How Can Nonprofits Plan Amid Uncertainty?
“Activity plans are only as useful as the strategies they support,” writes TCB columnist Sarah Lutman. Shutterstock

How Can Nonprofits Plan Amid Uncertainty?

With accelerating change, organizations need strategies that enable leaders to quickly modify nonprofit activities.

Not so long ago, a nonprofit’s new strategic plan would hit your desk with a thud. The handsomely designed, photo-rich and detailed printed document would begin with the organization’s renewed mission and vision statements and end with a list of the dozens of people who contributed to the effort.

Focus areas, activity plans, and multiyear budgets would illustrate the nonprofit’s intentions for the coming three to five years. Beyond the expectation that such written plans would inspire and guide internal activities was the hope that the plan would instill confidence in donors who would then make multiyear commitments to activate the plan.

Most organizations had to shelve their plans during the first phase of the Covid-19 pandemic and be fleet of foot to respond to the rapidly shifting environment for their work.

For some nonprofits, demand for services increased considerably, and finding ways to deliver services amid shifting lockdown policies required creativity, grit, and, in many instances, more money than they had at the ready.

For others, shuttering their public programs and facilities meant a pivot to digital programming, requiring new tools, skills, and ways of working. As calls for racial justice became far more prominent and urgent during the same period, many organizations resolved to prioritize equity and worked thoughtfully to respond.

This recent economic and social turbulence provides the opportunity to rethink what it means to plan. Disruptions have always derailed the best-laid plans, but the past three-plus years have been game-changers.

How do you plan for uncertainty? What should a plan even look like today? What does stability and continuity look like amid uncertainty? These are just a few of the questions that planners are thinking about in 2023.

These circumstances require a renewed focus on strategy rather than merely planning for ways to continue current activities.

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What is strategy? Business libraries are full of books that define strategy, and hundreds of consultants make their living working on it. (LinkedIn has a nonprofit strategic planning group with 117,000 members!) A basic definition is the approach you take to your work given current circumstances and capabilities. Strategies will change significantly as contexts and circumstances change; activity plans are only as useful as the strategies they support.

  • What challenging questions do nonprofits often avoid in strategic planning?
  • Should we exist? Is our mission still important and relevant?
  • Looking nationally (or internationally), what can we learn from how similar organizations are working in other communities? How can good ideas from elsewhere be adapted to our circumstances?
  • In our community, are we the organization best equipped to do the work we’re imagining? Who locally might be better suited to perform the work? How can we collaborate to avoid duplication of services or efforts?
  • What will we stop doing, or do less of, to do more of what we want to do in the future? How will we decide what not to do?
  • What capabilities and assets do we need to build to do the work well? How candidly have we assessed our strengths and shortcomings?
  • What measures or check-ins will tell us whether our plans are working or if we need to shift?
  • How can we become more resilient? What are the financial and human resources we’re building that will help us weather the next emergency or shift in political support?

The pace of change is accelerating, and the need to plan for uncertainty is here to stay. What can nonprofits do? Imagine planning as agreeing on compass settings, your directions. Create a picture of your compass, something memorable to keep in your mind’s eye.

Then make detailed plans for the coming year or two (both what you will do and what you will not keep doing) and decide which indicators will inform your next steps. Be ready and willing to course correct and respond to opportunities that keep your ship sailing in your chosen direction. Develop scenarios that anticipate disruption; invest in resilience and the ability to adapt to change.

Don’t worry about creating a plan that reads like a detailed instruction manual for the future. Instead, be ready to tell donors and constituencies how your work will develop based on what you’re learning and how our communities’ changing needs and contexts will inform your next steps.

An organization that is prepared for change is one truly worthy of investment.