The Becker Blog

Strategic Planning vs Strategic Thinking


Non-profit organizations often let strategic planning fall by the wayside. As a result, far too many associations function without a plan. Criticisms often cited include “it is too expensive”, “it takes too much time”, “nothing really changes afterwards”, and finally “things change so fast that we can’t keep the plan current”. However, strategic planning can be fun, inspiring, and easy. There really are no good reasons not to have one.

Boards are often stuck in the day to day governance of the organization and forget that one of their most important duties is to guide and preserve the organization to ensure a positive future. Human nature is simply such that we deal with what is in front of us. However, many associations are facing crises around a declining or aging membership. There is an acute need for boards to look at the needs of their community and to be outwardly focused. Keeping an eye on the vision and mission of the association helps a volunteer organization travel along a consistent path.


The evidence is actually much more compelling than would be initially evident. The Association of Strategic Planning conducted a research study in cooperation with the University Of Arkansas Department Of Political Science on the best practices for non-profit strategic planning exercises. The results of the study were staggering. Surveying over 1000 non-profit organizations, their findings suggested that those who take on a strategic planning process viewed themselves as being “successful” because of their newfound ability to achieve broader organizational outcomes.

Organizations that classify themselves as successful engage in the following best practices when it comes to strategic planning:

  • Perform a consistent/periodic review of where they are in the environment and where the organization is headed;
  • Have a planning process that deeply engages major stakeholders and constituents around issues of opportunities, threats, strengths and weaknesses;
  • Demonstrate more discipline in conducting and reviewing their implementation challenges;
  • Have a culture of planning.

As a result, these non-profit organizations reported that they make a distinct impact on their community, feel assured of their long-term sustainability and have strategies that are data driven.

To be really effective in these challenging times, non-profit organizations need to think about strategic planning differently. Not as some onerous task, but as way to enliven the organization and to motivate and inspire volunteers and staff.

A static, traditional operating planning model is not helpful because it is based on the assumption that we can be certain of the future; that the conditions of our world will be by and large the same in three years as they are today. In fact, the world is changing so fast that it is likely the plan you create today will be out of date by the end of the year. All this meaning that the past is no longer the predictor of the future.

Strategic planning exercises need to foster a mindset of critical or strategic thinking. Without it, plans will recreate the status quo and fail to enliven the organization. Simply stated, strategic planning is the process of looking at the important issues within the association with current insight and innovation. A truly good planning processes is one that incorporates taking the board through making decisions and defining direction in light of potential impact on the future while remaining mindful of potential environmental change.

It is all in how you ask the questions. Critical thinking shifts the planning process from simply focusing on needing to develop new initiatives to discovering how a board will develop new initiatives that meet their mission and long-term goals.

The inevitable question becomes “How will we define success?”  It’s the “How” that enables organizations to move forward in making a difference in the community by achieving tangible outcomes. It’s the “How” that creates the experience of being successful and effective in delivering your board’s mission.

Christina will be sharing her extensive knowledge at our next two Board Development Workshops in Toronto on February 15th and Montreal on March 29th!

Click here for more information or to register.

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