The Best Way To Make Sure You Actually Implement Your Strategic Plan

January 8, 2014

Follow Mary Poppins’ Advice…

Is there a strategic plan in the bottom of your desk drawer, taking up space and chastising you every time you look into that dark corner? Don’t be ashamed – you’re not alone. But in the spirit of turning over a new leaf for the new year, here are some tips for translating your strategic plan into actual action that will lead to positive changes at your nonprofit.

1) The Process Predicts Implementation

First things first: the structure of your strategic planning process is a pretty good predictor of whether or not you’ll get good implementation. Was there active participation from both board and staff members? Did you assess the balance between mission and financial effectiveness of each of your programs? Did you investigate challenging and interesting questions about the future of the organization? Were decisions made thoughtfully and vetted by everyone responsible for them? Or was the plan drafted quickly as a summary of a one-day planning retreat? The more thoughtful and engaging your process was, the greater the likelihood that people will jump in and get to work. If you find yourself with a plan that doesn’t have sufficient buy-in to get implementation underway, take some time to review plan decisions and objectives with board and staff, and begin working together on planning how you will implement them.

2) Ask Leaders to Lead

If you’re a Board Chair, Executive Director, Artistic Director, or board officer, and you have a strategic plan that’s in a drawer…ask yourself why! You probably already know the answer, and you’re the person who can change what’s happening for the better. If you’re an organizational leader with a newly-completed plan, push implementation as early as you can. Take on some of this work yourself, and publicly praise others who are trying. Setting the example really matters. You can lead from whatever seat you’re in.

3) Get the Board on Board

A significant portion of the board’s work should be focused on advancing the goals of the strategic plan. For most staffed organizations, this shouldn’t be the granular, every day activity stuff – but board committees and meeting agendas should emphasize strategic planning issues and look for ways to move the organization in the desired direction. If your plan has been adopted but board and committee meetings are just business as usual, you’re missing a big chance to implement plan objectives.

4) Develop an Action Plan…and Use It!

Action plans detail the specific steps you will take to carry out the plan…and they assign someone to be responsible for actually doing them. This kind of accountability is critical to keeping the plan alive. Action plans are usually best developed annually, often by the strategic planning committee (which should include both board and staff members). Sometimes sections of the action plan may be delegated to a staff department or board committee for further detail; it all depends on the structure of your plan. Regardless, the action plan should be reviewed frequently by the staff and at least quarterly by the board in order to ensure that work is progressing.

5) Focus on the Financing

Ideally, part of your planning process included developing a budget that outlined what it will cost to carry out the plan’s initiatives. But if not, you can still go ahead and do this right now. Determine the costs of implementing the plan, and then figure out what you need to do to have that money available when the time comes to get going. For example, it is great to set a planning goal to expand your audiences, but won’t you need to invest more funds in marketing, community relations, and programming to do this? Make sure your annual operating budget, fundraising plan, and earned revenue projections reflect the money you will need to carry out the plan’s priorities. Otherwise, your intentions will be good, but you won’t have the funds to act.

6) What Gets Measured Gets Done

When the board conducts the Executive Director’s annual performance review, progress on the strategic plan should be a major topic. Similarly, when the Executive Director and other supervisors review staff, the plan should be a focus. Staff members who are working hard at advancing the plan should be acknowledged and rewarded; those who are not should be questioned and offered help in getting plan implementation underway. “I’m too busy,” can’t be an excuse here – because even though it’s likely true, that staff member is probably too busy doing the wrong things. Help them re-focus their work in the direction of the strategic plan.

7) And Finally…Take Mary Poppins’ Wisdom: Well Begun Is Half Done

How you act at the start of plan implementation is critical. Sometimes planning processes can be so intense and time consuming that we’re just glad when they’re over! But the end is really the beginning. Look for some “easy wins” that can be implemented right away, and celebrate this success (spoonful of sugar, anyone?). Assign first quarter priorities, and check in with all leaders after six weeks to see how things are progressing. Create the organizational habit of implementing the plan, and soon it will seem like second nature for everyone to keep their plans on their desks so they can refer to them often.

As you make your New Year’s resolutions for 2014, resolve not to let the work you did on your strategic plan go to waste! Placing your strategic priorities at the center of the organization’s daily life will only make your nonprofit more successful – and a more engaging place to work and volunteer!

Allison Trimarco is the Principal of Creative Capacity, LLC, a consulting firm that specializes in building nonprofit organizational capacity. She is also an affiliated consultant and trainer with The Nonprofit Center at La Salle University.

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