There is an important difference between the concepts of ‘strategy’ and ‘planning’. Strategy is about how an organisation relates to factors (usually external) that are not under its control. Planning is how the organisation deals with issues under its control. Strategic planning is about integrating these two processes.

Strategic planning, done effectively in a way that helps to inform the direction and operational plans of a non-profit, is expensive and takes a lot of time. The aim of this integrated process is that an NPO should come out after a strategic planning process better prepared for its future direction and work than it was before the process started. Improved performance should always be the target.

Strategic planning should never be initiated simply because it is part of the regular annual activities of an NPO.

Strategic planning in NPOs is challenging, and can lead to organisational conflict based on misunderstandings of what strategic thinking and formal planning processes involve. Evaluations of strategic planning suggest that a critical distinction must be made between a ‘strategy document’ and what is essentially a ‘business plan’.

Many NPOs engage in “strategic planning” exercises as a matter of course, often tackled by full-staff plenary sessions in the form of a ‘talkfest’ resulting in long, meandering and complex documents which fail to provide any formal plan for moving forward. These ‘plans’ are then set aside while the organisation carries on doing what it has always done.

According to Henry Mintzberg in the ‘Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning’, strategy has elements of being a guide, a pattern, a position and a perspective. Planning is a formalised procedure to produce a specific result, in the form of an integrated system of decisions. Planning is about co-ordinating, rationalising, controlling, systematising, preparing and pre-empting. When we talk about strategic planning we are integrating the two processes (which, in most cases, doesn’t happen – even with the assistance of the best consultants).

An organisational strategy is not the neat result of a meeting of people who set aside two or more days for the purpose. Strategy is ever-evolving and may include informal strategic conversations among staff, management, the board, volunteers and stakeholders. The CEO of the NPO has the responsibility of pulling these together and leading all of these role-players towards an agreed strategic framework that he/she will champion. The means of coming up with an agreed framework could be a retreat, which would be the culmination of a process. Taking the strategic framework forward to come up with a business plan would be the next step and could involve another retreat with a specific planning focus.

A strategy that is well documented should inform an NPO’s operational/business plan. This, in turn, would inform the activity plans of staff members. Operational plans and activity plans are critical in providing an NPO with a clear mechanism to monitor, evaluate and appraise the impact of programme work and the performance of staff. While operational planning and activity planning are done annually or even twice annually, a strategy document is more enduring. The strategy document itself should be visited as frequently as strategic conversations are held within an organisation. This means that the strategy document should be written as a guiding document that is inherently flexible. The board’s role is to make sure that the CEO co-ordinates regular, inclusive planning activities and to provide leadership in this regard.

Why is strategic planning important for your organisation?

Strategic planning offers opportunities to:

  • take account of the context in which your NPO is operating and how future developments may impact on activities;
  • prepare for current and future challenges in pursuing your NPOs objectives;
  • make the necessary changes to ensure that your organisation’s activities are effective;
  • consider what your NPO’s weaknesses are and how to improve on past performance;
  • identify opportunities and plan effectively to facilitate making the most of such opportunities;
  • promote an understanding of how your NPO’s various programmes and activities fit into the bigger picture and the broader socio-political context.

What are the risks of strategic planning?

Internal organisational conflict may have a serious impact on the strategic planning process. Conflict may cause hours of pointless arguments about petty issues. Strategic planning does not aim to deal with unresolved internal conflict – on the contrary, it may be necessary to deal with internal conflict before starting with strategic planning.

  • Ineffective consultation may lead to a lack of participation. There may also be a lack of enthusiasm for the implementation of the strategic plan. Consultation and participations should be essential elements of strategic planning.
  • A lack of information about the external environment may lead to a weak and ineffective strategic plan.
  • Strategic planning may not accurately predict any future trends. The past and present do not enable us to accurately predict what is going to happen in the future. Some of the assumptions may be flawed, so the risks associated with assumptions need to be properly monitored and managed.
  • The strategic plan may result in fixed long-term objectives that do not take into account short-term changes in the external environment. This may lead to an inability to adapt to changes.

Factors that should be taken into account during strategic planning include (but are not limited to):

  • the economic, political, social and legal environments;
  • constitutional obligations;
  • government structures and international relations;
  • HIV/AIDS and other epidemics;
  • population growth and life-style conditions;
  • technological developments and environmental conditions;
  • funding priorities; and
  • employment conditions


Shelagh Gastrow, Former Executive Director and Founder of Inyathelo | The South African Institute for Advancement