When it comes to strategic planning, nonprofits seem to fall into two categories: Fearful and fearless. Fearful organizations limit their vision to the available resources. Fearless organizations begin the process by asking, “What would we do if we didn’t know we couldn’t?”
Strategic plans provide stepping stones for realizing a vision. Thus they are paradoxes: vision requires resources; resources limit vision. The ability to navigate the paradox of strategic planning determines whether or not an organization is fearful or fearless in its planning.
Most importantly, planning is hampered by the limited vision of the people involved. The author Peter Senge writes that people don’t resist change; they resist being changed. Board and staff members may be required to learn new things or to do things differently. If someone is a volunteer, change may be too much work. Also, changing the work of staff is sometimes avoided to make sure popular staff members keep their jobs.
Available financial resources may limit planning. It is helpful to have a neutral person lead the planning process, but the inability to afford such a consultant risks making the discussion focus on the things already in place.
Nevertheless, focusing on the limitations still results in an organization making incremental advances. It will take longer for the organization to fulfill its mission.
A fearless plan, however, presents bold steps forward. It energizes the organization. The new energy will attract new people to it and make it easier to realize the vision of the plan.
Barry VanderKelen is executive director of the The Community Foundation San Luis Obispo County.