Last Updated:

April 11, 2023

How to Write a Nonprofit Strategic Plan: Ultimate 2023 Guide

How to Write a Nonprofit Strategic Plan: Ultimate 2023 Guide

You may have heard of nonprofit strategic planning and felt overwhelmed by the concept. But there’s no need to worry! In this post, we are going to walk you through what a strategic plan is and help provide some insights into how to write the right type of strategic plan for your nonprofit.

We will also include some examples of good nonprofit strategic plans as well as common mistakes to avoid. If you’re ready to develop a strategic plan of any type, then continue reading to learn more about what can seem like a daunting topic.

What is a Nonprofit Strategic Plan?


A nonprofit strategic plan is a document that helps drive and guide all of the work of your nonprofit. A good strategic plan will lay out the major goals and objectives you hope to achieve and specific steps for reaching those goals and objectives.

It is important to recognize that a strategic plan is not a linear document. You should think of your nonprofit strategic plan more like a flow chart as it needs to connect all of the pieces of your nonprofit to each other.

If you are working on creating a strategic plan for your nonprofit, you will need to start by understanding the different types of strategic plans. You can use the list below to help determine which type best fits the needs of your nonprofit.

While there are many different strategic planning models, the five that we have listed are most common among nonprofits.

1. Standard

A standard planning model is used when internal and external conditions are calm and your nonprofit is operating normally. If you are creating your first strategic plan or updating a current strategic plan within your nonprofit, you will likely use this model.

When following the standard planning method, the first step is to define the overall mission of your nonprofit and lay out goals aligned with this mission.

The next step is to create a plan to reach these goals which includes specific tasks, who is assigned to each task, and a clear timeline for achieving these goals.

It is common to create a strategic plan that lays out goals for three or five years at a time. By planning a few years at a time, your nonprofit can stay focused on achievable goals while also tying these into a larger picture.

2. Issue-based

An issue-based planning method can help your nonprofit overcome turbulence that is caused by internal changes. Perhaps you have a change in leadership or high staff turnover which is making it hard to reach your goals.

In these situations, an issue-based planning model can help your nonprofit get back on track. To use this model, you will identify the factors that are limiting the success of your nonprofit and determine the best ways to address each of these factors.

It is important to closely monitor your success as you work to tackle the limiting factors and adjust the plan as needed to get your nonprofit back on track.

3. Organic

An organic planning model may be needed when there are external conditions impacting the operations of your nonprofit. You may also hear this type of plan referred to as non-linear.

The organic planning model is commonly used when you are aware of upcoming climate changes that can impact the work of your nonprofit. For example, there may be political changes coming which could warrant the need for an organic planning model.

To effectively use this planning method, you would typically take your staff on a retreat so that they can focus solely on the planning process. It is key to identify the strengths of each team member and use this information to help create actionable goals for each person.

Once the goals and a timeline are determined, you meet together regularly (quarterly for example) to update everyone on progress toward each goal.

Meeting regularly allows your nonprofit to adjust goals as needed and the team can help each other reach their goals.

4. Real-time

The real-time model is most commonly used when a nonprofit is facing an internal or external crisis that requires a shift in normal operations.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a great example of a time when a real-time planning model would be needed. The impacts of this type of issue come quickly and unexpectedly.

A real-time planning model focuses on short-term goals that will help your nonprofit make it through the crisis. An important step of this plan is to meet regularly with your whole team to see how things are going.

A real-time strategic plan would likely only last for one year or maybe even less depending on what type of crisis your nonprofit is facing. The real-time plan would supersede any traditional strategic plan that your nonprofit already had in place.

5. Alignment

The alignment model is recommended to help your nonprofit get all teams, groups, or departments working in tandem. There may be times when departments or teams within your nonprofit have gotten out of sync.

You could use an alignment model strategic plan to get all staff back on the same page to help your nonprofit be effective and efficient at reaching its goals.

No matter which model you decide to use, keep in mind that a strategic plan is all about setting goals and creating a path to reach those goals. It’s also important to remember that every strategic plan is a living document.

Even though it is common to create a plan that lays out three to five years of goals, the plan can be changed or updated at any time. In fact, it is good to review the plan regularly because conditions within and outside of your nonprofit are constantly changing.

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Why Does My Organization Need a Nonprofit Strategic Plan?


Now that we have walked you through what a nonprofit strategic plan is and the different types of strategic plans, it is important to understand why your nonprofit needs one.

Hopefully the answer became clear as you read our introduction to strategic plans, but these plans are important documents because they help focus the work of your nonprofit. Mapping out the major goals for your nonprofit and a clear plan for how to reach them will help your organization be successful.

