Strategic Planning: Moving Ideas to Practice

Charlie Caspari and Matthew Caspari
March 2016
Planning Process Diagram

Strategic planning, when used properly by a nonprofit organization, will result in a plan of action that moves ideas to practice. Those who have not been a part of strategic planning before might be asking questions like: “What does strategic planning look like?” “How does it get completed?” Or perhaps most importantly, “How do you effectively use it?” This article highlights the importance and benefits of strategic planning, and breaks down the strategic planning process so that all organizations can effectively utilize it.

While I was executive director of a United Way-funded agency, we did strategic planning. We operated a residential summer camp for disadvantaged youth. This residential summer camp integrates children with disabilities with children who are not disabled and provides outdoor education programs for schools. All of the full-time staff and the entire board participated in three full-day meetings during which we went through the entire process described here. A three-year plan with very specific goals, strategies, time lines, and responsibilities was developed. At the end of three years, we had accomplished our goals. We made modifications as we went along, as we learned new things that affected the plan. And we were successful.

Strategic plans are the action plans for a business. The strategic plan outlines the tasks, milestones, and steps needed to drive your business forward. Typically, a strategic plan is lined out for a three-year period, with specific phases rolled out quarterly. Benchmarks are often set in six-month and yearly increments to allow time to plan, execute, and gain traction between milestones.

The strategic plan outlines the goals of the organization and how to achieve them. Strategic plans provide answers to a series of questions, including:

  • How will you measure success?
  • What metrics matter and how will you track them?
  • What needs to happen so you can achieve your goals?
  • What resources do you need to help get you there?
  • When will each activity take place, who will do it, and when do you need to reach specific milestones?

To plan, develop, and execute a strategic plan, it is necessary to develop a team. The team has many of its own questions to answer to ascertain organizational needs going forward, such as:

  • Does the organization have a clear mission statement and do board and staff members know it?
  • Is the statement appropriate for the next few years?
  • Is there a long-range plan?
  • Is there a universally shared vision of what the organization should look like three years into the future?
  • Does the board review the long-range plan annually?
  • Is there a one-year plan with short-term objectives?
  • Do board committees have written goals?
  • Is the board aware of strengths and weaknesses of various major programs in the organization?

With so many questions already, many people are probably asking themselves, “Why take the time and go through the process of strategic planning when we have a good group of employees already?”

Many staff members feel they know what is best for the organization. Most board members feel they were asked to serve because of their expertise. But with a variety of backgrounds, all of this knowledge may cause conflict. This conflict may not even reflect the real underlying problems, or the best solutions. Successful organizations come to agreement on their goals and how they plan to achieve them.

When putting a strategic plan together, each goal needs to be examined along the way. If you ask yourself, “What do we have to do to get there?” for each goal, you will create a detailed list of steps you must take to reach your overall objective. Once this list is developed, responsibilities and due dates can be assigned for each goal.

Strategic planning can be broken down into four main stages:

  • Understanding the organization
  • Putting together achievable goals and objectives
  • Listing the steps necessary to reach each objective
  • Executing the plan

Stage One

The first stage of the strategic-planning process is a long one, but the more thoroughly it is developed, the more it will help the organization moving forward.
The strategic-planning process should begin with the staff and the organization’s board working in unison. This first step is focused primarily on gathering information. With everyone together in one place, start with a discussion about the purpose of strategic planning and review some of the terms that will be utilized moving forward, including:

  • Mission: the reason for the organization’s existence
  • Vision: what the organization will hopefully look like in three (or five) years
  • Objectives: the primary goals to accomplish
  • Strategies: how the organization will do certain things
  • Tactics: explain what, where, and when things will be done

These terms are likely not all-inclusive, but they are a good starting point for every organization.

Several years ago, I worked on a strategic plan for the church I attend. I removed myself as a possible facilitator because I was very close to the situation and the facilitator needs to be very objective, not letting personal opinions affect the outcomes. We had the input of our staff and the vestry. We conducted interviews with community leaders and did a random survey of local residents. We solicited input from our congregation.

Our mission is to grow a healing community of those who seek God, love each other, and serve the world through Christ. Our vision is to create that community with alternative programs and services offered to people of all ages in our community. Our goals involved membership, financial stability, worship/education, general programs of outreach, governance, and property stewardship.

This plan turned out well, and had us well tuned-in to later events. My church is in the heart of Ferguson, Missouri, and we fully developed our plan about two years prior to Ferguson’s 2014 racial conflict and civil unrest.

Once a shared understanding of the terminology has been reached, there is one last thing to make sure everyone understands: a common process for examining the organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats — otherwise known as a SWOT analysis. While organizational strengths and weaknesses may be easy to understand, the opportunities and threats may not be as apparent to everyone. Opportunities for an organization are possibilities moving forward, such as potential expansion or partnership chances. When identifying threats, issues that could harm the organization going forward should be examined. Threats can come in many different forms, including external competition, organizational changes, and even changing social perception of a product. If everyone understands the importance of a SWOT analysis, then recommendations for change can come from all parts of the organization.

