No matter if you’re a for-profit business or a charitable nonprofit organization, staying up-to-date on what is happening in your specific field is vital in order to be successful. Strategic planning for nonprofits is one of the best ways to do this is to keep track of what industry leaders are doing and how they are adapting to the current landscape of your field.

One tool that industry-leading businesses and organizations use to grow and improve is a strategic plan. That term may sound complex, but this article will explain what a strategic plan is, how to build one, and demonstrate how industry-leading nonprofit organizations are strategic planning. Let’s start by determining what exactly a strategic plan is.

What is Strategic Planning for Nonprofits?

A strategic plan is a document that your organization creates that lays out the main goals of the organization for the future, whether that means the coming year or the next five years. These goals are also accompanied by specific, actionable tasks that will help your nonprofit organization stay on track and achieve those goals. The strategic plan is essentially a road map demonstrating where your organization currently is, where you want to get, and how, exactly, you plan to get there.

Furthermore, a strategic plan doesn’t just reflect the views of one person or group of people, it is a collection of information revolving around everyone in the entire organization. Setting goals is great, but to reach those goals you need actionable tasks which then means you need someone to perform those tasks, usually your nonprofit’s staff members.

In order to create a useful strategic plan with achievable goals, everyone in your organization has to communicate with each other about the work they are capable of doing, how that work fits into the overall plan, the potential shortcomings, and how everyone will stay on track in order to reach their goals. One of the tools that nonprofit organizations use to determine all of this information is the SWOT system.

The SWOT system stands for Strengths (internal), Weaknesses (internal), Opportunities (external), and Threats (external). This system helps build a better picture of your organization as a whole, but it can also show the capabilities of different departments, groups, and individuals within the organization. This will help you understand what you are already good at and what you can work to improve on.

For example, by determining the strengths and weaknesses of a certain staff member, you may realize that they are very good with face-to-face interactions. With that information, you can then decide to put them in charge of donor relations, which would be even more beneficial if one of your goals is to increase donor retention.

Now that we’ve dealt with what a strategic plan is, let’s focus on the specific factors that go into building a strategic plan as well as the various strategic planning models.

How Do You Build a Strategic Plan?

The next thing for your nonprofit to do is actually build a strategic plan. There are several types of strategic plans that your organization can build depending on your current situation. We’ll lay out the different models, what organizations they are good for, and the steps you should take to construct your strategic plan.

Here are the five main types of strategic planning models:

Standard Strategic Planning Model

This is the simplest and most common strategic planning model. It is best for nonprofit organizations whose situation is relatively stable. In this model, you’ll want to:

  • Detail your nonprofit organization’s mission and goals
  • Determine a set of specific, short-term goals you want to achieve to move toward your mission
  • Construct a straightforward plan for reaching these short-term goals (This includes determining the individuals responsible for the success of each individual goal)
  • Document all of these actions and come up with a schedule to complete them

Since this is the most common model, here is an example to give you an idea of what it looks like.

Issue-Based Strategic Model

This strategic planning model is used for nonprofits who have internal or management issues within their organization. This model is focused on getting back on track as opposed to setting new goals. Here are the steps to take:

  • Identify the factors that are holding your nonprofit back from success
  • Determine how to handle each of those factors in order to get back on track
  • Track your progress and modify your strategy accordingly

Organic Strategic Planning Model

This strategic planning model applies to nonprofits who operate within an unpredictable or unstable external climate. In this model, everyone in your nonprofit will come together to strengthen their understanding of the mission and goals of the organization while also thinking of useful steps to close in on that goal before the next group meeting. The actions for this model are:

  • Go on a retreat with all of your team members to solidify your understanding of the organization’s goals
  • Have team members examine their own strengths, then determine actionable goals they can accomplish with that strength by a certain date
  • Meet with the team as often as necessary to review the progress toward each individual goal and how it is influencing the overall mission

Real-Time Strategic Planning Model

This strategic planning model is for nonprofit organizations that are experiencing an immediate internal or external crisis. This includes things like economic recessions, COVID-19, or natural disasters. The focus here is on short-term goals and getting through the crisis. Here’s how:

  • Meet frequently with members of your organization to determine short-term objectives for each team member
  • During your meetings, talk about whether the objectives are being met or not, the daily progress, and any obstacles your team members are facing
  • Once the crisis is over, take stock of your progress or lack thereof, thank team members for their hard work, and shift to creating a new strategic plan with a different model

Alignment Strategic Planning Model

This strategic planning model applies to nonprofits who have productive individual departments, but lack proper communication. In this model, you will focus on bringing the entire organization into a cohesive unit through the following steps:

  • Meet as an organization to understand the issues team members are facing in their positions
  • Remind everyone of the common mission you are all working toward
  • Determine small changes to improve communication and cohesion at the organization

Determining which model is the best fit for your nonprofit organization will make building a strategic plan to reach your goals much more manageable. Another thing that is important to keep in mind when crafting a strategic plan is to revisit the plan. Don’t just throw it aside after making it. This is your roadmap to achieving your goals. Even if you accomplish all of your goals, your strategic plan is a valuable resource going forward for what your nonprofit can accomplish and how it can do it.

