By Sharon Tiknis, Executive Vice President & East Division Manager
and Lieve Buzard, Senior Client Service Associate at The Alford Group

It’s Tuesday morning at 10 a.m., and your inbox already has too many unread e-mails to count. Sifting through meeting appointments and time-sensitive requests, the phone rings with a request from a donor. Before you can return to e-mail, it’s time for a staff meeting.

Sound familiar? This time of year many of us are knee-deep in work and trying to be as efficient as possible to keep up with demands. If you find your workdays driven by the tyranny of urgent requests and tasks, your organization may be missing a critical tool for success: a strategic plan.

A strategic plan is a living, breathing document that shows the progress being made on your organization’s over-arching objectives at any point in time and the necessary steps for continued success. Your strategic plan should act like a compass for effective decision-making to realize your strategic objectives.

Strategic planning is a gift for Boards of Directors and staff members – a time to renew and refresh vision for the many challenges and opportunities in the future.

You might be wondering, what scenarios could unfold in the course of planning for the next year and beyond? We have a few examples to share –

  • Someone on your organization’s Board of Directors may have a big hairy audacious goal for future growth and impact.
  • You may be facing a cash flow crisis that requires tough trade-offs and strategic pivots.
  • You may find strategic discussion running in circles from a lack of cohesion between staff and board leadership and your organization’s roles in the community.

Without a clear vision or strategic objective, it will be difficult to generate volunteer and staff enthusiasm and energy for the work necessary for future success.

So how can you supercharge your work through strategic planning? Whether you’re a Board member, a Director of Development or a CEO, here are five strategies for you and your team to leverage strategic planning for increased clarity, impact and success.

Hear what Bradley Hurlburt, President & CEO of the Community Foundation for Palm Beach and Martin Counties, has to say about the impact of Strategic Planning.


When reflecting on the past, we are prone to dwell disproportionately on what went wrong and missed opportunities. This cognitive effect is called the negativity bias. The negativity bias skews our focus to direct more attention on past mistakes than past successes.

How can your organization overcome the negativity bias? The simplest way is to take time to celebrate what went well. Dedicate discussion to recognizing how much was accomplished last year. This exercise boosts morale among staff and board members – and we bet you’ll be pleasantly surprised with just how much your hard work accomplished in the past year.

Learn from the Past

With the start of 2020 comes the start of a new decade. This the perfect time to reflect on where your organization has been.

Try this exercise with your Board of Directors: first create a list of milestone accomplishments from the last three years; then create a list of lessons learned from the last three years. It’s important to ground strategic planning in your organization’s history as a leader in your community.

“Maybe history wouldn’t have to repeat itself if we listened once in a while.”
― Wynne McLaughlin

If you have longstanding board members, now is the time to thank the people whose hard work, dedication and perseverance have led to the flourishing of your organization and everyone you serve.

Envision the Future

Without a long-term vision for the horizon of your organization’s future, planning annual strategy is a murky process. There is immense potential in harnessing the power of a shared organizational vision to grow and strengthen your organization’s impact.

Creating a long-term vision galvanizes volunteers and staff alike to work together towards a common purpose, improving engagement and productivity. According to the Harvard Business Review, “7% of employees today fully understand their company’s business strategies and what’s expected of them in order to help achieve company goals.”1

What’s the optimal timeframe for creating your organization’s vision? Most nonprofits are responding to social and technological innovations that influence how they operate and who they serve. To balance flexibility with long-term visioning, The Alford Group usually recommends a three-year strategic plan. A three-year vision sets a steady course for most organizations while providing the flexibility needed to adapt to a rapidly changing operating environment.

Use Your Strategic Plan and Progress Indicators

Here at The Alford Group, we strongly believe in the value of planning ahead. Strategic planning is an invaluable exercise for articulating your vision and mission, identifying opportunities and challenges for growth, and developing the goals, strategies and action steps necessary to take your organization to the next level.

If you have a strategic plan, it should function as a comprehensive roadmap for your organization’s objectives – ranked in order of importance. Like a scorecard, it’s important to use your strategic plan to evaluate successes and failures from prior years and identify opportunities and threats for 2020 and beyond.

If your organization does not have a strategic plan, you can still apply principles that underlie the strategic planning process in order to make effective decisions for 2020.