Another key reason why your nonprofit may want (or need) to have a strategic plan is related to grant writing. Many grantmakers will ask for your strategic plan or at least ask how your proposed project aligns with your nonprofit’s strategic plan.

Your strategic plan can also help you determine whether or not a specific grant is a good fit for your nonprofit.

A solid strategic plan can also help your nonprofit weather difficult situations when needed (such as a real-time strategic plan). Anyone interested in working with your nonprofit, whether it be donors, grantmakers, partners, or others will appreciate a well defined strategic plan as it indicates the stability of your nonprofit.

Because a good strategic plan lays out clear goals and timelines for reaching them, it will also help your staff, board, and others understand their roles in your organization. Your plan will help keep team members on task and help them understand the importance of their work.

The process of creating a strategic plan is also a great way to help all team members understand how valuable they are to the success of your nonprofit.

5 Steps to Create a Nonprofit Strategic Plan


1. Understand Your Mission

While it may sound strange to list understanding your mission, any good strategic plan starts with the basics.

Because all goals and objectives need to align with your mission, you must first make sure that everyone involved in the strategic planning process truly understands the mission of your nonprofit.

Even if you feel that your mission is clear, discussing it as part of the planning process will help you understand why you do what you do. Reviewing this information will make it easier to create clear goals and objectives.

Check out our post on writing a good nonprofit mission statement to make sure that your mission statement is working for you and is aligned with your goals and objectives.

2. SWOT Analysis

SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. Completing a SWOT analysis involves identifying all items within each of these categories for your nonprofit.

The process of identifying strengths, weaknesses, obstacles, and threats will help your nonprofit understand what actions need to be taken to reach desired goals and objectives.

Typically, this type of analysis is focused on all items related to your nonprofit, not just those specific to the goals and objectives within your strategic plan. It is also important to complete this analysis often as the items in each category can change frequently.

Below is an example of a SWOT analysis chart or map which is a good way to visualize the information within this type of analysis. You can check out this example and more SWOT analysis charts here.

Nonprofit SWOT analysis chart

3. Choose the Strategic Planning Model

Completing a review of your mission as well as a SWOT analysis will help your nonprofit identify its needs.

You can use the information from the SWOT analysis to understand what is keeping your nonprofit from being successful. Once you understand the current obstacles and threats, you can determine the type of planning model that best suits the current needs of your nonprofit.

For example, if you have a current obstacle of high staff turnover, you may want to use an issue-based planning model. Or perhaps your nonprofit identifies an upcoming threat due to a planned departure of your executive director. In this case, an issue-based plan would also be a good fit.

Having a clear understanding of the current needs of your nonprofit as well as what stands in your way will help you create the right type of strategic plan for your organization.

4. Set SMART Goals and Objectives

Now that you have evaluated your mission, completed a SWOT analysis, and chosen the right type of planning model, you should be ready to set goals specific to your strategic plan.

Setting SMART (Simple, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-based) goals will help you create a clear path for reaching these goals.

An example of a general goal would be “increasing the reach of our educational programs”. To make this a SMART goal, you would get more specific such as “we will reach 300 new students through 10 separate reading programs between June 1, 2023 and May 31, 2023.”

5. Clearly Assign Tasks

One of the most important parts of a good strategic plan is being specific. The goal of this document is to help your nonprofit be successful in reaching specific objectives, therefore it needs to include specific tasks.

Your staff need to understand their role(s) in helping to reach the goals and objectives of the nonprofit. You also want to include timelines for these tasks so that you can monitor progress.

Keep in mind that because you have assigned specific tasks with timelines, you can adjust your strategic plan as needed. The document is not set in stone, so if you find things are not working out as you intended, adjustments can be made.

Common Mistakes When Making The Nonprofit Strategic Plan


Building an effective nonprofit strategic plan can seem intimidating to even the most seasoned nonprofit staff. To help you understand how to write a successful nonprofit strategic plan, we have identified a few of the common mistakes so that we can help you avoid them.

Not Being Specific

A key part of creating a good nonprofit strategic plan is to write actionable steps for achieving your intended goals and outcomes.

If you are not specific with your plans, it will be difficult to be successful in reaching your goals. A good nonprofit strategic plan will include specific tasks that are assigned to specific people and mapped out over time.

Not Involving Your Whole Team

Another important factor when learning how to write a good nonprofit strategic plan is to make sure to involve your whole team.

