Q&A: What is Strategic Planning?

by David Norgard, Adjunct Faculty, AULA BA Program
Strategic planning answers a basic question: Where do you want to go as an organization?

photo by Kazi Shefaet Rahman, Illuminatus Rex, via Wikimedia Commons

Another way to put it is: What do you want to see happen? Or, again: What do you want to accomplish? That question begs another: How are you going to get there? How are you going to realize your aspirations? A sound strategic planning process helps leaders arrive at informed, clear answers to these most basic questions.

Why should we bother? (Who knows what the future will bring anyway?)
A popular adage used in strategic planning is a retort to this question: If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there. Nevertheless, some of us are familiar with situations where much time, effort and money was spent on producing a very elaborate plan, only to have it put into a three-ring binder, placed on a shelf, and collect dust until a new occupant in the office threw it out. A good strategic plan is valuable in that it provides a continuing reminder of what you really want and need to accomplish, even in the midst of a hundred other possibilities and detours. It provides clarity about mission, vision, values, and priorities… And that clarity helps leaders make more informed decisions about everything from program initiatives to infrastructure requirements.

What does the process involve?
The strategic planning process can be relatively quick and simple or lengthy and complex. How extensive the process should be depends largely on the size and complexity of the organization. For example, an agency with a single program and a budget of less than $1M requires a far less elaborate approach than an agency with multiple programs and an operating budget over $5M. Nevertheless, every strategic planning process, however abbreviated or extensive, should include these elements:

  1. Review existing Mission, Vision, and Values Statements and revise and refine as appropriate. If no such statements exist, draft them so that the organization has succinct descriptions of what it does (mission), what it wants to accomplish (external vision), and how and/or why it does its work (values). These statements are the foundation of a strategic plan.
  2. Assess the organization’s current situation and context by gathering and analyzing information from both internal and external sources. Most commonly this is done through a “SWOT Analysis” – a survey and review of internal strengths and weaknesses and external opportunities and threats.
  3. Build agreement about strategic priorities. The assessment will likely point to where the organization needs to focus its time and energy. Arriving at consensus about strategic priorities sets up the plan’s overall framework.
  4. Identify functional goals and specific objectives. The goals explain how the established priorities will be achieved in general, and the objectives detail how each project will be tackled. They provide the “finish work.”
  5. Adopt the plan and commit to reviewing it regularly. A strategic plan should be formally adopted by a vote of the board. An annual review and revision is best done by a committee composed of both board and staff members.

Who should be involved in the process?
At a minimum, the board of directors and the senior staff need to be involved actively in all major steps of the process. Sometimes, a planning committee guides the process and coordinates the participation of others. The assessment stage particularly may involve getting input from a range of internal stakeholders and external experts. These may include affiliate (national/local) representatives, allied organization leaders, clients, donors, members, neighbors, partners, referral sources, sponsors, and authorities on the subjects most relevant to the organization’s purposes.

When should the process be undertaken?
Every organization without a strategic plan should have one. So, in general, there is no virtue in waiting. However, there are certain circumstances when some delay is prudent. Do not attempt to launch a planning process if the organization is about to change executive leadership or is in the midst of dealing with a crisis.

What happens when the planning process is completed?
It is critically important for the plan to be monitored regularly and revised as appropriate. Even more importantly, the plan is worth nothing without an implementation schedule. As soon as the plan is adopted by the board, prepare a timetable that assigns goals and objectives to lead individuals and provides dates for progress and/or completion. A date should also be set for an annual review.


In addition to being an Adjunct Faculty member in the B.A. Program of Antioch University Los Angeles, Guest Blogger David Norgard is the founder of OD180, a consulting firm that develops strategies for nonprofit organizations. He has also held leadership roles on various nonprofit boards and committees. At present, he serves as the President of Integrity USA, the Episcopal Church’s LGBT advocacy group. A graduate of AULA’s M.A. in Organizational Management program, David currently serves as Chair of AULA’s Alumni & Community Advisory Board. He also holds a B.A. magna cum laude from Augsburg College and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School, where he received a Dean’s Citation for Community Service and an Award of Distinction among Alumni.