Strategic Planning

Charting Your Organization’s Course

As you set out on a river paddling trip, how do you know which path to take? Where do you launch your boat, stop for rests, or turn down a tributary? Water trail maps help you to make these decisions. A strategic plan is the water trail map for your organization. Developing a strategic plan encourages your organization to evaluate where it is and create a vision for where it’s headed, while also considering external factors that may influence your work. The plan itself tells you how to get from the present to the vision, from your boat launch point to your take-out point. It is a tool to energize and unify your board and staff, open up the channels of communication, encourage creativity in thinking and strategizing, improve your competitive position by demonstrating to funders that you are evaluating your organization, and enhance accountability and demonstrate results.

Getting Started

Before embarking on your strategic planning journey, you must first decide if your organization is ready to for the planning process. In order to move forward with a plan, you need to have a clear and realistic understanding of where your organization is right now. You also need support from your board, and executive director if you have one, for a planning initiative. Some key times to undergo strategic planning efforts are when your organization first forms, when there is a change in leadership, and in preparation for new ventures.

Strategic plans are best developed by board and staff members, but clients, partner organizations, funders, and possibly even former board or staff members, can provide valuable insight and may be asked to participate. You may not need your entire board and staff involved, but be sure to identify who the key players are, involve them in the planning process from the start, and ensure that each person’s role is clear.

The main elements included in most strategic plans are:

  • Mission – why your organization exists, purpose for which it was established.
  • Vision – where your organization hopes to be after plan implementation.
  • Values – the core beliefs that guide organizational strategies and decision making.
  • Strategic issues and direction– the priority topics or issues.
  • Goals – what your organization wants to accomplish, both programmatically and organizationally, in order to address the strategic issues identified.
  • Strategies – specific actions to be taken that will lead to goal fulfillment.
  • Performance measurements – indicators that you are achieving your overall strategic objectives. These can be numerical targets, milestones or other relevant benchmarks.
  • Implementation and evaluation plan – how the strategies will be carried out, who will take on each strategy, deadlines for the strategies, and a schedule and mechanism for evaluating progress.

Once the plan has been developed and approved by your board, your group is ready to set sail on a journey to implement the plan. There are many ways to implement your plan. Consider where in your organization’s work this can happen. You can break down the broader steps of the strategic plan into annual work plans/action plans for your programs and organizational functions. The broader actions are your water trail map: launch your boat here, turn left at this tributary. The work plan shows your specific paddling strokes along the way. Here are some of the most common steps towards implementation:

  • Distribute the plan to your board and staff, including new board members and staff as they join your organization, and review it with everyone who will be implementing it.
  • Revisit and review the plan on a regular basis at board and staff meetings.
  • Designate a specific person or committee to monitor the implementation of the plan.
  • Use the plan as a basis for job descriptions and performance reviews.
  • Link budgets and grant proposals to the plan.
  • Post the implementation plan in a visible place for all to see, and update it regularly.
  • Evaluate progress made by both individual programs and the organization as a whole.

Resources You Will Needresources

There are a variety of resources you will need in order to develop, implement, and evaluate your strategic plan. While each organization’s needs vary, here are some suggested resources to consider before setting out on your journey:

  • People! The individual people will vary, but consider a strategic planning committee, board and staff members, a consultant, and other stakeholders.
  • Time. The amount of time invested will vary depending on the nature of the plan, ability to reach consensus, etc.
  • Support. You will need support and investment from your board, executive director, and all those responsible for implementing the plan.
  • Knowledge. An understanding of both internal and external factors impacting your organization is important.
  • Paper and pen (or computer). The plan should be written down, not just in your head, and should be available to those responsible for implementing, evaluating, and revising it.
  • Funds. If you are an all volunteer group whose members have the experience needed to do strategic planning, there will be less of an investment of funds; the main cost would come from printing the plan. Staffed groups will also need to account for their staff time. However, if you feel you need to hire a consultant or facilitator, the amount of funds required will increase.

There are many funding opportunities for strategic planning work, and additional resources that can help you identify funding sources.

  • The Watershed Institute has a searchable funder database on its website. Additionally, The Watershed Institute Grant Program provides capacity building funds to watershed groups.
  • The Foundation Center allows you obtain contact information and 990’s for specific funders. They also have an online foundation directory available to members.
  • GrantStation has a searchable funder database available to members.

Helpful Hints

helpful_hint Plans should allow for flexibility. If you’re paddling down the river and there’s a fallen tree in your path, you would need to look for a way around it in order to reach your take-out point. External conditions, those over which you have no control, such as economics and politics, influence the strategies you can take. If you come up against a fallen tree in your path, revisit your plan. Are the goals still realistic? If not, revise them. If so, maybe the strategies need revision.

Ensure that all of the work you do brings you back to your mission and strategic plan by referring to the plan as you write grant proposals. This will guarantee that you do not completely deviate from your plan simply because a funding opportunity comes along.

Be sure to celebrate! Each time you evaluate plan implementation, acknowledge your achievements and reward and communicate progress. This will help keep your board and staff engaged in, and enthusiastic about, plan implementation.

Further Resources
Online Resources

  • CompassPoint Nonprofit Services. A consulting, research, and training organization providing nonprofits with management tools, strategies, and resources to lead change in their communities.
  • Institute for Conservation Leadership.Includes a resource center with links and articles on nonprofit assistance. Also provides a variety of programs, workshops, and training opportunities.
  • River Network. Offers a resource library containing a wealth of information on various topics, including strategic planning.
  • The Watershed Institute. Provides tailored advice to NJ watershed groups, free of charge. Also administers a small grant program for which strategic planning efforts are eligible. Various resources, including a searchable funding directory, are available on the website as well.


  • Field Guide to Nonprofit Strategic Planning and Facilitation by Carter McNamara from Authenticity Consulting, LLC. 2007
  • Presenting Strategic Planning: Choosing the Right Method for Your Nonprofit Organization by Michela M. Perrone and Janis Johnson from BoardSource. 2005
  • Strategic Planning for Nonprofit Organizations: A Practical Guide and Workbook by Michael Allison and Jude Kay from Support Center for Nonprofit Management. 1997
  • Strategic Planning Workbook for Nonprofit Organizations by Bryan W. Barry. 1997
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