Small nonprofits should view their size as a plus

NONPROFITS INC.

July 26, 1993|By LESTER A. PICKER

First of three parts.

There are only a few days left to July. Starting next week, chances are better than even you won't be able to get a thing done in Maryland until September -- at least anything that requires more than two people getting together.

So, between answering phones because everyone else in the office is at the beach, here are some thoughts to consider about planning, apparently the word on the lips of nearly every nonprofit executive last spring, regardless of the size of their organization.

First, some semantics. Planning is one word. It is not the tail end of a hyphenated word, as in strategic-planning or long-range-planning.

When an organization is small, except under unusual circumstances, it normally does not have the staff, financial resources -- or the need -- to engage in complex strategic planning processes. However, rather than see this as a strength, my experience has been that most executives of small nonprofits see this as a liability. They run around desperately trying to read, attend seminars, or obtain pro bono help for an exhaustive long-range or strategic planning process.

Instead, small organizations should view their size as a plus, exactly as do small entrepreneurial, for-profit corporations. The planning process for smaller groups does not have to be the cumbersome, staff-intensive, energy-draining process that it is for large, well-established charities. Smaller agencies can plan informally, and see results many times faster than their big brothers and sisters.

For smaller organizations, planning can involve watching the news media for emerging social trends, then comparing those to the organization's founding vision. It might involve informal discussions with community leaders to seek feedback on anticipated new directions. At this stage, "Planning is highly intuitive, driven by instinct rather than data collection," explains Joseph McNeely, president and founder of the Development Training Institute in Baltimore.

Bolstering this informal planning process is the fact that the resources of the small organization are usually so limited, the choices of direction are correspondingly limited. In many ways this is also a plus. It forces a discipline early on, which can be beneficial. Once the organization's successes become widely known, more and more opportunities become available. It takes exceptional focus at these times to keep the organization on track.

Larger nonprofits usually have grown their financial, staff and volunteer resources to the point that they have sufficient internal capacity to undertake an exhaustive, formalized planning process.

Given a commitment to planning for the future, rather than being buffeted by the winds of change, in which type of planning does one engage? There is much confusion over long-range vs. strategic planning, I have found.

Long-range planning typically explores where the organization wishes to be in three to five years. Best conducted by the board, senior staff and a facilitator, and using the mission and vision statements as guides, the planning committee examines broad trends in the field, demographic trends in the region, and relevant marketing data. The planning process establishes positioning goals in the various operational areas.

By necessity, the positioning goals should be increasingly vague as one looks past two or three years. Today's business environment is far too complex and fluid to pretend that five-year projections will have any validity.

Strategic planning, as its name implies, is more detailed. It asks the questions, "How do we achieve the long-range goals to which we have committed? What strategies do we enact in order to advance those goals?"

While planners enjoy semantic debates over which process involves which activities, some degree of planning is critical in advancing a charity's agenda.

In following columns, I'll examine some of the steps involved in the planning process.

(Les Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at 71 Bathon Circle, Elkton, Md., 21921; [410] 392-3160.)

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