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How Your Nonprofit Board Can Leverage Long-Term Planning

Long-term planning is a strategic planning activity that leads boards to fulfilling their mission with maximum efficiency and impact. Planning for the long term requires nonprofit boards to identify and commit to specific goals and then outline the action steps they need to take and the resources they’ll need to reach their goals.

Perhaps the most common mistake that nonprofit boards make is to spend lengthy amounts of time on their strategic planning and then file the plans away for a year or more, failing to monitor their plans. Short-term goals typically take one to three years, whereas boards may set long-term goals for three to five years or longer.

Setting long-term goals is one of nonprofit boards’ most challenging duties. Many issues can influence whether nonprofit boards can successfully achieve their long-term goals. There’s no accurate way to forecast economical or societal changes that may have a strong effect on long-term plans. Advancements in technology may pave the way for solving some of the existing problems that create the need for nonprofits.

Nonprofit boards do best when they review and restructure their long-term plans at least every three to five years, and sooner if needed. While nonprofit boards participate in formal long-term planning periodically, they should be continually reviewing the long-range plan in the time they spend on strategic planning during board meetings.

An Example of How Short-Term Plans Lead to Long-Term Goals

The college experience provides a prime example of how achieving short-term goals can help you achieve long-term goals.

The junior year of high school is an exciting time of taking college prep exams, visiting college campuses and exploring the possibilities for undergraduate studies. Among the plans are considering factors such as tuition costs, housing costs and options, transportation, geographical location and areas of study. Once these short-term goals are achieved, it’s time to set a few more short-term goals. Students may want to apply for grants and scholarships to help offset the tuition.

College students need to enroll in a program of study, attend classes, complete their assignments and take their exams. They may need to apply for jobs that fit their schedules. Most students seek out opportunities for sports or other extracurricular activities to round out their resumes.

Students can accomplish all of these short-term goals in the space of four years if they are diligent and graduate on time. The culmination of their short-term goals will lead them to their long-term goal of getting a college degree, which will start them off on a rewarding career.

Achieving a series of short-term goals to achieve a long-term goal works much the same way for nonprofit organizations.

Keeping Long-Term Goals Relevant to the Nonprofit’s Vision

Long-term goals are more intrinsically tied to the nonprofit’s vision than short-term goals. The organization’s vision offers a glimpse into what board members and other stakeholders would like to see happen in the future as a result of their efforts. Long-term planning provides a clear vision of what members and stakeholders want the organization to look like at a specific time in the future.

In developing long-term goals, nonprofit boards need to consider many factors, such as their budget, desired client base, staffing needs, facilities, program offerings, societal impact and sustainability.

Problems with long-term planning can surface occasionally when all board members aren’t on the same page with the stated vision or their perception of the organization’s vision. Over time, vision statements may become outdated or irrelevant. Even when vision statements are clear and relevant, board members may have conflicting or myopic perceptions of the vision. These issues can easily impede progress on long-term plans.

Best practices for governance suggest that nonprofit boards should evaluate the organization’s vision statement periodically to make sure it’s in keeping with the board’s goals. Annual board retreats are often a good forum for exploring vision statements and how well they relate to long-term planning because they eliminate distractions and spark creativity. Some boards use activities such as brainstorming about what they’d want the headlines to say about their organization in five years.

Incorporating Long-Term Planning Into the Strategic Plan

There are many different approaches to strategic planning. Unless boards have board members, members or stakeholders with strategic planning experience, it’s often helpful to enlist the help of an experienced third-party facilitator. Small nonprofits and start-ups without funds to hire a facilitator can accomplish the same thing by creating a cross-sectional working group.

Many approaches to strategic planning begin with a SWOT analysis. SWOT is an acronym for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. This process provides clarity about where the nonprofit is currently and how internal and external stakeholders see the organization.

The next step is for boards to ask and answer strategic questions before they can decide what their long-term plans are or whether they need to revise their existing long-term plans. This is also a good time for boards to decide whether existing long-term plans are not attainable at all.

Always remember that strategic planning is intended to be fluid. It’s a continual work in progress. It’s best to build some flexibility into the plan so that boards can easily adapt it to changing times and circumstances.

Long-term plans should inspire changes in business plans and supporting plans that allow the board to fulfill their long- and short-term plans. Boards also have the responsibility for monitoring the strategic plan and adjusting it as needed.

During the course of their regular decision-making, nonprofit boards need to be sure to align their decisions with the organization’s long-term goals. Nonprofit board members should also be sure to keep their long-term goals in mind as they’re working on their short-term goals to make sure that the efforts of their combined short-term goals help them reach their long-term goals.

The best way to monitor short- and long-term goals in the strategic plan is to document them in a board management software system like BoardEffect where board directors can access planning goals any time of day or night.

Leveraging the Internet and Social Media for Long-Term Planning

Nonprofits should consider the value in keeping their website and social media outlets current and updated as a long-term planning strategy. Social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, videos and e-newsletters keep their members, donors and stakeholders up to date with all of the current happenings. Repeated visits to your sites will strengthen your branding and keep your mission and vision in front of your audience. Many of these outlets are free or nearly free. The only cost is someone’s time in keeping them current.

Long- and short-term goal-setting is vital to the sustainability of nonprofits. Failing to succeed in either realm is a fundamental mistake that thwarts material progress and ultimately leads to the demise of the organization.

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