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Strategic Planning

What Makes You Strategic

Featured Article by: Larry F. Johnston, PhD

As someone who has helped nonprofit organizations with strategic planning and strategic management for decades, I find it painful that some organizations can be so… well, non-strategic.

Truth be told, much of what is called strategic planning by nonprofits is merely long range planning, and for many organizations, this is often little more than extrapolating current operations into the future and adding a growth factor. A truly strategic thinker would look long and hard through many nonprofit organizational plans to find hints of what could justly be considered strategic.

Perhaps much of the problem here relates to semantics, and that’s why visiting the dictionary might be instructive. lists the following definitions of “strategic”:

  1. pertaining to, characterized by, or of the nature of strategy: strategic movements.
  2. important in or essential to strategy.
  3. (of an action, as a military operation or a move in a game) forming an integral part of a stratagem: a strategic move in a game of chess.
  4. Military:
      • intended to render the enemy incapable of making war, as by the destruction of materials, factories, etc.: a strategic bombing mission.
      • essential to the conduct of a war: Copper is a strategic material.
      • a plan, method, or series of maneuvers or stratagems for obtaining a specific goal or result: a strategy for getting ahead in the world.

——— § ———
At the risk of being tedious,
what makes a strategy genuinely strategic?
——— § ———

You might find the above military definitions helpful, but the first three definitions would be practically meaningful only in light of an already articulated and known strategy to which ‘strategic’ refers.

For example, one definition of strategy is “the fundamental logic by which one accomplishes an objective.” Fair enough. But that’s a formal definition devoid of any meaningful content.

To make the content point clearly, I regularly recall a story I heard in the late ‘70s of a reunion of American and Vietnamese (North and South) military officers in Hanoi some years after the conclusion of that war. A growing rapprochement had made it possible for these once bitter enemies to once again face each other, this time in an atmosphere of peace and reconciliation.

A ranking U.S. general responsible for logistics during a key phase in the conflict was bragging over cocktails to his Vietnamese counterparts, “Never before in the history of warfare had so many men and so much materiel been moved so quickly.” “Yes,” one North Vietnamese general calmly responded, “and never so irrelevantly.”

Well, at the risk of being tedious, what then makes a strategy genuinely strategic?

As succinctly as I know how to put it, what makes something truly strategic is the right criteria. Or, more practically and specifically in terms of organizational leadership and nonprofit management, having the right criteria for strategic choice.

In other words, meeting these criteria, once clearly defined and specified, would make something (e.g., an activity, a project, an initiative) strategic. Contrarily, failing to meet the criteria would indicate that whatever else its value might be, it hasn’t earned the right to fly under the “strategic” banner, strictly speaking.

Because strategic criteria are always contextual — i.e., they must reflect the environment and circumstances of particular organizations at a specific point in time — this means that what is strategic for one organization would likely be nonstrategic or even counter-strategic to others.

——— § ———
Are there broad, if not universal, criteria
that would help nonprofit organizations to improve their strategic IQ
and in fact be more strategic?
——— § ———

But are there broad, if not universal, criteria that would help nonprofit organizations to improve their strategic IQ and in fact be more genuinely strategic? I think so. And with no pretense of being thorough, let alone exhaustive, here’s a list you might consider as starters:

  1. Does the activity (current or proposed program, project, initiative) transparently and demonstrably link to, and derive from, the organization’s mission and vision?
  2. More specifically, can a clear “line of sight” be established by way of linkage with the organization’s Key Result Areas (KRAs) and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)? (Note: Unless these KRAs and KPIs are themselves the result of a rigorous strategic thinking process, their existence may perpetuate the illusion that the organization is being strategic when in fact it may be anything but.)
  3. Do proposed initiatives, programs, and activities take advantage of a strength or distinctive competency the organization possesses?
  4. Correspondingly, do they avoid a dependence on something that is a weakness of the organization?
  5. Do proposed activities promise to add value to key organizational stakeholders, thus likely strengthening their engagement?
  6. Do they leverage limited organizational resources? That is, do they get good or improved “bang for the buck,” increase the return on time, talent, and resources invested, etc.
  7. Do they offer the opportunity to enhance organizational brand equity or attain a comparative advantage in the marketplace?
  8. Do they contribute to the internal consistency of existing strategies? That is, do proposed programs and activities align in a complementary or synergistic way with existing strategies or are they tangential, possibly indicating a wild goose chase? (Trust me, I’ve seen the latter on more than one occasion.)
  9. Is the level of risk acceptable?
  10. Are proposed activities consistent with established policy guidelines?

Obviously, you can add to this list, but if we were playing poker, I’d contend it’s “good for openers.”

——— § ———
“The best way to show that a stick is crooked
is not to argue about it or to spend time denouncing it,
but to lay a straight stick alongside it.”
——— § ———

D.L. Moody (I’m not sure whether he played poker or not), once insightfully said, “The best way to show that a stick is crooked is not to argue about it or to spend time denouncing it, but to lay a straight stick alongside it.” Following that eminently sound and practical counsel, the best way to determine whether something is strategic is not to debate how strategic it is, but to evaluate it according to a “plumb line” of explicit and rigorously defined criteria for strategic choice.

To the extent that most of your answers to these questions come up “Yes,” there’s a very good chance that you are indeed being strategic. If a good number of answers come up “No,” may wisely want to pull the plug before such activities ever see the light of day.

Have questions about how strategic your organization is? Feeling you might benefit from a tune-up or reinvigorated strategic planning process? If so, feel free to reach Larry at or call or text at 303.638.1827 for a complimentary consultation. He’s been helping nonprofits of all sizes with strategic planning and development for 40+ years and would welcome the opportunity to explore how to help you and your organization. 

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