Keeping an Eye Out for Detours, While Staying on Track


Written by Caitlin Endyke

We’ve written before about how much we try to integrate reading and learning into our work here at the Building Movement Project, as we try to stay abreast of current theories and trends in the nonprofit sector. Last month, Sean Thomas-Breitfeld wrote about a discussion on Neoliberalism and Marketization that we had with our staff and project team at our most recent bi-annual meeting. While we host these meetings twice per year, we also keep in touch with our team members through a series of monthly calls, when we discuss topics of interest and plan for the six months ahead. 

For a recent call with our staff and team, we read “The Strategic Plan is Dead. Long Live Strategy”, from the Stanford Social Innovation Review.  The authors, Dana O’Donovan and Noah Flower, discuss how the idea of a strategic plan was born out of military history and dictated a specific path to a pre-determined goal.  Yet in this era of nonprofit management, organizations are encouraged to remain nimble enough to respond to new external demands and opportunities (be it the funding landscape, the political climate, or the changing needs of clients).  Having a defined and stagnant strategic plan might no longer be the most effective way to run an organization.  Instead, the authors argue, nonprofits need to adopt a culture of strategic thinking, rather than planning. They say the best strategy is one that is “adaptive and directive, that emphasizes learning and control, and that reclaims the value of strategic thinking for the world that now surrounds us”. This form of strategic thinking depends on rapid experimentation, pattern recognition, and a structure that is conducive to delegated authority and making real-time decisions on the ground.

Our team thought this idea that more emphasis should be put on adapting with external environments as you go was good in theory.  We’ve even studied the benefits of alternative leadership structures like the ones the authors advocate for. Yet the argument posed in the article still seemed a bit incomplete.  While traditional strategic planning might be a thing of the past, organizations still need a process for determining what path they should take to best meet their objectives.  One team member, Dushaw Hockett, likened the strategic plan to that of a GPS device – you want one that tells you the best route, but also takes into account changing external conditions (like traffic jams or construction projects) and re-routes accordingly. Sean Thomas-Breitfeld liked this analogy, but also added that you need to have a larger vision to be able to tell when you should still stay on the prescribed path, even if immediate concerns seem to suggest that you change direction. 

One idea that we kept coming back to is one of the main issues we continue to cover at Building Movement – that organizational plans for the future should not only be working toward what is best for the organization, but also what will advance the movement as a whole..  While organizational sustainability is important, the main goal for nonprofits should be to work together to achieve progressive social change.  In the end, it seems as though the new strategic plan is a balancing act- one that allows for agility but is also clear in its goals for the organization and the movement.Movement Building

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