The ABCDs of strategic planning: Nonprofits need to assess the big picture

Would you ever play darts blindfolded? Many small businesses, especially nonprofits, are trying to navigate the world without some type of a plan. Currently, I am participating in a global online discussion addressing the question, “Do small nonprofits need to do strategic planning?”

The consensus was that running a small nonprofit without some type of plan will greatly reduce the chances of success.

Strategic planning is an essential expression of the board’s fiduciary duty. For all its challenges, from philosophical conversation to practical issues, strategic planning creates the game plan for shared teamwork by board, staff and other stakeholders. Strategic planning can also be a road map to transform an organization’s ability to meet a specific need.

ABCD: After Breast Cancer Diagnosis is a Milwaukee-based organization recalibrating its work with a strategic five-year plan. Founded by the late Melodie Wilson Oldenburg, ABCD provides a profoundly personal one-to-one support service to people affected by breast cancer and their loved ones. It has transformed the breast cancer experience with a distinct approach to peer support that is genuinely personalized and effectively deploys volunteers.

After Melodie passed away in late 2009, ABCD faced a pivotal question: how to fulfill her vision in a world of changing cancer care. At the time, ABCD’s one-to-one phone and online support and resource services were widely, but not universally, used by breast cancer patients and professionals throughout Wisconsin. New accreditation standards for breast cancer care were to go into effect in 2013. Finally, cloud technology was on the horizon. It could present an opportunity to make even more service possible, but also created a risk to ABCD’s core value and market distinction – genuine, customized support.

Despite ABCD’s history of service, those with access to peer support were still a small fraction of those diagnosed with breast cancer. Accordingly, Executive Director Ginny Finn said when ABCD began the strategic planning process in the summer of 2010, it started with fundamental questions.

  • What do we seek to accomplish and how will we know if we are successful?
  • What is the need we aim to address?
  • What is the input needed?
  • What is the output we get from that input?
  • What is the outcome of that output?
  • What is the impact of that input, output and outcome? Did it address the need?

When involved in strategic planning, nonprofit boards and staff discover their framework, and therefore the story to tell funders and the general public is limited. The need is imprecisely stated or the input underestimated. Most often output is labeled impact.

When involved in strategic planning, nonprofits can explore these distinctions. For example, when asked about impact on the community, a nonprofit often says “We served x number of people.” A school lunch program for needy children can feed 100 children jelly sandwiches or a balanced meal. Either way, 100 children get lunch. The output is the same. The outcomes are quite different. And how that balanced meal is delivered will affect impact. Was the program in place for several years so the nonprofit was able to gauge any improvement in student well-being, or was it active for one year?

Strategic planning launches conversations about these pivotal issues, all of which can be measured. Those measures assure the board, staff, donors and stakeholders have a common understanding of whether the stated need is truly being met and lay out a map of how to get to true impact.

A key comment in the online conversation was, “A strategic plan is not the end of the process; it’s the beginning.” This was certainly true for ABCD. Its strategic plan identified clear goals and objectives and had built-in metrics for the first year. As part of year two of action planning, ABCD had to decide whether those metrics needed fine-tuning. At the plan’s midpoint, the board assessed progress and readjusted as needed.

Another role for strategic plans is to be a group filter – an organizational “litmus test” for how to deal with surprises. For ABCD, the usefulness of a strategic plan in the event of surprise proved especially valuable. Part of ABCD’s plan for growth was to explore collaboration opportunities with a much larger breast cancer support group that provided a menu of well-respected services, but nothing like ABCD’s truly personal peer-to-peer support model. This Chicago-based organization, Y-ME, had a 30-plus-year-old hotline that ABCD believed was a natural complement to its own work. ABCD’s own helpline was modest in size; expanding it rather than collaborating with Y-ME seemed short-sighted. Shortly before ABCD intended to reach out to this organization, Y-ME declared bankruptcy.

ABCD re-assessed whether an expanded helpline really was consistent with its strategic plan and whether running an expanded helpline itself was an acceptable risk. Concluding the answer to both questions was “yes,” ABCD quickly moved forward. Eighteen months later, ABCD’s direct services are up over 100 percent, expanded outreach has increased tenfold and it is participating in national leadership circles. Its cloud-based call center uses trained volunteers living throughout the U.S. Many Wisconsin volunteers go south for the winter and their volunteerism never stops. ABCD has also piloted special services with the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

Because there is clarity of vision, there is much more noticeable progress. Of course, the plan alone didn’t make all of this happen. The plan spoke to stakeholders, who have provided financial support focused on the plan’s long-term goals and who have introduced ABCD to others who can connect the organization with health care professionals in many locations.

ABCD will begin work on its next five-year plan this fall.

Cary Silverstein, MBA, is the president and CEO of SMA LLC and The Negotiating Edge. He leads a group that provides services in the areas of strategic planning, negotiation training and conflict resolution with offices in Fox Point and Scottsdale, Ariz. He can be reached at (414) 403-2942 or at

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