Strategic Planning is not a Compound Word by Rebekah Basinger

At a recent gathering of ministry CEOs and board members, eight of the nine organizations were identified as having just completed or in the process of developing a strategic plan. In truth, there wasn’t much that was innovative, risky, or out of the ordinary in what was reported. And to be fair, those organizational leaders are not alone in talking as though every plan is strategic and every strategy a plan.

You have to listen closely when nonprofit folks talk to hear the pause between “strategic” and “planning.” The two words have become one in most minds. “We plan therefore we are strategic” is the mantra of our day.

But not so fast, states nonprofit CEO John Anner in an article on planning from the Summer 2014 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review. As he sees it,

most strategic plans generated by nonprofits could easily leave off the word strategic, as they simply outline a particular use of resources to achieve a given set of goals. They corroborate an existing way of doing things, even when they involve an aspiration to do those things better and on a bigger scale.

In other words, a gussied up version of the same-old, same-old doesn’t qualify as strategic. That would be something else. Unless your plans involve risk and organizational disruption or if you can do it all with existing competencies, Anner suggests you drop the adjective.

To which I add, but stick to your commitment to planning.

Not every organization is ready, able, or required to shoot for the moon with each new planning cycle. And that’s okay. There’s no shame in seeking to solidify core programs, shore up the budget, and develop a sustainable business plan before launching out in new directions. Committing to doing better what’s already being done is a BHAG for many small to mid-size nonprofits.

Just don’t use the word “strategic.” Yet.

In the short-term – one planning cycle, say – it’s okay to put asunder what the nonprofit sector has joined together. By focusing first on foundational issues, a few years hence conditions should be right to add strategic to the planning process.

Rebekah Basinger has had a successful career in fundraising and board education.  She is a co-author of Growing Givers’ Hearts. For more information about Rebekah, go to

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