Often, organizations approach their strategic planning by asking their stakeholders for ideas about what the organization should focus on next, without thinking about the overall impact the organization hopes to have. Stakeholders often have great ideas about what is working well and what can be improved (the classic SWOT analysis) and employees and board members are ready to share their vision for expansion or diversification of funding, risk mitigation or improved systems. With this approach, any idea can seem like a good idea.

We think there’s a better way, using this 3-part framework:

1. What do we want to do?

In our view, the best strategic plans start with a focus on impact. That is, gathering stakeholders to articulate what your organization intends to achieve and hold itself accountable for over the strategic planning period, and how. Be specific about what you will achieve, for whom and by when. Then identify the strategies and activities you think it will take to get there. This gives you a draft Intended Impact Statement and Theory of Change, aligning everyone on a clear picture of your intention and a “straw dog” to test in the next stage. This defines “what we want to do”.

2. What should we do?

The next step is to take a broader (and more skeptical) view to test your first draft. Stand back and ask yourselves these questions. Better still, share your draft with other experts in the field to see what they think of your plan.

  • What does your intention really mean in the environment you’re working in?
  • Who are your beneficiaries, and are they all the same? Do some of them benefit from some of your strategies but not others? What are the implications of that?
  • Taken together, do all of your current activities make a coherent whole that will get you to the impact you intend to hold yourselves accountable for?
  • To which of your intended outcomes does each program contribute? Are those outcomes the right ones to get to the impact you intend? What needs to be added? What could you stop doing?
  • What makes your current programs successful now? Is it the staff skills and knowledge, the intake process or the partnerships with others, or some of all of these? Can you further strengthen what works?
  • What do other organizations in your community contribute to the outcomes you want to see? Who serves the same beneficiaries? What kinds of partnerships might build everyone’s impact?

The answers to all of these questions will help you refine the Impact Statement and Theory of Change you developed in the “what we want to do” stage into a strong and tested strategic statement to guide your next steps. You now know “what we should do”.

3. What can we do?

By this point, now that you have a refined and tested Impact Statement and Theory of Change, you are ready to start the more familiar strategic planning conversations about funding and systems and organizational design. By now you are in a position to develop strategic priorities and actions with your impact in mind. What is the right sequence of activities to get us to the impact we intend? What new skills and knowledge do we need? How will we pay for everything? What will it take to make our Theory of Change and Intended Impact a reality? Coming out of this, you will be clear and confident on “what we can do”, and ready to make it happen.

A strategic plan built on measurable practical impact is an invaluable guide. The Intended Impact and Theory of Change you start with and then further refine with analysis and testing will be a framework for better decision making and evaluation throughout your strategic planning period. At the end of your strategic plan’s life you will have a lot to celebrate, having clearly articulated what success looks like, and having made adjustments along the way to get there. You’ll also have a strong starting point for building the next plan, to deliver further impact.