How Long is a Long-Range Plan?

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Nonprofits know they need plans. Like any other organization, they have goals and objectives, work to do, resources to gather and manage. This doesn’t happen in a vacuum or on the spur of the moment. It happens as the result of a planning process—deciding where you want to be at some date in the future, and how you want to get there.


Our current challenge is the “some date in the future.” What’s a realistic yet aspirational time frame for a nonprofit’s development and growth agenda? Everyone is working with the uncertainties of COVID, economic volatility, etc., but even before all of these complicating factors, nonprofits struggle to figure out how far ahead they can project their outcomes and impact—and what they can offer prospective funders in terms of a “guarantee” of sustainability.


Breaking news: there is no guarantee. Instead, a well-governed and well-managed nonprofit should do a little more than read tea leaves or consult a fortune-teller. There are some indicators, some practical guidelines for developing a planning process that helps, not frustrates.


Unless your nonprofit works in a bubble, it will be affected by economic trends. There is widespread agreement that the global economy is slowing down a bit and this will play out over the next three or four years. This means money from donors (individual and institutional) will probably be tighter. Can you buck the trend and set ambitious “growth goals” or begin to factor in a cooling economy? See if it’s possible to gather data about your donor community and use it to help discuss your plans.


Will your mission and programs stay the same, grow, change, evolve? In 10 years the U.S. population will be much larger; it will be much older; and it will be much more racially diverse. This may or may not speak directly to your nonprofit’s work but it will certainly influence the world (and the community) you serve. In what ways? That’s food for planning and deliberation.


There are other ways to anticipate the road ahead and they all have a common denominator: constant, consistent review and refreshing of the data and the assumptions you make about it. The best long-range plan is a series of planning exercises, a “formative evaluation” that takes place while you work. It’s fine to talk about five-year goals as long as you recognize you may need to agilely maneuver the twists and turns between now and then.



Thomas Boyd is Chief Editorial Consultant for The Grantsmanship Center
and an independent consultant to nonprofit organizations.

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