For your nonprofit, this team may simply be a board of directors, or it may be a larger staff as well. While each person may not be involved in every step of the planning process, they all need to be included on some scale because they will be the ones completing the work to reach the goals that you set.

It is also important to involve your whole team when completing your SWOT analysis as those involved in day-to-day nonprofit operations will understand the strengths, weaknesses, obstacles, and threats better than anyone.

Thinking the Document Is Set In Stone

We have mentioned a few times that a good nonprofit strategic plan needs to be a living document. Because both the internal and external climate surrounding any nonprofit change constantly, your strategic plan may need to change as well.

While you may create a strategic plan that maps out three to five years of plans (depending what type of planning model you use), it is important to continually monitor and reevaluate your successes and failures.

Planning Too Far Ahead

While a standard nonprofit strategic plan typically focuses on three to five years, you need to make sure you don’t plan too far ahead.

Your nonprofit needs to determine a feasible timeline that fits its specific goals and objectives so that it can be successful. You do not want to create a strategic plan just to say that you have one; you want to make sure you can successfully achieve the goals included in the plan.

If you try to plan too far ahead, it will be difficult to understand how daily tasks are actually impacting your success. Planning too far ahead can also become overwhelming and hamper the success of your nonprofit.

Best Nonprofit Strategic Plan Examples


One of the best ways to learn how to build a strong nonprofit strategic plan is to review examples from other nonprofits. We have created a list of what we feel are some great examples, but there are many out there.

Because your strategic plan is often a public document, you can find many examples simply through an internet search. We wanted to be sure to highlight some that we feel are well put together and demonstrate the information we have shared.

1. The Nature Conservancy

The Nature Conservancy is a national nonprofit focused on helping to protect natural places across the United States. We have chosen to highlight the strategic plan created by the Pennsylvania and Delaware chapter.

Their strategic plan does a great job of laying out clear goals and objectives, while also keeping things simple so that the plan is accessible to anyone. You will see that they break down the plan into geographic/project focus areas which is a great way to organize the information.

The nature conservancy also uses a great layout that makes the document easy to read and understand.


Another clean and organized nonprofit strategic plan that is a good example comes from YWCA of Greater Cleveland. We have chosen their strategic plan because they very clearly lay out their goals and their plans to reach them.

Similar to the plan from The Nature Conservancy, YWCA uses photos and graphics to make the document easy to read and digest by the public.

3. Philadelphia Museum of Art

Another great example of a good nonprofit strategic plan comes from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Their strategic plan is clearly organized into key focus areas which include goals and steps for achievement.

SImilar to our first two example strategic plans, the Philadelphia Museum of Art uses images and a clean layout to make their plan easy to follow. We also like how this nonprofit uses active words for their goals such as engaging and activating.

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4. St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital

St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital is a well known nonprofit focused on curing childhood cancer and other childhood diseases.

Their strategic plan stood out to us because it is available through their website as a live document. What we mean by this is that you can actually click through the pages as if you were holding a physical copy of the strategic plan.

Because this nonprofit focuses on medical research, their strategic plan is a bit more in-depth so that readers can see the types of work they are planning. Their plan still focuses on clearly defined goals with details about their plans for success.

They also use visuals throughout to break up the text of the strategic plan. Even though their strategic plan is a bit more text heavy, they make sure to break things down in a way that stakeholders can understand.

5. Horizons Atlanta

Our final example nonprofit strategic plan comes from Horizons Atlanta which is an organization focused on helping youth become valuable members of their communities.

We chose their strategic plan as one of our examples because they use a good structure that clearly lays out their strategic priorities early in the document.

They break down the details associated with each strategy later on, but having all priorities identified early helps those that may just want to understand the basics of the plan.

We also liked the way that they provide some good background on their nonprofit at the beginning of the plan to help those that may not be familiar with their work.

Keep in mind that a grantmaker or any other stakeholder reviewing this document may be hearing of your nonprofit for the first time. A good strategic plan will include some background which will also help put the goals and plans in perspective.

Wrapping Up: How to Write a Nonprofit Strategic Plan


We have broken down what a nonprofit strategic plan is and provided some insights into how to create a good nonprofit strategic plan. We also provided several example nonprofit strategic plans for your review.

The background information we have provided should help you feel more comfortable with creating an effective nonprofit strategic plan. Understand your mission, complete a SWOT analysis, and create clear goals.

Using these clear goals as the backbone of your strategic plan will help your nonprofit be successful in reaching your goals. You can also find many more example nonprofit strategic plans through a simple google search which can help you find inspiration for what works for your nonprofit.

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