Strategic planning: align your brand.
Team, priorities, and rhythms — to drive income and impact
KEVIN L. BROWN
Strategic planning shouldn’t be so complicated. The discipline is a straightforward concept dating back to the ancient Greeks.
The term strategy comes from the word strategos, which means ‘general of the army.’ Each Greek tribe had a strategos who advised on managing battles to win the war. In other words, big-picture thinking.
Managing soldiers to win said battles was important too. The Greeks called this tactica, ‘the art of maneuvering forces in combat.’ Or, taking action based on strategy. Tactics, doing.
A bias toward thinking vs. doing is often what makes strategic planning ineffective. Plans wind up all strategy, no tactics — leaving social venture brands with big dreams but no mechanisms to realize their potential.
We once had a nonprofit client whose strategic plan consisted of eight elements of a 2030 vision. The plan had five goals within each of the eight visions. And 4–6 sub-goals within each big-picture goal. It had another five key areas and multiple vague objectives — none of which laddered up or down to the visions, goals, or sub-goals.
What’s telling is that in the year we worked with them, not a single team member mentioned the plan. Much less used it to make decisions.
We’ve all seen this type of strat plan. It’s neither actionable nor measurable.
Anyone can set a strategy. But a lot fewer can map out the plan to get there. So here’s a simple strategic planning guide. What it is, why it matters, and how to create one — along with some final advice and tips.
A reminder: the Four A’s framework
Every social venture wants to generate more income. And better marcom is often the solution. But most brands struggle with knowing who they are, where they fit in the market, and how to turn strategy into action.
Our Four A’s framework takes clients two steps back before getting into marcom. Then one step after to create structures that support their aims.
This strategic plan is how to align your brand internally — as you tell your story externally. Be sure to check out the other three blog posts in this series: theory of change (ambition), positioning strategy (approach), and marketing communications (amplify).
What it is: some definitions.
Since no shared definition exists, Wikipedia is about as democratic as it gets. “Strategic planning is an organization’s process of defining its strategy or direction and making decisions on allocating its resources to pursue this strategy.” Not bad.
At Mighty Ally, we use a brand-centric explanation.
What is a strat plan for? You can’t clean water with it. It doesn’t cure illness. Nor does it educate a child. It’s words on a page. Otherwise known as communications. A strategic plan is a comms tool, plain and simple.
Strategic planning aligns your team, priorities, and rhythms around your ambition and approach. That’s it.
“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”
SUN TZU, CHINESE PHILOSOPHER
Why it matters: income & impact.
Any individual in the organization should know what they must do — today! — to best achieve the vision ahead. And there’s nothing as powerful as everyone on a team rowing in the same direction.
Defining ‘the work’ within your theory of change is only the start. You also have to do said work. Your ambition must become action, or else you face reputational risks.
One prominent family foundation told us the most common reason they don’t invest is they don’t believe the organization can pull off its claims. So why cast and communicate a grand vision without taking calculated steps to achieve it?
You can’t measure a brand with typical financial metrics or M&E, so you need some internal method of evaluating whether your strategy is successful or not. Strategic planning puts a spotlight on what (and who) is working and not within the strategy. Without this discipline of alignment, you might launch a brand into the world… but did it drive sales, donations, and impact?
Furthermore, brand strategy is a constant sharpening process. It requires ongoing attention — driven by market conditions and staying close to your customers, beneficiaries, partners, and funders. But you need a system for learning, documentation, and continuous improvement. That’s what strategic planning does best: gives you a toolkit to optimize your brand strategy for years to come.
“The single greatest advantage any company can achieve is organizational health. Yet it is ignored by most leaders even though it is simple, free, and available to anyone who wants it. Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare. If you could get all the people in an organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time.”
How to create your strategic plan: the Mighty Ally process.
We’ve spent years using and abusing different strategic planning formats. From Gazelles’ One Page Strategic Plan to Paterson StratOp, and McKinsey’s 7S Framework to EOS. But no standard existed for nonprofits and social enterprises. So we took inspiration from the private sector and contextualized these models for growth-stage social ventures — grouping 10 key elements into three sections.
