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Gary Bernstein, the CEO of the Jewish Community Alliance of Northeastern Pennsylvania, shares five steps to strategic planning in nonprofit organizations. 

Strategic planning can be defined in many ways, but most can agree on its purpose. Strategic plans describe where your organization is going, how it hopes to get there and how you will measure your progress toward your objectives. “Therefore, strategic plans are often compared to road maps. The organizational goals are the destination; the steps one takes to reach the objective are the highways; then the methods used to measure one’s progress are the cities and towns along the journey.” (Pirraglia, 2020)

The Executive’s Role in the Strategic Planning Process

The executive director works with the board to develop the strategic plan for the organization. “As leaders, executive directors must create the culture of their organizations. They are the foundation of motivating employees and volunteers, manage the entire budget and marketing efforts and encourage a positive company culture.” (Leonard, 2019)

The executive director should maintain a focus on strategic planning that can identify and take advantage of emerging trends and needs that will impact the future direction and success of their organization.

“In larger organizations that have a staff infrastructure and management team that makes the operational decisions, you find it is often the management team, led by the executive director that drives the development of the organization’s strategic plan. The level with which management drives the process ranges from the staff being involved with the Board in all aspects of the process to developing the strategic plan themselves, and recommending their strategy to the Board for review and final approval.” (Robinson, 2002)

The executive leader has a duty of planning work for all employees in accordance with the goals of the organization and the ability of their staff. Strategic planning is the process by which leaders of an organization determine what it intends to be in the future and how the organization will get there. To put it another way, executive leaders will develop a vision for the organization’s future and determine the necessary priorities, procedures and strategies to achieve that vision. Included are measurable goals which are realistic and attainable, but also challenging.

There is far-reaching agreement among nonprofit leaders that planning is a most critical component of good management and governance. Planning helps assure that an organization remains relevant and responsive to the needs of its community and contributes to organizational stability and growth. It provides a basis for monitoring progress, and for assessing results and impact. It also facilitates new program development. It enables an organization to investigate the future in an orderly and systematic way.

From a governance perspective, it allows the board to set policies and goals to guide the organization and provides a clear focus to the executive director and staff for program implementation and organization management.

Most organizations understand the need for annual program objectives and a program-focused work plan. Funding bodies require them, and they provide a basis for setting priorities, organizing work and assessing progress. Most nonprofits find it practical to define objectives for a 12-month period, and to design strategies and programs to meet them.

There are many different models and action steps for strategic planning. One approach I have utilized assumes a cooperative effort between board and staff, perhaps with a special strategic planning committee of board members and staff taking responsibility for the effort. Some of the work can be done in committee, while board and staff planning sessions or retreats are also likely to be required, both early and late in the planning process. Many experts describe how best to do strategic planning but the purpose here is to present five basic steps that should be taken in the strategic planning process.

Below is a brief description of the five steps to strategic planning in nonprofit. These steps are a recommendation, and not the only recipe for creating a strategic plan; other sources may recommend entirely different steps or variations. However, the actions outlined here describe the fundamental work that should be performed in a strategic planning process.

Step One: Getting Ready

An organization that determines it is indeed equipped to begin strategic planning should accomplish these four tasks to pave the way for an organized process:

  • Identify specific issues the planning process should tackle.
  • Clarify roles (who does what during the process).
  • Create a planning committee.
  • Identify the information that must be collected to help make sound decisions.

Step Two: Articulating Mission and Vision

A mission statement lets the community know what the organization is all about. Essentially, communicating what business it is in. Equally, a mission statement must communicate the nature of an organization to the community. An organization’s ability to articulate its mission indicates its focus and purpose.

Whereas the mission statement summarizes the what, how, and why of an organization’s work, a vision statement presents an image of what success will look like. With mission and vision statements in hand, an organization has taken an important step towards creating a shared and articulate idea of what it is strategically planning for.

Step Three: Assessing the Situation

Once an organization has committed to why it exists and what it does, it must take a clear look at its current situation. Strategic planning exists so an organization can successfully respond to changes in the agency or community. Performing a situational analysis or assessment means obtaining current information about the organization’s strengths and weaknesses that will draw attention to the critical issues the organization faces and that its strategic plan must address. These could include a variety of fundamental concerns, such as funding issues and new program opportunities. The point is to choose the most important issues to address.

Step Four: Developing Strategies, Goals and Objectives

Strategies, goals and objectives may come from individual stimulus, group discussion or formal decision-making techniques, but the bottom line is in the end, the organizations’ leaders agree on how to address the most critical issues.

Step Five: Completing the Written Plan

The mission has been articulated, the critical issues identified, and the goals and strategies agreed upon. This final step essentially involves putting everything down on paper. Usually, one member of the planning committee, the executive director, or even a consultant will draft a final planning document and submit it for review to all key decision makers – usually the board and senior management staff. The final planning document should also be communicated to key stakeholders to build community interest and support for the organization’s programs and activities.



  • Leonard, Kimberlee. (2019) The Difference Between an Executive Director & a Chief Executive Officer.
  • Pirraglia, William. (2020) Management Executive & Strategic Planning. smallbusiness.chron.com.
  • Robinson, Ron. (2002) The Role of the Executive Director and Board in the Strategic Planning Process.


Gary Bernstein

Gary Bernstein currently serves as CEO of the Jewish Community Alliance of Northeastern Pennsylvania and an Advisory Board Member of Community Rec Magazine. Gary Bernstein has proudly authored the textbook, "The Fundamentals of Sports Marketing" with Sagamore Publishing and "Nonprofit Sport and Recreation Programs: Principles and Practices of Leadership and Management" by Sentia Publishers. For more information, call 757.667.0293 or email gary.bernstein@nepajca.org.

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