Strategic planning is not just a functional exercise. It means the difference between being a struggling nonprofit and an innovative, cause-driven organization changing the world. Creating a culture that believes in planning is paramount not just to survive a project, but to thrive long after the project is complete. Strategic planning takes ideas, inspiration, and down-in-the-dirt hard work to make transformations.

As discussed in Dana O’Donovan and Noah Rimland Flower’s Stanford Social Innovation article, “The Strategic Plan is Dead. Long Live Strategy,” today strategy must break free from a static plan that just sits on the shelf; it must become more adaptive and directive.

A number of nonprofit organizations have developed successful strategic plans that inform both their current activities and their long-term vision—notable ones include The Brooklyn Public Library, American Kidney Fund, and Habitat for Humanity International.

At Longwood Gardens, strategic planning helped our organization grow from a working farm in the 1700s to one of the best-in-class horticultural display gardens in the world—a place that aims to inspire its more than 1 million annual visitors through excellence in garden design, horticulture, education, and the arts.

We have methodically established “The Longwood Way,” a culture of strategic planning that provides us with a framework for aligning priorities, making decisions, allocating resources, and measuring our impact. Astounding results of this approach include: absolute clarity about our organization’s mission, identity, and direction; significant revenue and visitation increases; value-driven performance reviews; a visionary site master plan; and increased collaboration and satisfaction among staff.

Here are the five essentials of strategic planning that nonprofits large or small can employ to transform their organization.

  1. Begin at the top. For us, it was about preserving a legacy by allowing us to propel forward, thinking bigger but within the context of a unified vision, mission, and values. The commitment to “The Longwood Way” begins with the board, CEO, and senior leadership; the senior-most leaders live, breathe, and demonstrate actionable commitment to the planning process. Strategic planning will never succeed if leaders delegate it. It begins at the top. In year one of our strategic plan, we set on accomplishing more than 150 tasks associated with strategies that fell under five core objectives. With executive and senior team leadership driving the strategy and explaining the “why” behind each task, we accomplished all that we aimed to do 12 months.
  2. Be inclusive at all levels. Everyone’s voice matters. Across the board, staff, and volunteer ranks, we pull great ideas together and gain valuable insights throughout planning phases; we also gain practical knowledge about making the plan a reality. This ensures that the passion of our internal community runs deep for both the place and the people doing the work. Getting buy-in at all levels helped us mobilize and gave everyone a stake in the organization’s future. To develop our 40-year master plan, we had hundreds of staff and volunteers gather for a town hall brainstorming session. One central idea of the plan came from that session—from people working on the ground, in the gardens—and we are actively exploring the feasibility of it now.
  3. Remember that skill of the hand is important to vision. A thorough understanding of the expertise needed to accomplish your goals is paramount. Without this, you may not be asking the right questions or you may not get the right answers. Surround yourself with talent and differentiated skill sets—from craftsmen to strategists, planners to designers, and those that understand risk and analysis to those who can dream big and show-off their work to the world. In hiring West 8, an urban design and landscape architecture firm, to lead our master plan for 1,077 acres, we achieved a perfect balance of skill, imagination, and passion.
  4. Create the guidebook for decisions of all sizes. Think of your strategic plan as a guidebook for any decision your organization makes. It should be the most important tool in your management toolbox. Are the opportunities you are considering aligned with your values? Will a decision advance your organization toward its vision? Your mission, values, and vision should always be front and center in all that you do. We keep our strategic plan top of mind, and we refer to it daily. We also review it twice annually to reforecast timelines and budgets.
  5. Understand that flexibility is critical. Things change every day. Your strategic plan is a guidebook, but it is also a fluid, ever-evolving document. Out of the hundreds of tasks we initially outlined to accomplish over the last five-year period, many changed and evolved, just like circumstances changed due to economic fluxes and shifting priorities. But we always kept track of where we were, referring back to the plan and looking ahead.

Done well, strategic planning can honor the past while looking toward the future, and create a unique and inclusive culture. It can be the key to significant social impact.