Charting Course: 

The Value and Necessity of Strategic Planning



By Mary E. Costello © May 2007

Independent Consultant

Grant Writing & Program Development

Creative Edge Consulting



Think back on when you were little and when people asked you, “what do you want to be when you grow up?”


Back then, we many times chose a path that resembled those of our living heroes—Our dad who was a fireman (like me) or other people we admired, such as teachers, doctors, or scientists.  Other friends might have had a list of things they intended to “be” simultaneously, such as an astronaut, veterinarian, and actor…..all in one.


Along the way, usually coming about somewhere in our later high school years, we better pinpointed our “goal,” the thing that, at least at that time, was what we wanted to “become.”  By then, we learned we could not realistically be three things at once without something else suffering.  Our intent needed to be clear, and….so did our plan for getting there.


Most of us learned along the way that life sometimes has plans beyond what we can readily see for ourselves, evidenced by how few people studied what their ultimate career path indicated later.  Regardless, even for a time, those preliminary goals sustained us for a while, plotting the path towards what we believed our purposes actually were, through targeted job and educational choices.  We picked colleges and trade schools with this in mind, pursued internships in alignment with these goals, and started our career progression towards those ends.


Starting a non-profit…or, even, revamping the vision of an existing one… requires a similar type of planning.  Charting your course for only the first year is short-sighted and only the beginning stages of operations.


Consider for a moment that most grant applications will, if funded, not offer a monetary payout until 6-12 months later.  In order to apply, you need to be forward-thinking enough to know what you will be doing THEN, not now.  No one will fund “today.”


At a bare minimum, all organizations should have at least a 3-5 year plan.  Although it is true that you can’t possibly know all the factors that will affect you in 3-5 years, you can determine where you want to be, expansion-wise, and how you intend to get there.  It is time-consuming and detail-oriented, but once completed it serves as your roadmap—open to modification, of course, but plotting your path with great intent and purpose.


There are many firms that specialize in leading organizations through this process, and, this service is not cheap if you go that route.  Ordinarily it involves 2-3 full days with the organization’s leaders and Board of Directors to break down milestones and goals into the minute particles of progress.  Each goal has objectives, and each set of objectives has a slew of tasks and associated activities that must be accomplished to fulfill the plan.


I am a strong believer in strategic planning, for, if you do not lay it all out in paper and think in tangible terms towards the future, how can you accurately measure your progress?  Despite this, I have found many groups to think of this as a luxury or secondary need.  I disagree.  I think it is central to success and should come before you do anything else.


If we even correlate this to more basic humanistic terms, I smile at the thought of one of our loved ones meeting that “someone special.”  A common question for all of us, as we meet that “prospect” for the first time, is in relationship to who they are, what they “do,” and their plans for the future.  Of course, some family members and friends are more tactful than others when broaching this subject.


More specifically, if we look at this in terms of the well-being of the person we love who we think might be affected by this new relationship, we ordinarily don’t want to hear that this other person has only thought through the first 6-12 months of the future.  Rightly or wrongly, that appears less stable to us.  As a potential partner or provider, we worry for the one we care about.  We become protective, and feel a staunch investment in the outcome.  Sure, we like dreamers—but, can we count on them? 


(I am playing devil’s advocate here and trying to make a point.  I, myself, am a dreamer and risk-taker, having made many personal and professional choices in my life based on principle and passion verses being pragmatic!  I do not recommend it for everyone, but it has worked out well for me, personally.  There are, of course, many trade-offs.)


Where was I?  Oh, yes…


A funder has an investment too.  Their reputation and money is at stake.  If you are going by the seat of your pants, not thinking beyond the next three months, how impressive do you think you will be?  They want to know, just as my parents do for my sisters in the romance department, is that the group in question is in it for the long haul—and that they are responsible “go-getters,” capable of achieving sustainability through a targeted plan for making that happen.


Even if you do your plan in-house, it is necessary to indicate that you have thought that far in advance.  My experience is that some new non-profits steer clear of accountability in this regard.  I suppose, if you do not designate goals, you can’t be accused of falling short of them.


On the other hand, funding opportunities are fierce in today’s climate.  New or not, you are competing against groups who DO have 3 to 10 year plans, complete with financial development goals and strategies, which are sometimes included as requested documents in funding applications.  Who will win under this scenario?  The newbie who hasn’t gotten around to figuring out all of that or the one who has it all, in chart format, available upon request?


In everything you do, planning is key.  Until you establish your roadmap, it is likely you will remain exactly where you are.  Such planning propels you forward and guides you as your True North.  Although your ultimate goals may never be fully achieved (since all human services needs will NEVER be completely met, as history teaches us), you CAN increase impact each year through expansion, while constantly striving to create, through healthy, honest evaluation and targeted program modification, the best service system possible.  Respectability and leadership hinges on such things.


So, my non-profit friend …if you can only answer questions regarding where you are TODAY…. You have some major work to do.  Put it on your “TO DO” list.








About the Author: Mary E. Costello holds a BA degree in Social Work from The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.  She is a former Social Work Administrator who specialized in the management of complex human services programs and leading new projects creation.  Forming Creative Edge Consulting in February of 2005, she now is the “resident expert” on grant writing and non-profit program development issues on the Boys Project website, a sponsored project of the University of Alaska/Fairbanks.  She serves clients throughout the United States, including both community based programs and those of national scope.   Programmatic and grant related questions or inquiries regarding her professional line of services may be directed to  Mary will attempt to answer all general questions from the public but cannot guarantee a personal response, dependent on volume of requests at any given time. 


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