The Nonprofit Strategic Plan Simplified Part 3: Framing Issues, Drafting Goals & Drafting Objectives

October 4, 2017

This is the third and final post in a series started a few weeks ago on the nuts and bolts of creating a basic strategic plan.  The underlying purpose of strategic planning is to come up with strategies (represented by goals and objectives) that describe how the organization will use its strengths and correct its weaknesses to pursue the opportunities for achieving its mission and avoid the threats that stand to prevent it from doing so.The series began with a post on crafting vision, mission and values statements. Next, we looked at a simplified way of conducting an assessment of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (also known as a SWOT exercise). Each of these posts had a worksheet available for download to simplify the planning process.

Why developing a nonprofit strategic plan is so important

In this post, we will look at the final step in developing a strategic plan: crafting goals and objectives.  This step has 3 substeps, including, (1) identifying the top five or six strategic issues, i.e., the weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to which the plan needs to respond, and then framing each as a question; (2) Developing goals; and (3) Developing objectives.

1. framing strategic plan issues

This step involves reviewing the SWOT exercise to identify the top five or six strategic issues, framing each as a question.  The question format is useful in helping us through substeps 2 and 3, below, which involve deciding how best to respond to the issue.  As an example, let’s assume an AIDS treatment program identified as a strategic issue its heavy dependence on federal funding.  It framed the issue as a question in this way:  “How do we deal with our heavy dependence on federal funding?  Similarly, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs cited as a strategic issue the increasing numbers of veterans who are homeless.  It framed the issue as a question in this way:  “How do we eliminate veteran homelessness.” As you review the SWOT exercise, look for similarities and relationships across and among results so that multiple iterations of the same idea can be captured in a single strategic issue.

2. DRAFTING strategic plan goals

In substep 1, above, we talked about finding the top weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.  As we go through this substep and the next, we want to be thinking about how we can use our internal strengths to address them. In this way, we will be able to make the most of the SWOT exercise results.

For a smaller organization, one or two individuals should take responsibility for drafting the initial goals and objectives. Goals are outcome statements (ends) that guide the organization’s programs, management, and leadership. A good strategic goal statement defines what the organization plans to accomplish, without including why and how. A strategic plan should have no more than six to eight strategic goals.

Sticking with our U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs example above, that department identified veteran homelessness, a backlog of disability claims and access to VA benefits and services as strategic issues.  Its goals related to each of these were stated as follows:

Eliminate veteran homelessness

Eliminate disability claims backlog

Improve access to VA benefits and services

3. DRAFTING strategic plan Objectives

Each goal usually carries with it two or more objectives. An objective is a measure of change necessary to achieve a goal.  Another way to distinguish between goals and objectives is that a goal is a description of destination, while an objective is a measure of progress needed to get to that destination.  Objectives can focus on either process or outcomes. Let’s briefly look at each.

A. Process Objectives

Process objectives describe something a staff person or volunteer is going to do.  They typically begin with phrases such as “to develop,” “to implement,” “to establish,” or “to conduct.” These phrases all describe activities that will be undertaken by the organization and they guide implementation. In eliminating the disability claims backlog, for example, the Department of Veterans Affairs might choose to hire 100 new disability claims processors.

B. Outcome Objectives

Outcome objectives describe changes that advance your mission, i.e. improving the lives of individuals or a condition in the community.  They typically describe a change in behavior, skills, awareness, health status and the like. Outcome objectives typically begin with phrases such as “to increase,” “to decrease,” or “to improve.” As such they define milestones in achievement.  The following formula can be helpful in drafting outcome objectives: [verb noting direction of change] + [area of change] + [target population] + [degree of change] + [time frame].  Let’s look at an example.  Sticking with the Department of Veterans Affairs and its goal of improving access to VA benefits and services, a related objective might be as follows: to increase the number of service kiosks in major U.S. Post Offices by 25 percent before the end of the fiscal year to improve accessibility for mobile veterans.  Let’s break down this objective into its component parts:

DIRECTION OF CHANGE: increase

AREA OF CHANGE: service kiosks

TARGET POPULATION: mobile veterans

DEGREE OF CHANGE: 25 percent

TIME FRAME: before the end of the fiscal year

All objectives, regardless of type, should be written in such a way that they are SMART, i.e., specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, and time-phased. Applying this rule to the objective we noted above about hiring new claims processors, we might amend it to say:  Hire 100 new disability claims processors in the Disability Claims Office by the end of the fiscal year.

After the goals and objectives have been developed, it will be useful to include them in a table that includes columns for (1) Goals; (2) Objectives; (3) Responsible Parties (in a small organization, this is often a board committee); and (4) Status.  You will find it useful to review the status with the board of directors at least quarterly.  I’ve developed a template of this chart, which includes the best practices described above for developing goals and objectives, for download by clicking here.

The worksheet stems from my reading of several sources, including the latest edition of Strategic Planning for Nonprofit Organizations: A Practical Guide for Dynamic Times. It’s a terrific book and is available on my resource page. I have to say, however, that as great as I think it is as a resource, it’s not terribly accessible to a small nonprofit trying to craft or revise a strategic plan, particularly if you’re trying to do so without external assistance.

So, I urge you to “choose to improve.” Download the worksheet and let me know if it works for you!

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