisions in a short period of time. Why were these frameworks so helpful? Because they had clarity about their most important priorities and values. In some cases it accelerated planned actions, such as closing a program or organization restructuring facilitated by laying off unproductive staff. In other cases it just helped in making painful decisions that, if resources had remained constant, they would much preferred not to have made.

Strategic planning is pushed by expensive consultants.
My neighbor Sean is a plumber. He is a very good plumber and has never let me down. I have hired bad plumbers and know what that's like. He is "expensive" in that he charges more than many other plumbers, and certainly more expensive than the out-of-pocket cost of doing it myself. But when I think about the cost in time and money, let alone the hassle and frustration of the job being done wrong (which is often the case when I do it myself), I find that Sean is a very good value.

"Expensive" is a relative term. What defines an "expensive consultant"? Even spending a few months poorly is a very expensive undertaking when one thinks about how scarce the major resource of most organizations is: the time of staff and board members. Alternatively, developing a clear strategic plan that has board and staff energized and focused can help people move mountains.

Strategic planning takes a long time.
I have done strategic planning work with a dozen organizations in the past two years. The cost ranged from $3,600 (where I coached a very sophisticated executive director) to over $60,000 where a great deal of research was required and an unusual amount of stakeholder engagement was desired. The time required ranged from a few months to almost two years. The $3,600 project took 18 months -- in large part because the plan was built around a very large capital campaign and needed a very high level of support from many, many key constituents before the plan could be "approved." The time it takes to do strategic planning is highly flexible and should be determined by the needs of the organization.

Strategic planning is too often driven by funders.
The role of funders in trying to support improvements in organizational effectiveness is hotly debated. The reason I believe many funders often ask for (and occasionally insist on) a strategic plan is entirely understandable: they want to know what an organization is trying to do and how it plans to do it. They also want to know that the leadership of an organization is intentional about its work and have taken the trouble to engage its constituencies meaningfully in the broader vision and strategy. A plan in this case is a proxy. (And, if an organization does not have a strategic plan document, but is truly clear about its priorities, strategies, resources, governance, etc., a document can be produced in a matter of days.)

Furthermore, most foundations, including the one funded by two of the richest people in the world (Gates Foundation) take their own medicine. The Gates Foundation requires a highly structured five-year strategic planning cycle for all of its internal program areas. These plans are fine-tuned annually and given a "refresh" at three years to make mid-course corrections. At five years, they begin again with a thorough rethinking of their approach.

Closer to home, the Marin Community Foundation posts on its website very easy-to-understand logic models for each of its major initiatives. Several of my clients have found MCF's website to be helpful to their own planning and understanding of how well their programs might fit with the foundation's goals and strategies.

Strategic planning is often used for the wrong purpose.
Jan [Masaoka] writes that strategic planning is used for inappropriate purposes (to deflect criticism, to satisfy funders, to address non-strategic organizational issues including executive performance, racial tension, etc.). I agree that this happens. And I agree that using strategic planning for inappropriate purposes is at best a waste of time and at worst very counterproductive.

But I disagree that this is a problem with strategic planning, as opposed to a problem with the people making the choice to use the process this way. Using a hammer is a good choice to do several things: drive nails, remove nails, pound something into place, and even, as my wife does, tenderize chicken. A hammer can also create a great deal of damage. Does the fact that I have seen people use hammers in the wrong situation make me blame the hammer? Hardly. So why would I blame the management tool strategic planning for being used inexpertly or in the wrong circumstances?

Strategic planning does not pay enough attention to funding and finances.
I heard that a full 33% of people who buy the personal financial management software program Quicken never open the box and a third rarely use it after purchase. Another third of Quicken purchasers are largely quite satisfied and report that it indeed helps them organize their financial information and make better financial decisions. One of the keys to sound strategic plans is that they address where financial resources will come from and how they will be allocated. Again, the fact that some people use a tool inexpertly is not a reflection on the tool: if an organization "buys" a strategic planning process and doesn't open the financial management "module," the organization has either done itself a disservice or received bad assistance.

Strategic planning is done so frequently because having a strategy and developing plans to make explicit what an organization's goals are, and how those goals are to be achieved, is a requirement of good management.

Now I know that the National Rifle Association (NRA) says that guns don't kill people, people do. I suppose I could be accused of saying: "Strategic planning doesn't waste a lot of time and money, people do." Unless we decide to license the use of strategic planning, we are going to have to trust nonprofit leaders to make good decisions about when to use the strategic planning tool and to find the help they need to do it well. Fortunately, we also have resources like Blue Avocodo to warn people of the dangers of carrying a loaded strategic planning process: it could get into the wrong hands!

