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Strategic Planning Guide

Arts and culture organizations both locally and nationally are recognizing the need for strategic planning. This briefing paper outlines some considerations a nonprofit should make before engaging in a strategic planning process.

What should a strategic plan accomplish?

Benefits of a strategic plan vary depending on the specific needs and opportunities of a particular organization. Most organizations expect that their strategic plans will:

  • Reaffirm the organization’s importance.
  • Increase enthusiasm and commitment of stakeholders (including staff, board members, volunteers and the people the organization serves).
  • Facilitate interaction and camaraderie among stakeholders of the organization.
  • Objectively identify the organization’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • Outline specific actions the organization should pursue in the future.
  • Foster new ideas for improving organizational performance.
  • Create a better understanding of how the organization should allocate its time and resources.
  • Improve the organization’s ability to communicate its value to potential partners, service recipients and funders.
  • Strengthen the organization’s ability to fulfill its mission, now and in the future.


What will be required of my organization in completing a strategic plan?

There is no doubt that strategic planning is highly beneficial, however many nonprofits fail to consider that the process also requires a great deal of commitment. Your strategic planning process will likely require:

  • Additional financial resources.
  • Donations of time from board and staff.
  • Temporary loss of board and staff time devoted to other organizational activities.
  • Honest assessments of your organization’s weaknesses and threats.
  • Interaction with “outsiders” of the organization, including a strategic planning consultant.

These sacrifices can sometimes be frustrating and participants in the process must remember that the benefits of a good strategic plan almost always outweigh its costs.


What should I consider in hiring a strategic planning consultant?

We highly recommend that arts and culture organizations hire a consultant to facilitate their strategic planning process. Staff and board members rarely have the time to oversee this process or the objectivity to make it worthwhile. If your organization is unable to pay for a professional planning consultant, you may want to research local programs that offer free or reduced-cost planning assistance instead.

Remember, no two consultants are alike. The ideal consultant for one arts and culture organization may be an inappropriate match for another. We recommend that staff and board members determine what they hope to gain, and what resources they are willing to dedicate to the process, before choosing a consultant. We also recommend issuing a Request for Proposal (RFP) so you can compare various consultants and their strengths prior to selecting one. Depending on your organization’s needs, you may want to consider the following questions in reviewing potential consultants:

  • Is the consultant able to produce a plan that meets the goals within our timeframe and budget limitations? Will the consultant’s fee vary based on the number of hours dedicated to the process?
  • Does the proposal reflect a specific understanding of our organization and our unique needs?
  • Have they provided a specific timeline noting when various actions would take place? Does this timeline seem achievable given the overall timeframe dedicated to the process?
  • Has the consultant worked with other local arts and culture organizations? Were these organizations satisfied with the process and the result?
  • Does the consultant fully outline their role and responsibilities? To what degree will the consultant be engaged in organizing and facilitating meetings, conducting research, producing the final report and making final recommendations to the organization?
  • Has the consultant’s proposal explained who will be engaged in the process (staff, board, volunteers, service recipients, etc.) and to what degree?
  • Has the consultant explained what the finished strategic plan will include and how the organization will be able to use these elements?
  • Does the consultant’s previous experience match with our organization’s needs and personality? 

Remember that, the least expensive plan may not be the best deal. Investing in an inexpensive plan that fails to engage your stakeholders or advance your organization’s capabilities will ultimately cost you more than a solid process that addresses your particular organization’s needs.


What should a strategic planning process include?

No strategic plan is exactly alike; for that reason your plan should reflect your organization’s unique mission and goals. It is important that your budget not be able to dictate which elements you pursue. If cost is an issue it is usually better for an organization to decrease the depth of its strategic plan rather than to decrease its breadth. We recommend you discuss with your consultant which of the following elements of a strategic plan will be most helpful in addressing your organization’s needs:

