A Tale of 2 Nonprofits: The Vital Role of Strategic Plans

A woman presenting her plan to a few coworkers
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Why do the Kansas City Chiefs win the Super Bowl, while the New York Jets struggle to stay relevant (to be very clear, this author is a long-suffering Jets fan)? What separates teams that win championships vs. teams that don’t?

What separates companies of all types from being one that achieves growth and sustainability while others face declining revenue and downsizing?

You’ll say lots of different factors, and you’ll only be partially right. Organizations and teams that succeed are, at the end of the day, able to execute their plan, and even when things don’t go well, they’re able to adapt and overcome.

In a recent whitepaper on the barriers that nonprofits face in executing strategic plans (download a free copy here), two different organizations were identified to show how drastic the difference in outcomes can be. And it all starts with a strategic plan.

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Quick Context – The Role of Strategic Plans

No doubt that you’ve heard of strategic plans. If you have, you can skip to the next section. But if you haven’t, strategic plans (and strategic planning) are a process by which organizations define their direction and long-term goals. This process includes making decisions on allocating resources, and good planning should involve devising control mechanisms for implementation success.

The overall purpose of strategic plans hasn’t changed over the years, but what has changed is the definition of “long-term.” Plans that used to forecast 10-20-year visions now routinely plan for 3-5 years. It’s a much more volatile and faster-changing world than even at the turn of the century 20 years ago! Plans now have to be adaptable and flexible to meet constantly changing demands.

At least, in theory.

Nonprofit strategic plans are often a hit-or-miss endeavor, with pretty plans that often end up collecting dust on shelves rather than being actively referenced and used. Similar to winning teams and successful companies, the nonprofits that thrive are the ones that are able to execute their strategic plan.

In the rest of this post, we’ll explore two nonprofits and how vital the strategic plan implementation was to their success.

Nonprofit A

Nonprofit A is a healthcare organization in the Mid-Atlantic states that underwent a merger involving the integration of various healthcare companies. This complicated process meant combining multiple processes, systems, and cultures into a unified healthcare system. This organization was successfully able to merge and grow their organization with the following factors:

  • Leadership Buy-In: The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and Chief Operating Officer (COO) were highlighted as key drivers of the merger, with the COO described as the “engine” with a vision. The executive team as a whole was invested and held their departments and each other accountable for key initiatives in the plan.
  • Communication and Focus on Employee Engagement: The six foundational pillars of the plan were clearly communicated and became a part of the performance review process. Special attention was provided to integrate diverse cultures from the acquired entities and embed leadership educators within teams to facilitate the merger process. The CEO and COO spent an incredible amount of time going to every site and team, sharing the “why” behind each of the aspects of the plan as well as the expected outcomes. Anytime there was a monthly or quarterly leadership meeting, the plan was brought up, and progress was checked across all sites and departments.
  • Performance Management and Accountability: The performance management process, where every employee aligned their goals with one of the strategic pillars, was monitored through a real-time dashboard. The implementation was informed by change management frameworks such as the Baldrige Criteria and supported by a team of performance excellence consultants.


While it wasn’t always a smooth growth, this organization had a wildly successful merger and grew to become a dominant force in the region. However, let’s look at another organization.

Nonprofit B

In this regional nonprofit, they created a 5-year strategic plan but never made any progress. There were plans to improve infrastructure and capacity, setting the stage for growth. However, the plan never really got off the ground, leading to a lack of growth and stagnation across multiple departments. There were a few different factors:

  • Lack of Ownership: Despite the presence of executive sponsors, they didn’t take ownership and drive the initiative. Instead, they delegated that responsibility to a project manager, but failed to give the project manager appropriate authority to enable changes or make decisions. In addition, the only time the senior leadership brought up the plan with the larger organization was at the initial launch of the plan during a town hall meeting. This meant that employees at all levels were disconnected from the plan and vision and didn’t see the importance of being involved.
  • Instability of Leadership: During the plan’s implementation, one VP left and another VP was consistently too focused on the day-to-day tactical work and not on the big picture – not thinking strategically. As a whole, the senior leadership team often deferred making important decisions, especially hard ones about change and priorities.
  • No Clear Processes: Even though the plan initially focused on improving technology infrastructure, there was no clarity on what could be done concurrently and what needed to be done sequentially. People were often waiting for other priorities to be completed before starting their work, even when it was not dependent on anything or anyone else. Priorities and work kept getting pushed back until many were eventually forgotten. And the lack of accountability and follow-up from the board sent a message that it wasn’t important.


From these two examples, it’s clear how important a few main pieces can make a huge difference in a nonprofit strategic plan:

  1. Engaged and bought-in senior leadership
  2. Ongoing communication and engagement at every level of the organization
  3. Processes to measure progress and adapt as necessary
  4. A culture of accountability, starting at the senior levels


If it’s not clear yet, it should start becoming apparent how important senior leadership is in driving the process. They need to be engaged on all sides of the plan, from the administrative part to the execution, to the communication. Moreover, it’s becoming increasingly important to embrace a culture of continuous learning and growth. This can help not only with the successful execution of the strategic plan, but also prepare organizations to address inevitable challenges with agility and resilience.

Chris Wong
Chris Wong

Chris Wong is a certified executive coach, licensed therapist, and seasoned leadership development professional with a proven track record in the nonprofit sector. He specializes in guiding leaders through strategic prioritization, confident navigation of difficult conversations, and fostering high-performing cultures. As a facilitator and public speaker, Chris has trained hundreds of leaders and spearheaded successful organizational projects. His extensive experience spans nonprofit, health insurance, and government systems and encompasses leadership development, strategic planning, change management, and diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Currently, he partners with human service nonprofit executives to execute strategic plans, addressing challenges such as conflict resolution, culture enhancement, productivity improvement, and fostering inclusive work environments.

Connect with Chris on LinkedIn and at www.myleadershippotential.com

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