Mike Allison worked with Jan Masaoka for 15 years as the Director of Consulting and Research at CompassPoint Nonprofit Services. With Jude Kaye he co-authored Strategic Planning for Nonprofit Organizations, 2nd Edition, which continues to be a bestseller for publisher John Wiley & Sons. He is now an independent nonprofit management consultant based in Oakland, California, who has found to his great surprise that strategic planning seldom comes in handy living with two teenage daughters. He can be reached at Mike at MAconsulting.com or through his website.

See also in Blue Avocado:

Comments (15)

  • Hear! Hear! Strategic planning can certainly be poorly done - but that can't be an excuse for not doing it. The trick is figuring out how to do it well.

    Mar 15, 2011
  • I might have a different view on Strategic Planning: First, hiring an "expensive" consultant to do a plan, dooms it to failure from the beginning. The plan becomes the "Consultant's plan.' Second, the strategic plan, no matter how good, is totally worthless unless it gets implemented. Third, many organizations fail to devote the proper time to thinking and planning...for example..."Cecil, can we do a plan over lunch?" [see: 'that's why folks hire consultants'] Forth, a strategic plan is all about THINKING and charting a course for the future the organiation envisions. Every organization and yes every family, needs a strategic plan to fulfill their own vision of the future they want Cecil Carter.

    Mar 15, 2011
  • I never cease to be amazed/mortified/confused as to how many seemingly intelligent nonprofit management staff and/or board fail to see the value of Strategic Planning. How can you get anywhere if you don't know where you're going or how you plan to travel?

    Mar 15, 2011
  • Michelle - I wholeheartedly agree with your comment as well as the "Rebuttal." It's hard to know if you're getting off-course if you don't have a destination.

    Nov 17, 2016
  • Anonymous

    After reading the 2-part series, and the rebuttal, I want to say thank you. The authors covered a lot of ground (and quickly), and remind me of what to anticipate, value/benefits and pitfalls, as my organization begins its process for strategic planning.

    For me, strategic planning, works to get everyone on the same page, and benchmarks progress to evaluate the E.D./CEO and the management team. It helps communicate to staff, constituents, funders/donors and the public who we are and what we want to accomplish. (TOCs are great for how.) The challenge isn't always whether it's the right tool, it's the execution of the strategic plan and the impact on the viability of the organization that's at stake... Part 3?

    Mar 15, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Well said Mike! Strategic Planning has been a part of almost all my nonprofit consultiing experiences--the concept of a goal, objectives and strategies works as much for whole organization as it does for one of its programs, or for a new fund development plan. Even did it as an elementary teacher in CA way back in the early 70's! Once had a participant in one of my (early) "Management by Objectives" training courses around Volunteer Management ask me, "So, do you consider the "MBO method" in everything you do?" After laughing...(pshaw!)--I had to admit, I do! Whether a dinner party, working with my kids on which college to choose, starting a new consulting business---I do, I do!
    Anne

    Mar 15, 2011
  • I agree with Cecil in that I don't "do" anyone's strategic plan. My job as a consultant is to help construct a process that will help the board and staff of a nonprofit create a strategic plan. I know a lot about strategic planning and a lot about nonprofit management but I am not a decision maker. I give input and challenge people to make clear and compelling decisions. I've never seen a plan that people were really committed to not get implemented.

    Mar 15, 2011
  • Hi Mike, I was glad to see your rebuttle. I couldn't figure out how I knew your name until I saw the picture of the book. I purchased this book and used it as a guide to work with my Board to develop our first strategic plan. I should mention that they had undertaken strategic planning many times before - on their own, with a consultant and with students, but never actually developed the plan or didn't implement what was developed. Your book was a great resource and the worksheets were simple and effective. Our strategic plan is in year 4 of 5 and we've achieved 80% of our performance indicators so far. I'm looking forward to our next strategic planning cycle. Lori Prospero Executive Director Owl Child Care Services Kitchener, Ontario

    Mar 16, 2011
  • Thank you so much Lori for your kind words. Jude and I continue to take great satisfaction from hearing that the book has been helpful to people. And congratulations on the accomplishments you set out to achieve in your plan!

