The Structure of Strategic Planning

ESC’s number one consulting project type is Strategic Planning. Due to the number of Strategic Planning projects conducted through our organization each year, we often forget that not every nonprofit leader knows the ins and outs of such an undertaking if you know anything about this process at all, so today we’re breaking down this type of project.

ESC Consultant David Ames teaches the structure of strategic planning by describing seven phases of this project type in his Strategic Planning workshop: Getting Ready, Developing/Clarifying Mission and Vision, Assessing the Environment, Establishing Priorities, Putting it into Writing, Implementing the Strategic Planning, and Evaluating the Plan. All of these phases come together to make up the entire Strategic Planning process.

At the beginning of any Strategic Planning project, there are four major aspects that come together: Situational Analysis, Mission-Vision-Values, Issues and Goals. These four areas of assessment make up what is known as the Environmental Scan phase. The Environmental Scan is the first step of any consulting project, particular Strategic Planning or Business Planning engagements, and it is vital to the creation of a lasting, effective organizational guide.

Within the Environmental Scan portion of a Strategic Planning project, there are three major components. First, the organization must agree on readiness and establish a planning committee. In a sense, this is an internal environmental scan. Second, the organization must develop or clarify its mission and vision. While consultants can help fine-tune an organization’s intentions, it is up to nonprofit leaders to provide some foundational focus in these areas by writing or rewriting a mission statement and drafting a vision statement. Third, as consultants become more deeply involved in the Strategic Planning process, consultants and organization management must assess the environment. In this assessment—the heart of the Environmental Scan phase—an organization must conduct internal and external analysis, identify program effectiveness, and list all critical issues.

As a project moves from the Environmental Scan into the bulk of tangible Strategic Planning work, the organization enters a straight trajectory that starts with its fourth stage: Establishing Priorities. Here, leaders must examine interplay of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (commonly referred to as SWOT); select criteria for setting priorities, identify strategies, write goals and objectives, and develop financial projections. At this point, the Strategic Planning team will begin to feel the full effect as they move from foundational work to more obvious, concrete development. By this point work should be linear with a clear order of steps defined. The fifth stage, Putting it into Writing, follows closely behind and solidifies the team’s work. Here, leaders should prepare a draft plan for review, review and write a finished Strategic Plan document, and present the plan to the Board for adoption.

The final two phases tend to follow an ESC consulting project, although many clients take on a second project for implementation assistance or facilitation. Phase six, Implementing the Strategic Plan, requires the organization to implement, monitor and adjust the plan on a set time frame to achieving objectives, as well as develop an operating budget in line with the plan. Lastly, the organization must Evaluate the Strategic Plan. This can be done internally or through an additional Outcomes Measurement consulting project depending on an organization’s needs. Moving forward, the organization is expected to update and assess this strategic plan along with any other existing operational plans.

While having a basic understanding of Strategic Planning should be helpful to any nonprofit, it is imperative to a successful Strategic Planning process that individuals outside the organization conduct the Environmental Scan phase, where the breadth of your nonprofit’s operations are evaluated critically in order to ensure fitting, effective outcomes. Additionally, organizations that are interested in establishing a Strategic Plan that may not have the time or staff to conduct such an undertaking, or those that have Strategic Planning capabilities but could use assistance in the facilitation of such a process, can greatly benefit from working with ESC Consultants. We offer a complimentary 2-hour assessment visit to nonprofits of any size in eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Please contact Director of Consulting Ulea Lago for more information at or by calling 617-357-5550.

The graphic above is taken from Carter McNamara’s book Field Guide to Nonprofit Strategic Planning and Facilitation. This publication is available for purchase through the Authenticity Consulting website.