Access The Alford Group’s Key Principles in Effective Not-for-Profit Strategic Planning.

The strategic planning process is most meaningful when it involves input from key stakeholders and generative thinking. Putting a strategic plan in place helps to solidify the coming year’s initiatives because there has been previous buy-in from staff and volunteer leaders into the shared vision for your organization’s success.

Year-to-year progress indicators form the backbone of a solid strategic plan. Tracking progress should help you to determine which objectives need attention and allow you to strategically pivot tactics and priorities as necessary. If your strategic plan does not have clear progress indicators, now is the time to create test goals. Test goals for your strategic objectives will equip you with measurements to see how you have moved the needle or where you need additional support. Such measurements provide the foundation for objective reporting back to your Board of Directors.

Are you preparing for the Strategic Planning process?

Access The Alford Group’s list of Best Practices for Strategic Planning.

Evaluate Strategic Priorities

Whether or not your organization has a strategic plan in place, the new year provides an opportunity to create consensus and clarity around your organization’s goals for the future. Set the stage for crucial conversations by creating a safe space in which every member of your development group can express their opinion and listen respectfully. Different staff and volunteer roles bring varied perspectives to strategic decision-making, ensuring that group conversations are focused, productive and thorough.

Here are a few ways to prepare best for new year planning, depending on your role and responsibilities:

For all staff and Board members:

As a staff or board member, you play a vital role in shaping the future of your organization. Work together with your peers and colleagues to find consensus and common ground around your shared vision for the future.

When evaluating new priorities for the year ahead, ask yourself…

  • Do we have a business plan for this expansion or idea for growth?
  • Which donors do we believe would be willing to increase their giving or start giving to us for this distinct project?
  • How does this new initiative align with our longer-term strategic direction?
  • Does this project advance our mission? Is this mission-critical or mission-optional?

For the Chief Development Officer/Director of Development:

As the leader of your Development program, your role is to work closely with colleagues in program areas and finance in order to better understand the need, urgency, staffing and business plan for emerging organizational priorities in the new year.

When evaluating new priorities, ask yourself…

  • What would be different in the community if this program were not launched or expanded?
  • How can you best communicate why your organization is uniquely qualified to do this work?
  • What about this project resonates with donors? What enthuses your donors to give and get involved?
  • What confused your donors with the launch of prior initiatives? What cultivation or engagement efforts did and did not gain traction?



For the Chair of the Board of Directors:

As the Board Chair, your role is to ensure the long-term success and sustainability of your organization. When the CEO or Executive Director presents initiatives for the upcoming year, you should evaluate how these new initiatives fit into the organization’s long-term direction and vision for impact.

When evaluating new priorities for the year ahead, ask yourself…

  • How is your organization uniquely qualified to execute the proposed strategic work?
  • How will the organization sustain and evaluate the success of a new initiative?
  • Is there a strong, captivating mission and vision underlying the proposed strategic work? How does it fulfill the organization’s mission?

For the President, Executive Director or CEO:

As the head of your organization, staff and volunteer leadership look to you to cast the collective vision for your organization’s mission and future role in the community.

When evaluating new priorities for the year ahead, ask yourself…

  • What worked in the past year? What did not work as well as you had planned?
  • What resources do you need to improve efficiency and impact in the year ahead?
  • Did your organization achieve its progress indicators? If there are understandable reasons why you fell short on some progress indicators, consider how to re-frame or realign your plan with more realistic progress indicators for 2020 and beyond.
  • Is there a clear priority for the year ahead? The power of choosing a singularly important priority is that it builds consensus and directs vision to generate momentum and clarity on the path ahead. The more strategic priorities you have, the more muddled your organization’s direction. If there’s overlap in your priorities, ask the planning group to force rank potential objectives and strategies. This exercise creates alignment around resource allocation and focuses the energies of your team.

On behalf of The Alford Group, we wish you success as you plan for the year ahead and a productive, impactful strategic plan. Thank you for all that you do to serve your community and shape the collective impact of the nonprofit sector!

About The Alford Group

The Alford Group is a national firm focusing on empowering mission-based organizations with a full range of consultative services from strategic planning to campaign planning. The Alford Group partners with clients to incorporate their institutional knowledge with our sector-wide best practices to achieve transformational change. To learn more about our services and our team, please visit our services and staff pages.