I first stumbled into the world of nonprofit organizational plans when a friend asked me to help facilitate and write their nonprofit’s strategic plan. Since then, I have written many a plan—sometimes as part of a team, while other times as the sole writer because no one else volunteered. Likewise, at times I have been highly knowledgeable about the organization and its goals while other times, not so much! Topics have ranged from expanding daycare to defining nuclear policy, from strengthening civic engagement to planning a capital campaign. The lengths of these plans have ranged from a two-page memo to a ten-page PowerPoint to a one hundred-page tome. Many have been successful, but not all of them have been.
In this article, I’ve attempted to distill some of what I have learned about writing effective nonprofit organizational plans after many years of trial and error. Spoiler alert: this article won’t define “what is a plan” or show you how to get your plan adopted or provide advice on a successful implementation. Rather, I’m focusing on the messy, murky time when the plan is not fully thought through, when there is important missing information, and there are issues that need to be resolved—and yet, expectations for a draft plan, with a beginning, middle and end, are around the bend. I call this the formation stage. During this period, the focus should be on taking stock of the information you have and beginning to gather the building blocks of an effective plan. So, let’s start gathering…
The 4 Building Blocks
When preparing to write an organizational plan, I begin by outlining what I consider to be the four key building blocks: the calendar, budget, organizational chart, and guiding principles/objectives. (My building blocks reflect traditional management models but can be adapted to newer approaches such as agile management). I prefer outlines, so I know that I have identified the main issues and questions but don’t yet have to labor over creating full paragraphs and wordsmithing. A five-page outline is typically my target. An outline of this length usually includes the necessary information for an internal audience and can easily be expanded into a longer, external-facing report down the road. Plus, important operational details can always find a home in the appendix.
For me, it really does not matter which of the building blocks I begin with—sometimes I start with the one that I am the least sure about, other times I start with the burning issue of the moment. I expect to loop back and forth between one building block and another as I add, update, and revise.
Lastly, keep in mind that guidelines for writing the building blocks could justify a book or two each. But to use our limited time wisely, I’m focusing only on the pieces of advice I have given that others have found most helpful in preparing to write their plan.
Building Block #1: The Calendar
- A good place to start is a one-page, three-year milestone calendar that includes key processes and outcomes.
- Organize the calendar by stages, often by year, then by quarter. Pay particular attention to the transition from one stage/year to the next.
- I often include a three-month start-up phase to make certain there’s enough time to prepare everyone/everything before diving into the plan on day one. This also helps ensure that you will achieve year-one goals on time.
- Don’t worry about capturing every event, outcome, etc. in this initial calendar draft. You can back fill content once you embark on the plan and as needed. The final months of a year also can serve as a good catch-all (e.g., if you forgot to include revising and updating the plan as part of the calendar, year-end is a good time to slip it in!).
Building Block #2: The Budget
- A good rule of thumb: in most cases, your staffing will be the lion’s share of your budget except when large capital expenditures are in play.
- Include the monetary value of in-kind contributions and volunteers as appropriate.
- There will likely be instances where you know the budget item but not the cost associated with it; in those cases, feel free to use budget placeholders and “to be determined” statements.
- Anticipate the unexpected by including ten percent of the total in an “unanticipated/miscellaneous” line item.
- Make sure that the budget timeframe aligns with the calendar stages mentioned above and your organization’s annual budget cycle. Relatedly, many of the budget items in the later calendar stages will be yet to be determined, but it’s better to flag the possibility earlier on than have to deal with an unplanned for expense when the time comes.
Building Block #3: The Organizational Chart
- In addition to all staff, consider clarifying the role of the board, partnering organizations, and vendors and consultants, as well as any other external constituents whose roles might not affect the budget directly.
- Give thought to how the organizational chart will change over the course of each calendar stage, whether that be due to planned new hires or anticipated role changes, etc.
- Creating a detailed organizational chart has an added benefit: visualizing relationships across different roles may uncover shifting issues of influence and accountability that need to be anticipated and addressed.
Building Block #4: Guiding Principles and Objectives
- While the final plan itself will likely start with some sort of mission statement, your outline does not need to. In fact, I find that starting with the guiding principles can be overwhelming and overly time-consuming. Sometimes it’s easier to start with the more logistical pieces, like the calendar, budget, and organizational chart. Even if you do start with the guiding principles, keep in mind that inevitably, what initially seemed spot on will change and improve as you continue to assemble your building blocks.
- I generate anywhere from five to eight short guiding principle statements to capture the confluence of mission, strategy and values. These include, for instance, a goal statement like: “We expect to engage new west coast partners in support of our goal of broadening our national platform and reach.”
- Meanwhile, I see objectives as a way to measure your goal achievement—for instance, “We should have secured four partners in the state of Washington by the end of year three.” As many others have said, you can’t manage what you can’t measure, so objectives are essential for most organizational plans.
These building blocks are not cast in stone—in fact, far from it! You might have to revise them because your CEO does not want the organizational chart (and future modifications) to be included for all staff to see, or maybe your board chair wants to see an entire section dedicated to the mission and would rather not have it be part of the guiding principles. No matter the edits, gathering the building blocks and creating an outline is a fruitful endeavor, and I am certain that by doing so, you will have:
- Confirmed key parts of the plan,
- Generated ideas about how to answer questions that remain unresolved, and…
- Discovered entirely new questions.
The most important outcome? You are now ready to write your first official draft of the plan!
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p.s. Do you have questions about who the plan’s audience should be, how to handle disagreements while creating the plan, how to secure key stakeholder buy-in, and so on? Stay tuned for future articles and feel free to get in communication in the meantime: firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to hearing from you!