Turn Your Strategic Plan into Action… Today

Early in his presidency, John F. Kennedy visited the Cape Canaveral space center (later re-named for him) in Florida. Of course, it was a meet-and-greet with the President and senior executives, engineers, and scientists. As the story goes, JFK was being escorted down a hallway when he saw a janitor with a mop. The President greeted the man with a handshake and asked him about his job at the center. “I’m helping put a man on the moon, Mr. President,” the janitor reportedly replied.

Are your organization’s most ambitious goals understood by all, and is your strategic plan a living, breathing document that drives your board and staff? If you have just completed a board retreat or strategic planning process, or if you have a plan document gathering dust on a shelf, it’s very important to ensure that you take steps now to ensure implementation involving everyone in your organization in the months and years ahead.

  1. Make sure your plan is realistic. Get feedback from a cross-functional staff/volunteer team (representatives from each major program or service). Be sure to involve the people who will actually be responsible for implementing the quarterly or annual tasks. Make sure you continually ask, “Can you really do this?”
  2. A multi-year plan can be overwhelming. The temptation is to set it aside and continue to raise money or deliver program as you always have done. To make the plan useful, organize it into smaller action plans, often including a work plan for each committee on the board and/or each program department or area. Meanwhile, of course, the plan should be the starting point for each annual budget.
  3. Define precise roles. Specify who is doing what and by when. This is critical when a strategic goal does not fall discretely into one board committee or under one program manager. Make sure that goals do not fall between the cracks.
  4. Start strong. “Well begun is half done.” Be sure to detail particularly the first 90 days of the implementation of the plan. Build in regular reviews of status of the implementation.
  5. Weave the strategic plan’s exact wording on goals into job descriptions and staff performance reviews. Think of this framework as an inverted triangle: At the broadest top level is your vision, mission, values; then multi-year strategic objectives; then annual work plans; below that are quarterly or seasonal goals for departments or program areas; then monthly goals; and even–if you have truly developed a plan that delivers your mission and fits your resources–weekly or daily to-do lists. Each week, a volunteer or staff person, regardless or role or hierarchy in your organization, should be able to point to the goal that his or her efforts support. (Remember the janitor at Cape Canaveral.)
  6. Convert individual pieces of the plan into exercises, even games, for staff meetings and board meetings. Try using quizzes, role play, true/false, “Jeopardy,” etc. This reinforces each goal and helps people appreciate why they’re important.
  7. Distribute and promote the plan. Some organizations put their strategic objectives, or at least annual goals, on a banner or posters in their offices. It’s a great at-a-glance visual for board prospects, donors, people being interviewed for staff or volunteer roles, or other visitors. If you have members or donor lists, share at least the top-level goals with them. Your annual report can contain both a summary of the last 12 months as well as a summary of the goals for the year ahead; stakeholders then see that your organization has not only accomplished what it set out to do but is also forward-focused and positioned for success.
  8. At the board level, develop a timeline for follow-ups on various tasks by a board member. If people know the action plans will be regularly reviewed, implementers tend to do their jobs before they’re checked on. It is also true that we all are more committed to meeting deadlines that we helped set.
  9. At the staff level, give one internal person the ultimate responsibility for tracking that tasks of the plan are enacted in a timely fashion. For larger nonprofits, this is generally your lead operations or program director. A pricey project management software package is not required–a simple Excel spreadsheet will do. Have this person present a brief update to your board and senior staff on at least a quarterly basis.
  10. The chief executive’s demonstrated support of the plan is a major driver of the plan’s implementation. Integrate the plan’s goals and objectives into the chief executive’s performance reviews. Thus the plan becomes a key evaluation driver of program performance, of the board’s work, of the lead executive, of individual staff, and of the contribution of volunteers.

Finally, be sure to celebrate along the way and at the end of the program year. For each of us, at any level from board chair to receptionist, being directly involved in the development of a plan and then nurturing it through successful implementation is a rare and rewarding experience . . . and a fine foundation for setting even more ambitious goals in the future.