When you are leading a nonprofit organization, strategic planning is the compass that charts an intentional course toward your vision. 

However, like any adventure, it is not without pitfalls. So picture this as a journey like any other journey: While there are high points in the journey and the destination is worth it, the process can be fraught with treacherous terrain giving way to missteps and pitfalls. The best leaders are prepared for the journey and enter fully aware of the most common pitfalls.

So what are three of the most repeated strategic planning mistakes that can spell doom for a nonprofit?


1. The “Frozen in Time” Syndrome:

Imagine a museum exhibit that never changes. Nonprofits that cling to the past, sticking with outdated strategies and refusing to adapt, suffer from what we call the “Frozen in Time” Syndrome. Strategic plans should be dynamic, evolving documents, not relics of bygone eras or outdated tactics. Failing to update your strategies in response to changing culture, circumstances, emerging trends, or evolving donor expectations is a surefire way to stall progress.


The Fix:
Embrace adaptability. Choose a strategic plan that allows for flexibility, knowing that change is inevitable. Regularly review and refresh your strategic plan, keeping it aligned with your organization’s current goals and the ever-shifting landscape of the nonprofit sector. Be open to innovation and encourage your team to do the same.


2. The “Lone Wolf” Approach:

Just as Frodo needed the Fellowship of the Ring to succeed in Mordor, nonprofits require a collaborative approach to strategic planning. The “Lone Wolf” approach, where one person or a select few dominate the process, can be disastrous. It stifles creativity and overlooks valuable input from team members, stakeholders, and even major donors. Excluding voices from the chorus can lead to a strategic plan that lacks depth and buy-in. 

What is the worst version of this? When those “Lone Wolf” voices are unaware they are dominating the process. Not knowing what it is like to be “on the other side of them” ultimately erodes team trust and credibility.


The Fix:
Choose a collaborative process and environment where all team members are invited to contribute their insights, ideas, and perspectives. It is like assembling a “Fellowship” of experts, where each brings their unique talents to the table. Seeking input from stakeholders and major donors is essential to your strategic planning process (and please do not hire a consultant who insists on shrinking the voices at the table!). 


3. The “Shiny Object” Syndrome:

 In many ways, this is the opposite of the “Frozen in Time” Syndrome. 

Imagine an adventurer constantly chasing after shiny trinkets causing them to lose sight of the ultimate goal. The “Shiny Object” syndrome manifests when nonprofits are easily distracted by the latest trend, fad, or fundraising gimmick. While it is essential to innovate, endlessly pivoting without a clear strategic focus can scatter your resources and greatly diminish your impact. Think of it like putting together a puzzle: your strategy and tactics are all formed together as one cohesive whole that needs to fit together in a measured, meaningful and considered way.


The Fix:
Stay true to your mission and strategic objectives. Evaluate new opportunities and trends, including budgeting money toward this evaluative process. However, only pursue opportunities that align with your long-term goals and contribute to your long-range vision. Avoid chasing after every shiny object that comes your way and never waver on the commitment to your nonprofit organization’s core mission.


Final Thoughts

Maybe we are biased, but we think nonprofit strategic planning is a thrilling journey and these three mistakes are treacherous traps. By avoiding the “Frozen in Time” Syndrome, refusing the “Lone Wolf” Approach and steering clear of the “Shiny Object” Syndrome, your nonprofit can chart a successful course toward its mission. So, arm yourself with these insights, navigate the strategic planning journey wisely, and let your organization’s impact shine!

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