Make operations planning part of strategic planning

Nonprofit strategic planning starts with the mission as the launchpad for aligning an organization’s programming with purpose. The strategic plan also creates an opportunity to take an authentic look at how the work impacts the communities served. Staff and leadership, with the board, develop strategies to fulfill goals and move the mission closer to reality.

All strategies require alignment with an organization’s operational capacity and systems, including the bookkeeping, database management, human resources, information technology, and other back-office functions. However, operations are not usually factored into strategic planning in a meaningful way. 

For example, an existing data management strategy, or access to a multi-lingual translation service, or a new warehousing space, are seldom drivers for strategic goals. Furthermore, the operational needs created by new strategic goals, for example, a new point of sale system, or an increase in human resource services, or new insurance policies, are not always included in a strategic plan. We’ve seen too many instances when excellent strategic goals are not achieved because of limited operational capacity.

This separation between strategic planning and operational planning suggests that operations are reactionary and ancillary, not a driving force for change. Yet we know that high-quality operations are required for nonprofit organizations to actually be strategic and 

  • Ensure effective and compliant programs and services, now and in the future
  • Support a knowledgeable, innovative, team of staff, board, and volunteers
  • Invest in research for future growth opportunities.

Nonprofit organizations need to be strategic about operations – in the same way they are strategic about program and service activities. 

A strategic plan that holistically includes operations identifies opportunities for enhancing mission-based activities and the back office. In doing so, the plan supports not only the programmatic impact – but organizational impact. 

A strategic plan that includes operations can also strengthen funding requests by providing a detailed explanation about which operational services need financial support and how that support will generate positive impact. There is an urgent need for both nonprofit organizations and funders to communicate more effectively about the needs for and impacts of operational funding. 

More broadly, we see potential for operational strategic planning to challenge current norms and encourage the nonprofit sector to stop treating operations as something to be minimized. Proactive investment in back-office services is connected to organizational health and resiliency – the foundation for programmatic impact. Let’s begin to recognize that, plan accordingly, and communicate the impacts that result. 

This article is part of a series, based on conversations between Jackie Cefola and Debra Box about nonprofit shared services and related topics. 

Jackie Cefola, principal of Jackie Cefola Consulting, is a trusted advisor to nonprofit leaders who are starting up new collaborations, often related to shared services. Debra Box, principal of In the Box Consulting and former President and CEO of Support KC, where she helped nonprofit organizations to focus on their missions by providing integrated expertise in financial management and support services.

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