Plans and Strategies are Not the Same

Both the practise of planning and strategising have been around for centuries. But planning is not strategising. The term ‘strategic planning’ (a misnomer) became popular in the 1950s. Most non-profits’ ‘strategic plans’ are not strategies, they are plans! It’s vital to know the difference.

Group planning exercises (carried out over half-day, full day or as some do – two or three days) to ‘strategically plan’ fundraising, result in hours of time, reams of flip-chart paper, angst and exhaustion. The results and decisions are then written up into lengthy strategic planning documents. However, board members generally only ask for five key outcomes. These might be:

  • A revision of the theory of change for each of the projects
  • Raising the money to open a new project (such as an afternoon care centre)
  • Maximising support options via social media
  • Growing the number of individual donors.

Sounds impressive. But these are goals and not strategies. A strategy is an integrated set of choices that position an organisation in an environment of its choice in a way that it will have the best chance of success. A strategy has a theory. For instance: We offer (or will offer) this project in response to a need, and we will explain why we do this well and we believe that we will attract donor support. A strategy must be coherent and doable. The theory must then be able to be translated into action steps for it to be a good strategy. But/there is no guarantee that a strategy will succeed.

Planning does not need this level of coherence. Plans are often just a list of an organisation’s various departments’ wishes, but with no organisation-wide coherence. Plans have no specified ways that the disjointed wishes/intentions will, collectively, achieve the organisation’s goals. People (managers, in particular) like planning and do lots of it. Plans generally include what goals/needs/wishes will cost, such as budgets for:

  • Buildings
  • Operations
  • Staff
  • Launch of a project

Much planning done within non-profits provides those involved with a comfort zone of feeling that they have done what is required of them. However, mostly this is planning (resulting in To Do lists and budgets) and not bravely strategising. Strategies can be scary as their success cannot be guaranteed or demonstrated in advance. Planning retains the actions and results within one’s control. Strategies include uncertainty: If our theory is correct, this is how we can best serve our beneficiaries and attract the funding needed.

A strategy is a journey. All that one can do when capturing a strategy is to write up the logic underpinning the thinking of why it is likely to succeed. The best strategies are captured on one page:

  • Refer to the factors and conditions that must be in place for the strategy (which is only an idea) to succeed.
  • Recording the thoughts and ideas behind a strategy, in writing, will enable monitoring as it’s being implemented.
  • Should something vital to the success of the idea not be in place, the concept can be adjusted, in real time, to give it a chance of succeeding.
  • Logic is the most vital ingredient in a good strategy.
  • Consider:
      • Why donors are likely to fund the concept
      • Who/which donors it will appeal to
      • What is needed to make the idea work (systems, people).

Planning does not guarantee donor support. Strategies provide the best chance of success = funding. Planning enables the monitoring and control of expenses. But a strategy specifies desired outcomes that the organisation’s team members want to achieve in response to a problem. But will potential donors love the concept so much that they will want to donate to it? This is difficult as one cannot control donors. They will decide what to support. All that nonprofit leaders can do with strategies is to go on record: This is what we believe will happen. We can’t prove it in advance, we can’t guarantee it, but this is what we want to have happen and we believe will happen, with donor funding.

It’s easier to list the things that one can control, such as opening a new afternoon care centre, than to say that donors will like, ‘get’ how special a concept is and decide to fund it (versus the afternoon care facilities of other organisations in an area). All fundraising activities should be planned. It would be great if they could also have some innovative strategies too!

Jill Ritchie will be running a training course on strategising and planning the funding of non-profits on Thursday, 11th April:

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