Strategic Planning: Using a “Real-Time” Approach to Guide Your Future

As we move toward a post-COVID-19 economy, it’s a great time to do some strategic planning. And the way nonprofits go about strategic planning may be ready for an update as well. By adopting a more fluid and ongoing approach known as “real-time strategic planning” (RTSP), nonprofits can quickly and efficiently identify, understand and act on challenges and opportunities to advance their missions.

Traditional planning

Under an old-school approach to strategic planning, nonprofits can spend months — or even years — to develop formal written plans that lay out specific goals for set periods of time. And those plans can have a downside.

Traditional strategic planning requires leaders to confront a future they can only guess at. Moreover, choosing a strategy under this approach requires an organization to explicitly shut down other options and possibilities.

4 building blocks

RTSP was first introduced in nonprofit consultant David La Piana’s book The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution: Real-Time Strategic Planning in a Rapid-Response World. According to La Piana, RTSP is “a coordinated set of actions designed to create and sustain a competitive advantage in achieving a nonprofit’s mission.” A successful nonprofit plan requires three levels of strategy: organizational, programmatic and operational, using the following four building blocks of strategy formation:

1. Identity. RTSP is rooted in a firm and honest understanding of the organization’s identity. What is your nonprofit’s mission and impact? What do you do (programs and services), where (geographic scope) and for whom (constituent, client or customer)? And how do you pay for it?

2. Competitive advantage. What strengths do you leverage to differentiate your nonprofit from others and compete effectively for resources and clients? This step requires analyzing other organizations in the same geographic area that offer the same or similar programs, to the same or similar constituents, with similar funding sources.

3. Decision making. Develop a “strategy screen” composed of the criteria you’ll use to choose strategies or courses of actions. A strategy screen might consider, for example, if an option advances your organization’s mission and enhances its competitive advantage. It also considers if you have the capacity to carry out the option and if you can pay for it.

4. Strategic questions. Many questions naturally arise when an organization is presented with an opportunity, but they aren’t all strategic. You need to identify the strategic questions that must be answered now and differentiate operational questions (for example, “Will we be able to hire more employees to do this?”) from strategic questions (“What are the implications for our mission?”).

Competitive advantage elements

La Piana pegs an organization’s competitive advantage as one of the most important components of its strategy — perhaps the most important. Your competitive advantage must be something clients and funders value. For purposes of RTSP, competitive advantage is the ability to advance your nonprofit’s mission by:

Using a unique asset or strength. An asset advantage can be a better program design leading to better outcomes, including unique attributes of programs or services, great name recognition and reputation among funders and constituents, or powerful partnerships and a well-connected board of directors. It can also be that your nonprofit has accessible locations or specialized property that enhances program delivery, or a robust, diversified funding base that provides flexibility and stability.

Executing programs or services. Examples of execution advantages include lower costs to funders or customers, greater efficiency per dollar spent, faster delivery of programs or services, sound marketing and communications, or better accountability and public reporting.

To make comparative judgments, you also need to identify and understand your competitors and their strengths. As La Piana notes, though, “competitor” in this context isn’t a negative term. In the nonprofit arena, “competitors” often are organizations you collaborate with. Nonetheless, you’re likely competing for donors, media coverage, board members, employees, volunteers or clients.

Gaining a clear vision

Strategic planning is more than an agenda item in an annual meeting. By implementing RTSP, your nonprofit’s long-term strategy will determine daily, weekly and monthly actions. This in turn will move your nonprofit forward toward meeting its goals.

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