Now that we have a better understanding of how to build strategic plans and the various models you can use, let’s explore what industry-leading nonprofits are doing for strategic planning.

What are Industry Leaders Doing?

As mentioned earlier, one of the best practices for making your organization successful is to pay attention to what industry leaders are doing. Since industry-leading organizations all tend to use strategic plans, we’ll now examine some of those plans and discuss how these organizations are planning for their futures. Most of these organizations will use the standard strategic planning model since, as industry-leaders, they are well-funded, organized, and have a sturdy foundation to build on.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s most recent strategic plan, written in 2015, focuses on goals and objectives for 2016-2020 in a standard strategic planning model. In the strategic plan, the organization highlights two major challenges they face moving forward: a rapidly-changing planet and the state of natural history museums. The plan then continues to lay out three main, actionable priorities for the organization as they continue to work toward their goal.

According to the Smithsonian’s strategic plan, these three priorities are to:

  1. Accelerate discoveries about our evolving planet through fieldwork, collections-based research, and cutting-edge science.
  2. Inspire and motivate planet-savvy citizens.
  3. Improve operations and partnerships in support of our mission.

Within each priority, the Smithsonian’s strategic plan breaks down the priority into multiple goals the organization wants to achieve. Then, those goals are broken down into specific objectives of their own, creating actionable tasks. As you can see, the Smithsonian’s plan is extremely detailed and well thought out, projecting a clear path for where they want to go and how they are going to get there.

World Central Kitchen

While World Central Kitchen (WCK) doesn’t have a strategic plan available to view online, their website and the Audacious Project lay out exactly how the organization first planned to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and the work they continue to do through their Chefs for America campaign. This example presents an interesting situation when thinking about strategic planning models, because WCK is responding directly to a global disaster and trying to reach short-term goals in order to stay afloat and keep helping.

It’s likely that WCK has been too busy providing meals and putting restaurants back to work to focus on putting a complete strategic plan document together. If they did have one, it would probably be a real-time strategic planning model laying out their short-term goals like providing meals to a certain neighborhood that week, then discussing if the goals were met or if there were any shortcomings, making any necessary changes to their plan, then continuing to help communities in need until the pandemic is over.


Many nonprofit organizations create strategic plans for their specific branches, like the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia. Their strategic plan focuses on the period of 2020-2023, highlighting five strategic priorities to complete by the end of 2023. As another example of how to effectively construct priorities for a nonprofit’s strategic plan, here are those five priorities of ACLU of Georgia:

  1. Voter Rights and Political Participation
  2. Women’s Rights
  3. Criminal Legal System Reform
  4. Privacy and Surveillance
  5. Organizational Sustainability

As with the Smithsonian strategic plan, the ACLU of Georgia dives deeper into each priority to highlight exactly how their organization is going to work toward their goals over the next few years. This is another example of a standard strategic plan model, but it is focused on responding to new and current issues in the present day. Since the ACLU deals with such a wide variety of issues, having a detailed and organized strategic plan is crucial to their success moving forward.

Feeding America

Feeding the Gulf Coast, a member of the Feeding America nonprofit organization, shares a simple, straightforward strategic plan for 2022. While this plan is much shorter and less detailed than many of the other strategic plans in this article, it demonstrates that your strategic plans can be constructed in whatever way is best for your organization.

Every organization has a different mission and different goals they want to achieve. Feeding the Gulf Coast’s strategic plan shows that you don’t have to make your strategic plan a 20-page document, as long as you and all the members of your organization know what you need to do individually to reach your goals.

Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America

Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America highlights their 2022 strategic plan on their website, which gives a lot of information about their organization and their general goals, but doesn’t go into extreme details like some of the other strategic plans examined in this article. One of the reasons for this comes from what you’ve already seen with the ACLU and Feeding the Gulf Coast: different branches of major organizations have different strategic plans.

For larger, industry-leading organizations like Big Brothers/Big Sisters and the others listed here, they cannot have one, unified plan for every branch of their organization because each of those branches has different priorities and goals. Big Brothers/Big Sisters of New York certainly has different goals than Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Montana. Each situation is unique and, like the different chapters of these large organizations, only you and your fellow team members can determine what is best for your nonprofit’s strategic plan.

Strategic planning for nonprofits is a wide-ranging topic and how you approach it depends on your specific organization’s situation. The first step is to determine what planning model is best for you and build your strategic plan accordingly. To help, we’ve collected several free strategic planning templates on our Giant List of Nonprofit Templates. Examining how industry-leading nonprofit organizations handle their strategic planning should also help you on your way to planning for the next step in your organization’s future.

By Dominic Lincoln