Strategic Planning Themes: A Look Back at the Past Few Years

Spotify, the digital music service, has me looking forward to the end of the year. That’s because it released Spotify Wrapped, a year-in-review that provides all kinds of interesting data points about its listeners as a whole and my listening habits as an individual. I find it fascinating to learn about how many minutes of music we listened to, as well as how many plays our favorite artists and songs had during the year.

This got me thinking about strategic planning themes — What are they? How could I identify them? How might they evolve year-to-year? Understanding themes and trends offers numerous benefits to you as a leader since they can help inform decisions and strategies.

I parsed through more than 10,000 rows of strategic plan elements (core components, such as mission, vision and values), focus areas and goals from more than 375 nonprofits across the last three years. I noted the most commonly used words (including synonyms) by finding keywords and reviewing their context and sequences. Here are the four common themes of strategic planning over the past few years that I identified.

1. A Focus on People

Nonprofits rightfully have a reputation of caring about living things. From people development to a focus on customers and stakeholders, that reputation is represented in strategic plans as many organizations focus on people through team development or stakeholders.

Professional Development

Nonprofits are dedicated to professional development both internally and externally. On many plans, organizations noted the need to find and offer professional development opportunities to their staff. Many are looking for conferences, seminars and other types of training to allow staff to strengthen their current skills or explore new areas of interest. Other nonprofits offer professional development opportunities as part of their programming to their constituents.

Vision statement examples include:

  • Establish strong professional development programs for staff and board, improve internal operations systems, and provide sufficient wages and support for staff.
  • Enable the team to meet professional development goals and create programs that they feel most passionate about and equipped for.

Goal statement examples include:

  • Team members to identify two personal and professional development goals every year.
  • Establish an annual professional development conference of directors in our network.

Board Development

Board development is another area of focus on many strategic plans. Nonprofits are focused on this group of people to ensure they have the skills, values and commitment to effectively execute their missions. Many plans mention the need to create board committees. Others are looking to expand their boards to find professionals with skills in the areas the organizations need.

Vision statement examples include:

  • Build an engaged, supportive and capable board.
  • Establish effective and efficient policies and procedures for the board of directors to fulfill the purpose of the organization, ensuring fulfillment to the organization’s fullest potential.

Goal statement examples include:

  • Complete board recruiting plan policy, including board selection criteria, plan for vetting members and creation of board orientation packet.
  • Increase board membership to 12 with diversity of skills and demographics.

Programming

Perhaps the most focus on strategic plans is about programming and communication for customers and stakeholders. Nonprofits are focused on refining programs to meet the needs of their community. They are also looking to expand the ways they reach and communicate with their stakeholders and customers.

Vision statement examples include:

  • Deliver distance learning and virtual training and advising with a personal touch. (Create programming with deep consideration to how the instruction is led.)
  • Develop community-centric programming.
  • Create, communicate, and deliver information regarding programs throughout the county.

Goal statement examples include:

  • Develop a marketing campaign to grow the program attendees to 20 in each offering.
  • Develop a financial plan that supports program expansion by the end of fall.
  • Develop program evaluation process.

2. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Diversity, equity and inclusion are top priorities among the nonprofits, and I know that there is still a lot of work to be done. A nonprofit’s strategic plan is a great place to document the work that you are dedicating to doing to advance these important values so that we can truly make sustainable changes and embody them.

Diversity themes in the review of strategic plans focus on bringing together a team of diverse individuals with different identities, qualities and backgrounds. Equity themes have many nonprofits reviewing all of their organizations’ policies, procedures and processes to determine how to help all people achieve the same level of success.

​​Strategic plans are also noting the importance of diverse groups having their voices heard in important aspects of the nonprofit. Some nonprofits have set a goal of creating committees of community members to hear their stories and plan to share that information across their marketing channels.

Other focuses of diversity, equity and inclusion in strategic plans include nonprofits creating initiatives, task forces and committees as a way of acknowledging the importance of DEI work and their dedication to creating institutional change.

Vision statement examples include:

  • Increase the inclusivity and diversity of our events.
  • Define and set a diversity goal for the board.
  • We will identify, build and embrace the core values of diversity, equity, and inclusion into all of our nonprofit’s operations, as well as model those values as we advance our mission.

Goal statements examples include:

  • Review all policies, procedures, and processes to ensure compliance with our board-approved DEI statement.
  • Create a community voice group to regularly gather community stories for sharing across our social and other marketing channels.
  • Create and implement a DEI action plan, including an official statement and policy on DEI efforts within the organization.

3. Measurement and Analysis

The benefits of leveraging data are numerous so I’m thrilled that “measurement” and “analysis” were two words repeatedly used across focus areas and goals in my review of strategic plans. Measurements and data analysis can provide leaders with the information they need to make informed decisions about their nonprofits. Additional benefits include increased productivity and greater financial stability by discovering and cutting unnecessary costs.

A couple of the most common areas for measurement were fundraising, programming and performance.

Vision statement examples include:

  • Implement a performance management system for driving and managing daily operations and for tracking overall organizational performance (that align with strategic direction.)
  • Fundraising efforts will be more goal-oriented, such as identifying specific amounts to raise for scholarships, using donor database effectively and personally engaging with donors using list of needs, stats, impact statement and testimonials,
  • Establish a small set of metrics to measure our impact.

Goal statement examples include:

  • Address feedback from program participants to increase satisfaction ratings measurement of program leaders to eight out of 10.
  • Document and reinforce values to increase positive ratings in culture survey results from our team.
  • Focus on deepening relationships with donors to increase our direct donor fundraising by 15% in the next year.

4. Strategic Planning

Another interesting point to note is that many organizations have chosen to include strategic planning on their plan in some fashion. It’s a great way to emphasize the continued focus that nonprofits should have on the strategic planning process.

Nonprofits are using their strategic plans to set goals for their processes of creating and implementing their plans. Many note the ongoing cycle of strategic planning and include the need to create their next three- or five-year plans.

Other nonprofits are branching out and creating different strategic plans for other aspects of their organizations. For example, one nonprofit is expanding with regional centers, so it created a strategic plan for its “home base” as well as regional centers since they will have different goals.

Vision statement examples include:

  • We will have institutionalized a process of regularly reviewing, revising and updating our plan in pursuit of our mission and vision.
  • Installed a strategic planning process that is a part of our culture. It will be part of how we run the organization.

Goal statement examples include:

  • Develop a strategy committee that is responsible for advising in the development and implementation of strategies consistent with our mission and strategic plan.
  • Establish an annual strategic planning cycle, to include quarterly reviews. Send meeting invitations to team members for the year.
  • Plan semi-annual strategic planning and development meetings with the entire staff and board.

Key Takeaway and Next Step

Some of these themes are consistent year to year. I regularly see topics, such as fund development, communication and marketing, and programs, included on strategic plans. This isn’t surprising because they are at the heart of most nonprofits. However, the actions and tactics for each topic may change and evolve over time.

The use of social media, for example, is increasingly being represented on strategic plans as part of a nonprofit’s broader communication and outreach plans. What went from “use social media” is now a more sophisticated and detailed action plan such as analyzing engagement on social media platforms, creating a posting calendar and using social media to increase outreach efforts to constituents for a specific event or program.

It’s important to both know the information and to use it. I encourage you to review these themes and compare and contrast it with your own nonprofit’s strategic plan. If this information is represented in your strategic plan, how should it evolve over time? If not, should it be? I can’t wait to see what you do next and the themes that emerge next year.

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