  • Mission Statement.Includes the organization’s mission, an assessment of the mission’s relevance to the community it serves and any revisions to the mission based on this assessment.
  • Vision Statement.An overview of what stakeholders perceive the organization will look like in the future. This is typically a projection of three to five years.
  • Statement of Values.A statement of the values that the organization believes is important for the fulfillment of its mission.
  • Stakeholder Analysis.A review of the organization’s stakeholder groups, their characteristics and how well their specific needs are being served. Nonprofits often have numerous stakeholder groups including staff, board, volunteers, service recipients, current and potential funders, current and potential collaborative partners, community leaders and members of the media. The stakeholder analysis typically includes identifying who comprises each stakeholder group and then conducting interviews with representatives from each group. 
  • Environmental Scan.A review of the organization’s external environment. This typically includes an assessment of the organization’s competition; local and national trends that may impact the organization’s success; local and national best practices, innovations of similar organizations and opportunities for collaboration.
  • SWOT Analysis.An objective review of the organization’sStrengths (what it does well);Weaknesses (what it needs to improve);Opportunities (external developments that may strengthen it in the future); andThreats (external developments that may weaken it in the future). A good SWOT analysis is based on assessments from each of an organization’s stakeholder groups, as well as findings from the environmental scan.
  • Budget Projection.A review of an organization’s budget over the last three to five years; identification of trends in that budget (including increases and decreases in revenue sources, project expenses and overall budget size); and a projection of what the organization’s budget will look like in another three to five years if these trends continue. This projection typically includes strategies for capitalizing on increasing revenue sources, addressing decreasing revenue sources and reducing the organization’s expenses.
  • Goals, Objectives and Strategies.An outline of what the organization hopes to achieve over the next three to five years. Goals are very broad overviews of how an organization hopes to fulfill its mission and reach its vision. Objectives are quantifiable, intermediate steps toward fulfilling goals. Strategies are specific steps the organization will take toward achieving its goals and objectives.
  • Timeline, Responsible Parties and Costs.An overview of when an organization’s strategies are to be started and completed, a list of the individuals who will be responsible for making sure each strategy is addressed and an estimate of the financial costs of implementing each strategy.
  • Considerations for Next Planning Process.An overview of the challenges and successes of the strategic planning process. This section includes advice to the next individuals charged with strategic planning, as well as an overview of when the next planning process should begin (typically three to five years).


How can I engage my organization’s stakeholders in the process?

Nonprofits sometimes face opposition or reluctance from their stakeholders when engaging in a strategic planning process. A good strategic plan must be grounded in feedback from all stakeholder groups and must generate enthusiasm among an organization’s key players to advance the organization. Organizations can increase stakeholders’ involvement and investment in the process by:

  • Involving stakeholders in initial discussions of what the organization hopes to achieve through the strategic planning process; as well as the roles and responsibilities of participants in the planning process.
  • Organizing an ad hoc committee charged with overseeing the planning process from beginning to end. This committee typically includes representatives from a variety of stakeholder groups, particularly staff, board members, volunteers and service recipients.
  • Showing genuine interest in feedback that stakeholders provide.
  • Facilitating interaction between stakeholders who typicallywould notinteract (such as board members and service recipients).
  • Giving stakeholders the ability to review a draft of the plan, offer recommendations for revising the draft and approving the final plan.


How should my organization use a strategic plan once it is complete?

Too many nonprofits complete a strategic planning process but fail to act on the information the final plan provides. Instead of letting your plan gather dust, capitalize on the document by:

  • Proactively addressing your organization’s weaknesses and threats.Stakeholders may be less than excited to hear that they have issues to address, but no organization is perfect. Organizations that are mindful of their shortcomings can address problems before they become crises.
  • Scheduling regular reviews of how strategies are being addressed.Reviewing your progress on a monthly or quarterly process will help hold the organization accountable and can also give stakeholders an ongoing sense of accomplishment and purpose.
  • Attaching your strategic plan to grant proposals.Let potential donors know that considerable thought went into development of new programs, services and operational innovations.
  • Organizing meetings with potential collaborators. Use the strategic plan as an opportunity to explain why collaborations might be beneficial and to receive feedback on how they might work. 
  • Adjusting your external communications to reflect revisions in your organization’s sense of itself.Missions, visions and values can highlight what your organization feels is important and what it has to offer. Make sure that your marketing and communication materials reflect this passion.


Where can I get additional assistance in developing a strategic planning process?

Arts Cleveland provides free advice and assistance to Northeast Ohio arts and culture organizations. During our meetings, members of our staff will help you analyse your organization and provide you with objective, customized advice. We have provided hundreds of consultancies regarding a variety of business issues, including strategic planning. We are happy to assist you in developing an RFP for your strategic plan, identify high-quality consultants or outline strategies for maximizing the value of a completed plan!

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