Strategic Planning Writ Larger

February 9, 2014

I have been actively engaged in the nonprofit/charitable sector for almost 20 years. (I am presently in disengagement mode, planning to take an extended break.) Through my experiences I learned many things, especially about how nonprofits differ from businesses and governmental agencies.

Large business entities—Microsoft, Chase, General Electric, etc.—work off of strategic plans. These organizations expend time and money figuring out where they want to be at given points in time, and how they will get there. The plans are not static, for sure, but they do not function in the “stuff happens, so don’t bother planning” realm.

The nonprofits with which I have been involved are all much, much smaller than the icons of the American economy. Budgets ranged from $200,000 to $6,000,000, with management teams of one to 20 people. Still, during the past 15 years every group with which I have worked has had a strategic plan. In most instances it has been reviewed periodically and followed, and has not been a “stick it on the shelf” report.

And our government? Uh! Well! Um! Oh, wait:  Congress, when it does any budgeting or spending, projects the cost or savings over 10 years. That’s what you mean, right?

No, that is not what I mean! Money matters, for sure. But budgeting ≠ planning! Budgeting is necessary, but not sufficient, and it’s the easy part that comes after we figure out who/what/where we want to be in 10, 20, 50 years, and how we might get there.

On January 14, 2004, President George W. Bush announced a commitment to a manned mission to Mars. Cool! Of course, 2004 was an election year, the country was already stuck in the war in Iraq, and the president’s approval rating had fallen significantly from its post-9/11 high. So, was the announcement reflective of a long-range plan, developed around an integrated goal, a rationale, and the means to achieve the goal? Or, instead, was it a publicity stunt, designed around a desire to refocus our busy minds for a few days or a week or more?

No doubt, NASA personnel have been working on Mars for years. I’m sure they have been prioritizing Mars as well, thinking about how it fits into NASA’s broad mission, how resources get spent, etc. Sounds like strategic planning maybe, and it’s likely that something like that process does occur.

So, where is that process when we’re matching NASA against public health, education, controlling crime, defense, and so on and so forth? Non-existent, that’s where!

I appreciate the difficulties attendant to thinking beyond the next crisis and the election that will follow. Our Constitution imposes two, four and six year windows on our elected officials. As it operates, our government rewards outliers—people notice Senator Ted Cruz, like him or not, more than they notice hard working senators with lower profiles—who, by design, focus on the news cycle. And, as John Lennon and Sheryl Crow have aptly noted, life happens when you’re making your plans.

I have no easy answers here. Seems, though, like we might start with an inventory of our challenges! That will take some time for sure, but we really can’t begin to know how we move forward if we don’t know what we face. Then, maybe, we figure out what we must do, what we ought to do, and what we’d like to do. Prioritizing, I think it’s called. And so on!

Thanks for listening!

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