Planning is Great but Execution Wins the Game!

The best nonprofits — those that make the biggest impact — create and follow their strategic plan.


Many agencies have recently spent significant dollars developing a new nonprofit strategic plan, or refreshing their current one. You may be the leader of a nonprofit or serving as a member of the board one of these agencies. If so, I applaud your efforts on ensuring you have a well-aligned and tightly focused organization going into 2016.

There was likely a lot of board and staff engagement with many spirited discussions during the retreat as you identified and debated the key issues you will face over the next few years.  Then, at the end of this highly interactive planning retreat, you and your team developed an exciting nonprofit strategic plan based on data, discussion, and some well-founded assumptions about your future working environment.

In the end, everyone was satisfied with the results, excited for the future, and committed to making it happen.  The next 2-3 years were going to be awesome. If your agency was one of these forward-thinking organizations, you now you have a strategy, focus, and commitment for 2016.

Unfortunately, research shows much of this planning time and money each year goes to waste. Agency leaders produce nicely-printed and bound documents, only to gather dust, sitting on credenzas or in file cabinets. It’s not that those plans were bad; they were likely very good. The challenge is something else. But chances are, there was no Implementation Plan accompanying the Nonprofit Strategic Plan, to carry out this new strategy.


The challenge is really two-fold:


    • First, leaders often craft nonprofit strategic plans with lofty words and phrases which may be difficult for staff and volunteers to grasp. Do they really understand their implications and how the plan impacts them and their day-to-day activities? If someone doesn’t truly understand the plan, it is difficult for them to make decisions, and carry out that plan.
    • Second, strategic plans are often short on details about how they will get done. What steps need to be taken, and in what order they will be implemented. Many strategic plans are silent on the specific steps necessary to achieve it.  As a leader your job is not only to create an effective strategy and plan, but ensure your team understands how to achieve that plan.

This leaves many people confused and unsure how to proceed. Just when you need everyone’s focused effort and maximum energy to get the new plan off to a good start, they may feel lost and overwhelmed. They may eventually go back to doing things the old way. So much for your new strategic plan.  There goes your strategy and hope for change.


Planning is good, but doing is what really matters.


Breaking down bold and comprehensive strategies into coordinated, specific steps is hard to do and sometimes even harder to monitor. But if you don’t keep on top of strategy implementation, your directors will have some very tough questions for you at upcoming board meetings when you have to provide them with a status update.

With that in mind, here are 15 Ways to Move From Strategy to Action on Your Nonprofit Strategic Plan. These methods will help prevent staff confusion, miss-steps, and bad launches as you roll out your new nonprofit strategic plan. Discover how you can monitor progress on the new plan while staying on top of your day-to-day responsibilities.


1.  First, get to a clean fast start with your new Strategic plan and goals by identifying your Critical List.  This includes three key areas: what your agency should start doing immediately, stop doing immediately, and identifying what things you need to protect at all costs as you begin the new year. This helps identify priorities and culture. Once developed, keep this list visible and review it often. This helps keep you and your team on track with what’s really important.

2. Break down each key strategy into smaller steps and be sure someone is responsible for each  — clearly identifying one individual to carry out each step. Have each person responsible for a strategy (call them strategy champions , or owners) develop a list of action steps under their strategy and be sure they include deadlines for each critical step. Gather and assemble all of these steps into one master document and call it your Implementation Plan.


3. Sometimes long term goals and deadlines create the wrong impression in leader’s minds. By seeming so far away, they often lack a sense of urgency to begin. Challenge your leaders to think of their key initiative as a huge gala event with a hard and fast deadline. This creates a sense of priority today so the initiative is not allowed to languish and sit delayed, when other distractions that are “urgent but not important” surface.


4. Publish a progress chart somewhere very public for all to see, and be sure to update it regularly.

5. Look for, verify, and reward real progress and completion steps.

6. Get updates on a regular basis from your team both individually and as a group at staff meetings.

7. Hold quarterly meetings with your team that only cover progress on the key strategies—nothing else. How are they doing, what do they need, what challenges are they facing and how you can help them (without doing their job, of course).

8. Use a quick and simple dashboard system to get updates from everyone on how they are progressing— perhaps a red/yellow/green lights system, or a thumbs up/thumbs down approach. This allows your leadership team to focus on the critical matters threatening your implementation.

9. Be available to your leaders between meetings, but don’t suffocate them by hovering. Give them space to execute and grow professionally.

10. I have found Managing By Walking Around (MNWA) to be highly effective, especially if you are periodically out of the office at meetings, etc.  As you walk around and engage with staff and volunteers you will get a good sense of how work is proceeding on the goals. I believe leaders can often learn more using their gut and heart instead of their head.

11. Get confirmation from various, independent sources if you hear things that are cause for concern. Unless several separate sources all say the same or similar thing, it may not be true. A friend of mine used to say that unless the facts he received from various sources were consistent and crisscrossed each other, he felt he still had work to do getting to the truth.

12. Be sure all resources (people, budget, etc) are in complete alignment with the action steps. Otherwise you may be wasting time, money and effort.

13. Plan to hold periodic “all hands on deck meetings” with staff and volunteers to reinforce the importance of the new nonprofit strategic plan, answer their questions, and to provide updates on “wins”.

14. To help stay on top of your everyday responsibilities, you may want to develop a spreadsheet listing the critical items.  This includes periodic donor and other key constituent contact. Periodically check it to make sure they are actually getting proper attention and focus.

15. Try delegating more of your routine work to subordinates you wish to develop into leaders down the road. They’d love to help out and take on some new, interesting assignments.

If you are launching a new nonprofit strategic plan this year, your agency will have a lot of moving parts in motion, even if everything goes smoothly (which it likely won’t). You will benefit from developing a system for yourself to keep track of the most important things going on, and avoid letting all the busywork, “urgent situations”and minor distractions undermine your leadership.

If you haven’t yet developed your strategic plan, or believe the plan you have may need a little work, you can download these two tools to help you with your strategic planning preparation and implementation: 5 Steps for Strategic Planning Success and The Strategic planning Template.

If you want to know if your agency is headed in the right direction, assess your organization’s strengths and weaknesses, with the Break Through Quiz.