Here’s the high-level summary:
This section is focused on getting the right people in the right seats, the wrong people off the bus if needed, then figuring out where to drive. It’s adhering to the old adage, “first who, then what.” Especially critical is to establish a strong leadership team — often the Achilles’ heel for solo changemakers and founders.
In most organizations, the leaders are the most prominent brand ambassadors. But the dozens or hundreds of employees have far greater reach and brand implications on your constituents. Staff answer customer support calls, visit beneficiaries out in the field, and meet with government officials. This collective of champions has more power to build your brand than any marcom effort. So invest — time and money — wisely in this critical area. The team equation includes your board of advisors and directors too.
Here you define how you’ll win and what the organization should focus on to do so. Or following the sage wisdom that “it’s more important to do the right thing than to do things right.” We’re not talking about the typical nonprofit three-year plan — that is futile. Rather, a three-year picture at the broad level with far more detail around annual goals and quarterly rocks.
Momentum and progress are the greatest human motivators, even more so than success. So part and parcel of a strong organization is the ability to set and accomplish priorities. Think about the clarity these priorities bring to a brand and its team. Plus, the reassurance everyone is working on the correct things to reach the shared vision.
In this final section, we lean into the idea that “goals without routines are wishes; routines without goals are aimless.” In other words, setting a pattern for how to get the work done via proven processes, internal communications, meetings, issue resolution, and tracking KPIs. These rhythms are game changing for making the most of your revenue. Or driving more income.
On the topic of KPIs, social ventures often obsess over impact data. It’s great to build M&E systems to measure the success of programs. But rarely do we see the same obsession with the success of the internal organization itself. That’s where leaders must shift from working in the business to on the business, to ensure long-term viability.
Strategic plan elements
As you can see, strategic planning isn’t rocket science. Thought-provoking and demanding, sure. But hard to understand? No.
We don’t believe in high-production strat plans that take months to design. They’re outdated by the time they ship. If you need a flashy document for fundraising purposes, create a pitch deck or slick annual report.
Instead, treat your strategic plan as a living, breathing tool where function trumps form. It’s meant to drive alignment and action. Not win design awards.
We use a Google Slides template because it forces brevity. Aim for one slide per topic, max. And you don’t need an executive summary at the front. If you want to communicate growth or achievements to your constituents, write an impact report or send an email campaign. Everybody reading your strategic plan should know your history. This isn’t the place for a rewind.
“Success is not a straight line; it’s much more of a dance and being open to possibilities.”
Final advice and tips.
Strategy is often divergent thinking vs. convergent. That is, answers to strategic questions do not arrive like the result at the bottom of a math equation. Rather, strategy changes as the strategist observes the world and reflects upon the dynamics of the competitive environment.
As Henry Mintzberg says, “Strategic thinking involves intuition and creativity. It cannot be developed on schedule and immaculately conceived. It must be free to appear at any time and at any place.”
Your strategic plan will take a couple months to determine and document. And this will typically last you a few years. Each year, however, the annual planning process is where you revisit your theory of change and positioning strategy and establish new annual goals and quarterly rocks around it. Check out our popular annual planning blog post to learn how to avoid the typical pitfalls.
It’s worth a reminder that strat planning is different from program design or product development. This process is about the organization, not services or offers within. Those products and programs also need strategy and planning — but that’s another topic.
According to the premises of traditional strategic planning, the world is supposed to hold still while a plan is being developed. And then stay on the predicted course while that plan is being implemented.
In modern, agile planning, you’re mostly focused on two points: where you want to be 10 to 25 years from now and what you have to do in the next 90 days. Everything else is just a bridge in between.
Say NO more than YES. Because you can’t do everything. In gardening, there’s no room for growth without pruning. But when it comes to business, we have a hard time cutting a single limb.
Furthermore, no battle plan survives first contact. And all strategies will be incorrect to some degree. On a long enough timeline, without methodical iteration, any strategy will be disastrously wrong. In fact, Inc Magazine says 67% of strategic plans fail.
So aim for iteration over perfection. Learning over comfort. Long-term plans degrade in accuracy over time. Iteration replaces this with a predictable, recurring rhythm to reflect and improve as a team.
“Covid proved more than ever that the traditional five-year strat plan is futile. Organizations need a 21st century replacement — one that respects uncertainty as the norm and values the ability to change as a competitive advantage.”
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