Why Good Doesn’t Get to Great

Nonprofits of all kinds see the virtues of strategic planning. But middling organizations struggle more to get strategy right.

For all the debate about whether strategic planning is effective—or whether it might need a new name—there’s little dispute that having strategic thinkers at the helm of an organization is critical. Indeed, that’s one of the signature differences between associations that do big things and those that just coast along, according to a recent study.

“Medium success organizations … have more difficulty in making some of the tough choices that good strategic planning can demand.”

The survey, conducted by the Association for Strategic Planning (ASP) in collaboration with the University of Arkansas Department of Political Science, was built around the responses of approximately 1,000 501(c)(3) organizations in the United States. The respondents were asked a battery of questions about their strategic planning practices. They were also asked to self-rate their level of success. Sixty-three percent rated their success level as “high,” while 31 percent rated themselves “medium.” Six percent of the respondents, presumably groaning with noble integrity as they clicked through the survey, rated their success level as “low.”

ASP published some preliminary findings from the survey in March 2012. A deeper drill-down, presented at ASP’s annual conference in April, unearthed some striking correlations between an organization’s success and its attitude toward strategic planning. A few examples:

  • Asked to select their biggest challenges during strategic-plan development, only 18 percent of high-performing organizations claimed a “lack of high-level strategic thinking by leadership”; 37 percent of medium-performing organizations did the same.
  • Similarly, only 18 percent of high-performing organizations claimed a “resistance to make hard choices”; 35 percent of medium-performing organizations did.
  • Highly successful organizations report their plan achievements much more frequently. Fifty-three percent of them do so at least monthly, while only 32 percent of medium-success organizations do.

Overall, the study’s authors argue, the most successful organizations are the most strategic ones, and the ones that are most disciplined about adhering to the plans they create. “Medium success organizations are more challenged with lack of leadership support/direction, and have more difficulty in making some of the tough choices that good strategic planning can demand,” the report says. “Leaders must arm themselves with good information to inform direction setting, and prepare themselves to step-up and make the difficult decisions that will help them develop and implement clear strategic direction.”

The title of the report is “Strategic Planning Practices Result in Higher Performing Nonprofits.” But I’m not sure if the main takeaway should be so focused on causality. It doesn’t automatically follow that one leads to the other: Assemble a Strategic Plan and Win! It’s more correct to say, I think, that the relationship is a symbiotic one. Organizations that are successful want to find ways to preserve that success, so they commit to forward-thinking strategic plans; implementation, when done right, streamlines processes and generates new ideas that breed new success; and so on.

The best first step for an organization that’s struggling may not even be so much a strategic plan as a commitment to strategic thinking, especially if what’s holding you back is the kind of board that wants an hourlong discussion about HQ’s A/C bill rather than a serious discussion about the future of the organization. Indeed, the study stresses the importance of clarifying the goals of setting strategy and what actions it will lead to.

Do the findings in ASP’s study jibe with your experience? If you’re a highly successful organization—go ahead, brag—please share how you made strategic planning a part of that success in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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