The final pieces of information that need to be gathered before moving on to the second stage of the strategic plan pertain to the stakeholders. Every organization needs to identify who its stakeholders are beyond the board and staff — such as clients and funders — and what they want. Once the organization’s members’ and stakeholders’ desires are known, it is time to see what the organization can do to help achieve them.

Over the years I have facilitated three strategic plans for a local community agency. The agency is dedicated to advocating for the best educational opportunities, family support, and access to community resources for youth regardless of their individual abilities.
The most recent planning process involved a weekend retreat with the board and staff, followed by meetings with parents and the primary funding organizations. By reviewing the desires and needs of parents, the goals of the funding agencies, and the capabilities of the agency, they were able to focus on the areas of greatest mutual interest/concern, the “sweet spot” (refer to the diagram on page 58).

This agency has grown from two women working on behalf of their sons to an agency with an annual budget of over $1 million.

It is important to note that strategic planning is a long process and it is expected that a well-developed strategic plan will take more than one day to complete.

Taking all the information that has been gathered, take the next step in developing the strategic plan by deciding on the organization’s mission and long-term vision (generally three years). This should take about an hour.

Next, perform a SWOT analysis on the areas that were established during the information-gathering period, making sure it aligns with the mission statement and three-year vision. When the analysis is complete, it is time to present the findings to the organization’s stakeholders.
A good way to get the stakeholders’ feedback is through meetings with small groups. If three groups of stakeholders meet for one hour each, there should be sufficient variety to judge their reactions. Examining the new pieces of the strategic plan will help the stakeholders see where the organization is going, and help the organization gauge the stakeholders’ approval.

The goal is to find as much overlap in the desires of the organization and the stakeholders as possible. When common desires are determined, it is important to look at the list and decide what the organization can reasonably expect to do.

The last part of the first stage of creating the strategic plan is reviewing the vision statement. If everyone agrees the vision is something the organization can and should pursue, then the first stage is finally complete and the action items of stages two, three, and four — listing achievable goals and the steps necessary to reach individual objectives, and executing the steps following specific time lines and responsibilities — can be performed.

Strategic Planning for Camps

As with other organizations, having an organized plan of attack can prepare camps for what needs to be done next to accomplish their goals for the good of their clients (the campers), and provides a track on which to measure organizational progress. Furthermore, the plan shows camp funders exactly what they need to know about a camp’s plans and ability to execute them.

Currently, I am working as a consultant with a summer camp that desperately needs a good strategic plan. The camp is relatively new and has been very successful. It now has a budget of close to $1 million.

I have been involved with this camp since the day the founder came to me and asked, “How do I start a camp?” The founding family is now thinking about backing away from the camp as they look at possible retirement, and what do they have to do to be sure the camp continues to be viable? What will help them feel comfortable as they leave the camp in which they’ve invested so much in someone else’s hands? Strategic planning is the perfect tool to solidify their vision and to detail the steps necessary along the way to make that vision reality.

Strategic planning requires a commitment from the board and staff, and it does come with some costs. In the St. Louis area, I have arranged special funding for nonprofit organizations; funding which can cover as much as 75 percent of the cost of strategic planning. This type of funding may be available in your area as well. Getting a grant to aid with strategic planning can help get the process moving. When you complete the development of your plan, you will have a three-year vision and a way to make that vision reality. Strategic planning is a long process and one that requires commitment from the start. Hopefully, the process outlined here will be helpful for you and your organization as you plan for a bright camp future.

Additional Resources

If you’re new to strategic planning, the following books may provide useful pointers and insights into the process:
Strategic Planning Kit For Dummies, by Erica Olsen
Strategic Planning: As Simple as A, B, C, by David R. McClean
10 Steps to Successful Strategic Planning, by Susan Barksdale and Teri Lund
Strategic Planning for Nonprofit Organizations: A Practical Guide and Workbook, by Michael Allison and Jude Kaye
Strategic Planning That Actually Works: A Step-by-Step Guide to Get it Done Faster, Cheaper, and Better Than Ever, by Sarai Johnson
The Business of Camp, by Ann Sheets and David Thoensen

Charlie Caspari has years of experience leading organizations. His background in camping includes 20 years as executive director of Sherwood Forest Camp (St. Louis), founder and operator of Camp Phoenix (Episcopal Diocese of Missouri), and 13 years as St. Louis field office executive for ACA. In his semi-retirement he facilitates strategic planning for nonprofit organizations. He can be reached at cwcaspari@gmail.com.

Matthew Caspari graduated from the University of Missouri – Columbia with a BS in Parks, Recreation, and Tourism in December 2015. His experience outside the classroom includes 16 years of camp, between attending as a youth and working as staff once he was old enough.