    Mar 18, 2011
  • Mike,
    You make great points. Strategic planning that is done well and addresses key strategic issues an organization faces can be very beneficial. Unfortunately over time strategic planning has been co-opted by formulaic processes that start at the beginning with mission and vision regardless of whether those are the strategic issues or not. I think the first article was correct in that many see planning as a tool of avoiding challenging decisions rather than making them and, all too often, consultants aid and abet that process.

    We need to step back and encourage consultants, board members and funders alike to understand a strategic plan not as something generic, that happens periodically. It, and the process that delivers a usable plan, needs to be specific to the organization and its strategic issues. If a strategy is working, it may go on much longer than three to five years (with new goals, perhaps) and a plan with no attention to revenue strategies is a dream, not a plan. We also need to recognize that strategic decisions get made every day - not just in a planning process and we should help leaders be prepared for the challenges and opportunities they face that may not be in the plan.

    You're correct that perhaps planning isn't the problem, it is how people use it. It is our collective job to change the culture around it - among all parties. Here's to that challenge -

    Steve Zimmerman
    Spectrum Nonprofit Services

    Mar 16, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Both Jan and Mike are right in some ways. While the strategic planning process is often highly flawed, so is the reality that way too many nonprofits have no real strategic clarity behind what they do. If "doing a strategic plan" at least causes Boards and ED's to pretend to have a meaningful talk about strategy, then more power to the process. There are some organizations that are run by true strategic thinkers, and they operate from a perspective of strategic clarity whether or not they go through the formal planning process. The rest should do the work--but keep it simple, and don't get hung up on the small stuff.

    Mar 17, 2011
  • The comment above "I agree with Cecil..." is also from me - I'm not sure what step I missed to have it labeled Anonymous. A few comments about "implementation." I think there are two issues here. The first is that if a strategic planning process (or any other vehicle for that matter) genuinely builds commitment to a shared vision, then that is what people spend their time and energy on - whether or not they ever look at the plan again (yes even if it is stored on the proverbial shelf). In my opinion this is success, and implementation is in the doing, not the monitoring of the plan. The second point goes to discipline in execution. Plans that lay out fairly specific courses of action (which I almost always find helpful) do require regular attention to the plan itself - this is about management discipline. I most often find that if a strategic plan "isn't being implemented" that no other "plans" including the plan in the language of numbers (aka the budget) are being used to guide day to day work in a proactive way. Finally, as a consultant I find it helpful when the big ideas that emerge in a planning process begin to be put into action even before the formal plan is adopted. For one thing this means that the big ideas have legs - they are relevant and actionable. The other reason this is helpful has to do with managing implementation. It provides an opportunity to reflect with the group on how it puts ideas into action, what level of plans are most helpful, how intra-organization coordination takes place and how external communications are managed.

    Mar 18, 2011
  • Can we do better in expressing the value of strategic planning and proactively making an argument for its continuing use? Here's my attempt:
    To me, planning is a process where a group of people come together to set priorities and align their efforts. This confluence and reconciliation of many ideas and perspectives is the heart and soul of strategic planning. Like geese flying in formation, we are able to travel further, faster through this alignment. The outcome is not only a written plan, but a sense of unity and renewed commitment among board members, staff members and other constituents.
    The planning process asks us to articulate more precisely what impact we hope to have, and debate the best means to achieve our desired end. A good planning process surfaces and tests assumptions and challenges us to articulate our theory of change, what success really looks like, and how to determine whether we have achieved it. Well-intentioned efforts that do not produce results can be discontinued, and new approaches considered. In this way we maximize community benefit.
    It is true that we now operate in a very dynamic environment, and that rigid, prescriptive plans are not helpful. The modern strategic plan is flexible and adaptable, providing a strategic framework but allowing for consideration of emerging opportunities and evasive action when new challenges arise. It provides management guidance but does not foreclose leadership action. It is an affirmation of who we are and what we stand for that confirms our work and invites others to join us.

    Mar 21, 2011
  • Well said Laura! --Mike Allison

    Mar 22, 2011
  • Anonymous

    I appreciate your response, Mike, as well as your comments, Laura. I recently was ED for an organization where the board wanted me to draft a strategic plan (in 3 days!) and then responded, "Great plan. No comment." As I tried and tried to lead discussion on the plan or spark some interest in it, I realized how little energy the board really had for the organization. As Laura said, strategic planning is a "process where a group of people come together to set priorities and align their efforts." For me, if people are not interested in coming together to align their efforts, there is no point in an organization. The people may be doing good work, but they are not uniting to be able "fly faster, farther." It was a major red flag for me, one of several that led me to resign.

    Mar 24, 2011

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