Synthesis Partnership - Critical Issues in Strategy, Planning & Organizational Development for Nonprofits



Critical Issues highlights some of the complex issues facing nonprofits, and the opportunities imbedded in them for advancing mission.

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Synthesis Partnership

Consulting in
strategy, planning & organizational development
for nonprofits.

683 Commonwealth Avenue
Newton MA 02459

617 340 9991

Other Issues


#1 Why plan?
12 ways to serve mission.

#2 The Secret Life of Surveys
It’s about communication.

#3 Untangling the Web
Catching up.

#4 On Boards
Get the most out of a board.

#5 The Structure of Planning
Tilt the odds toward success.

#6 Financial Modeling
Pre-test your decisions.

#7 On Mission
Why a mission statement?

#8 The Measure of Success
Metrics are essential tools.

#9 Nonprofit Brand Identity?
Mission, stability, & revenue.

#10 Mind Your RFPs & Qs
Hire wisely.

#11 Integrated Planning
Strategic planning is not sufficient.

#12 Business Planning
Strengthen sustainability.

#13 Facility Planning
Reduce cost & risk, improve quality.

#14 Managing Change
Stay alert and adapt.

#16 All About Collaboration
The essence of nonprofits.

#17 Fear of Planning
When is strategy a bad thing?

#18 Tools for Planning
More resources for planning.

#19 New & Renew
38 Tips for Success.



Planning for yourself?


We’re happy to offer as much (or as little) guidance as you need.
Use our experience to assure your success.


Call Sam Frank at 617 969 1881 or e-mail us to discuss the possibilities.

Sam Frank



Strategic Action

ensuring the effectiveness of strategic plans

Strategic planning is about organizational development and focused action. In this essay we look at how to create action items that will advance strategy and mission.

As I’ve discussed in earlier issues, many different skills are required for success in strategic planning, including the ability to:

This issue, Strategic Action, addresses the point where final steps of the plan development process set up the transition to the implementation process.

As described in CI #5, the structure we have found most effective for a strategic plan:

  • starts with the statement of mission
  • takes this mission into specific functional areas with broadly stated mission-based goals
  • for each goal identifies focused areas of activity as supporting objectives
  • defines the pursuit of each objective with a number of action items, each with a measurable result.
In this structure (see the “Plan Structure” sample in the sidebar), neither goals nor objectives are measurable directly. They bring the strategy down from the clouds (mission) by gradual steps (broad goals and more specific objectives) to the facts on the ground (actions).

Let’s look at developing clear and specific action items that can achieve objectives that support goals that are essential to the mission. We’ll consider what effective action items look like and how to:

  • generate them
  • evaluate them
  • prioritize them
  • track them
  • keep a plan fresh by renewing them
What Effective Action Items Look Like
Each action item needs to have not only measurable results, but also a time frame, a responsible party, and notation of resources required to accomplish it.

An action item and its measurable result should be:

  1. quantified (you need to be able to determine that you have completed it)
  2. tracked (you need to be able to check it off on a monitoring report)
  3. meaningful (it needs to contribute to achieving the stated objective)
  4. achievable (it needs to be set realistically)
  5. aspirational (it needs to be set at a challenging level)
In each of the examples in the “Plan Structure” illustration, the broadly stated goal (in the area of advocacy or finance) leads to a list of all of the routes (objectives) the organization can realistically pursue to get there (a goal may well have many more than the two objectives illustrated). Then a list can be made of all of the specific actions that could be taken to achieve the objective.

Developing Action Items
To generate meaningful action items we have found it most effective to circulate the approved goals and objectives among staff groups and board committees, and to ask them to identify actions they can perform to support any of the objectives. A communications objective, for example, may well benefit from an action by the membership department or board membership committee, and vice versa. This approach may require some extra reassurance to staff that any new responsibilities will not just be added to existing ones, but that job descriptions and annual individual goals will be reexamined and adjusted as necessary.

As with any form of brainstorming, it is best to collect all ideas without too much evaluation, and then figure out how to use them afterwards.

Evaluating Action Items
When you do evaluate them you may find that a suggested action item meets all of the five criteria above, in which case it can go directly into the plan draft. But there are other options for suggestions that don’t meet all five criteria.

First, of course, if a suggested action item is not meaningful, it should be discarded. However, if it is achievable and aspirational but can’t be quantified or tracked (see sidebar, “Quantify and Track”) it may be useful in a description of a goal or objective (see sidebar, “Internal and Public Versions”), or it may need to be shaped into an additional supporting objective with multiple action items of its own.

Prioritizing Action Items
Once a plan is fully drafted, the action items in the plan should be reviewed by staff and board leadership for several factors (the goals and objectives typically will have already been approved):

  • do the actions pass the scrutiny of those responsible for the organization (not just the proposers and the planning committee)?
  • have the responsible parties and required resources been identified correctly?
  • is the time frame for addressing each action item both appropriate and possible in light of the time required of the responsible party and other resources needed?
In the course of this last assessment, the plan can be confirmed and actions prioritized. See the modified Gantt chart at the bottom of the sidebar.

Tracking Action Items
Once the plan is put in place for implementation, tracking tools appropriate to the specific needs of the organization should be designed and used. The objective should be to keep the board and staff informed of the progress of the plan and the performance measures that affect them.

Renewing Action Items
It is often noted that we work in a context of quickly shifting conditions, and that strategy needs to be nimble. Moreover, once an organization has accomplished a year’s worth of action items, the situation will have changed enough that the remaining actions need to be changed or replaced.

If a plan is structured so that the mission-based goals and supporting objectives endure from year to year, the action items can be refreshed annually through departmental operating plans