Plan of Action

By Hannah Wallace July 31, 2009

Uncertain where the future will lead your organization in this topsy-turvy era? What shouldn’t be in doubt is the value of strategic planning to guide you where you want to go, says Bill Ferguson, former longtime director of human resources for GE International, Inter-Continental Hotels and United Technologies. Ferguson is among 20 retired executives with big-league business experience who counsel charitable organizations in Sarasota and Manatee counties—at no charge—through the Nonprofit Resource Center’s Volunteer Consulting Service. 

“We take best practices that work for big businesses and bring them home for nonprofits,” he says. Among the organizations Ferguson has counseled are G.WIZ, Red Cross, the Sarasota County Arts Council and Anna Maria Community Center.

“For smaller enterprises whether they’re nonprofit or for-profit, it’s a case of plan or perish,” says Ferguson. “Most of the big players employ a robust strategic planning process. These plans clearly set high priority objectives, explain why they’re critical, what has to be accomplished, assign individual or group responsibility for execution, time frame for accomplishment and identify the metrics that would determine an accomplishment.”

The timetable varies, he says, largely based on product cycle in the for-profit world, and on a three- to four-year basis for nonprofits.

Regardless, it’s critical for everyone to make a commitment to the process. “Strategic planning takes a tremendous amount of time and input from the staff, board of directors, volunteer corps,” says Ferguson. “You can’t do this in a three-hour meeting.” 

Strategic Planning 101

Make an honest assessment of your organization’s strengths. ”A real, gut-wrenchingly honest admission of weaknesses,” says Ferguson, “identifying real opportunities—not dreams. Most organizations are not as brutally honest as they should be.”

Recognize the environmental threats. Not just your competitors, but also potential impending legislation and regulation, demographic shifts—“whatever’s out there that can bite you in the rump,” he says.

Write the plan your competitor would write. Too often strategic plans are an exercise in navel gazing, says Ferguson. “If you’re truly going to have a robust plan, turn the telescope around and write the strategic plan that your main competitors would be planning.”

Consider Plan B. You can’t allow hitting some foreseen wall totally derail you. Apply out-of-the-box thinking. For certain organizations, for example, “University Parkway cannot remain as a Berlin Wall. In this environment for intense competition for funding, reach out to both sides of the county line.”

Build in benchmarks. In today’s economy, funders are less interested in mission—“all the kumbaya, feel-good stuff,” says Ferguson. “They want to see hard, metric goals, just like we do in the for-profit world. They want to know what specifically is going to happen as the result of them giving you their money. They say, ‘I want to see benchmarks. If we’re not getting from A to B, I’m going to be reluctant to continue funding.’”

Work the plan. Make sure it includes a lot of specificity. Set timelines and benchmarks (“We need to have this done in three months, or six months.”). Assign individual responsibilities, and identify the individuals or committees responsible for monitoring that process. “Otherwise it becomes a nice little notebook that gathers dust on someone’s credenza,” says Ferguson.

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