Nonprofit Governance
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The Diligent team
GRC trends and insights

Nonprofit board's role in strategic planning

April 22, 2019
0 min read
A nonprofit board in a strategic planning session.

For nonprofit boards not to have a strategic plan is much like boarding a train or plane without knowing where you’re going to end up. It will be difficult to get much out of the trip when you don’t have the right apparel and materials and haven’t planned well for your time away.

Strategic planning is a major nonprofit board activity. It’s a duty that nonprofit board directors should be careful not to overlook because of busyness or any other reason.

Nonprofit boards generally put much time and attention into formulating their missions. A mission is more than a nice statement to put on the heading of nonprofit literature. It’s a statement of what the organization plans to do. Strategic planning enables nonprofit boards to advance their missions. Nonprofit boards should view their strategic plans as a living document, expressed in writing, that helps the board and others form a vision of what success looks like and what resources they’ll need to be successful.

Strategic planning is a periodic activity. Nonprofit boards should engage in strategic planning at least every three years. Many of them find it helpful to schedule strategic planning sessions every year. There is another important step that nonprofit boards should be careful not to overlook, and that’s regularly monitoring the organization’s progress against the strategic plan and having a plan for accountability.

Importance of Strategic Planning

Strategic planning is a good idea and a viable topic for board development. And, it’s much more than that. The nonprofit board’s role in strategic planning is a responsibility that falls under board fiduciary duties, which is the most important reason not to overlook it or rush through it hastily.

It helps to recall the basic differences between the duties of board members and those of nonprofit managers as boards approach their strategic planning process. Managers are responsible for the day-to-day operations and activities. A nonprofit board of directors is responsible for short- and long-range planning for the organization, as well as oversight of all departments and operations. The duties of nonprofit board members ensure that the nonprofit continues to make progress toward its mission.

A formal strategic plan helps boards determine the most pressing priorities to focus on. Setting priorities signifies what is actually doable and ensures that the board won’t burn itself out trying to do too much all at once. Something that is also of great importance is that donors may ask to see the board’s strategic plan in deciding if or how much they want to invest in the organization, which could net a significant financial payoff.

Six-Step Process for the Nonprofit Board’s Role in Strategic Planning

The nonprofit board’s role in strategic planning can be pretty overwhelming unless you have a plan for how to tackle it. Nonprofit boards can simplify the process by breaking it down into six simple steps:

  1. Review the most recent strategic plan
  2. Complete a SWOT analysis
  3. Develop short-term goals (1–2 years)
  4. Develop long-term goals (3–5 years)
  5. Determine appropriate action steps
  6. Decide on a process for accountability

The first step is to review the previous strategic plan and determine what the board has already accomplished, what hasn’t been accomplished yet, and which things should no longer be considered goals.

The second step is to perform a SWOT analysis; SWOT is an acronym for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. The SWOT analysis should help nonprofit boards understand where they are today and how others see the organization. A SWOT matrix should highlight internal factors, external factors, and any inherent or potential risk factors. Brainstorming among board members will help them recognize new opportunities they may not have thought of and find ways to turn weaknesses into strengths.

Board consultant Joan Garry suggests that nonprofit boards must develop key strategic questions that the organization must answer before it can grow closer to achieving its goals and objectives. Garry recommends devising a formal process for the discussion and carving out enough time to give it due diligence.

Many different organizations and companies use SMART goals. SMART is an acronym for: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-measured. SMART goals are a popular tool because they work! Every goal in your strategic planning process should be measured against this acronym.

The third step in a strategic plan is setting short-term goals that could be accomplished over the next 1–2 years. The fourth step entails setting up goals and objectives that will take 3–5 years to accomplish.

Moving along, the fifth step is for board members to agree on the specific action steps and resources that they’ll need to fulfill the goals and objectives that the board identified in steps three and four. Finally, Step 6 entails defining who will be responsible for taking the action steps and whom the board can hold accountable for making progress.

In conducting the strategic planning process, nonprofit boards must consider the full scope of their operations when making short- and long-term plans. Here’s a partial list of areas to consider to get moving in the right direction:

  • Scope of programs and services
  • Target populations
  • Locations and facilities
  • Strength of the volunteer force
  • Advocacy and public policy
  • Branding and marketing
  • Communications: internal, external, social media, website
  • Resource development
  • Board composition
  • Financial strength

Many nonprofit boards make the mistake of breathing a big sigh of relief after completing the strategic planning process and then filing the plan away without looking at it until the next strategic planning meeting. It’s important for boards to view the strategic plan as a continuous work in progress and to be flexible in changing it to meet the changing needs of the organization due to the fluctuating economy and other factors.

It’s worthwhile to put a little time on each meeting agenda to reviewing the strategic plan and ensuring that the board is on track in meeting its goals.

Tips for Successful Strategic Planning

Allow plenty of time for your strategic planning meeting. It may take an entire day, or you could divide the meeting time into two shorter days. Ask everyone to dress casually and to arrive prepared with lots of questions and ideas. Good sessions will be vigorous, so it helps to have water and light refreshments on hand, or a prepared lunch for an all-day session. Give the group breaks as necessary to help keep them refreshed.

Prepare an agenda for the meeting and share it with participants beforehand. Arrive at the meeting well-prepared with all the necessary tools and materials to make it a productive, successful one. A board management software system is an excellent tool for running all types of board meetings efficiently.

If the budget allows, it’s helpful to hire an outside facilitator. Some boards prefer to do their strategic planning at an annual board retreat, where they can focus on planning without distractions.

The central focus of a nonprofit is its mission. Nonprofit boards are responsible for setting up plans to work toward meeting the goals and objectives that reflect their mission. The nonprofit board’s role in strategic planning is a necessary component of its work, and it’s vital that the board uses every advantage they have to form the best strategic plan possible.


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