Why Strategic Planning Fails

I’ve long been ambivalent about the value of the strategic planning process for most organizations.  It’s not that I don’t think it is worthwhile to take a longer view, consider what you would like to accomplish—it’s that most strategic plans tend to ignore the more important issues of how you are going to get there and what it takes to reach your goal. I recently reviewed the strategic plan of a start up organization.  The first goal, not unrealistically, was to increase their financial support.  What was completely ridiculous (and I use that word carefully) was the objectives they set and activities they defined on how to get there.  Basically, objective one is to obtain enough money to start their programs, and then to develop sustainable revenue streams, increasing and diversifying mechanisms for individuals and other organizations to donate.  The ways they “strategically plan” to get there include:

  • Create a strong fundraising board
  • Use all avenues—which they defined as mass marketing efforts such as social media, events, direct mail—to raise fundraising capacity
  • Explore brand collaborations, much in the way many celebrity nonprofits do.

The rest of their goals had to do with their programs.  No where did they look at their ability to accomplish any of this—even if “this” was a good plan to begin with.

As I read this plan, so reminiscent of most of the strategic plans I review, I thought how much this would be like me—a sole proprietor with no staff –decided to posit a goal to increase my consulting business to have gross revenues of $1 Million.  And my objective would be to “increase my client load.”  The activities would be “to get more clients through marketing, word of mouth, and repeat business.”

A slight reality check, however, would point out that for me to grow to $1 Million, I would have to have a minimum of 5,000 billable hours each year.  If I were to work a 40-hour week, I would have to have 125 weeks each year just to maintain billing.  We won’t even think about the back office hours and the marketing hours it takes to sustain this kind of billing.

This makes no sense.  What I first need to do is to consider my capacity—what can I, given my current resources, accomplish today?  If I want to increase that, where do I need to increase my capacity?  What things will I need to add to what I have?  And, critically, what would be the price tag of increasing what I am currently doing?

As I thought about this, I became very clear why most strategic plans end up in a notebook on someone’s shelf.  They fail because they are not anchored in reality;  they are a picture of what would be lovely to do, not what you—realistically—will be doing any time soon. It’s like pining for the greener grass on a far shore, without a bridge or a road to get you there.

For strategic planning to succeed, it has to start with a capacity assessment:  where is the organization now?  What can it accomplish?  What needs to be fixed in order that things as they are can be as successful as possible?  Only when this is understood, can you appropriately consider where you would like to be—and understand what you will need to do in order to get there.

The capacity assessment, I have discovered, often eliminates the need for a drawn out strategic planning process.  As the people connected with the organization—administration, staff, board members—begin to really understand (sometimes for the first time) what their capabilities are and what they need to do to get to where they would like to be now, they clearly begin to define the direction where they want to head.  And that is much more strategic than all the strategic planning processes I have seen.


Janet Levine works with nonprofits and educational organizations, helping them to increase their fundraising capacity.  This, in turn, helps organizations reach strategic goals, and build a sustainable infrastructure.  Learn more at http://janetlevineconsulting.com.  While there, sign up for the monthly newsletter.