Five Reasons Strategic Plans Fail to Be Strategic

Meet Roberta. She is the executive director for a mid-size nonprofit organization.  She and her staff are passionate about the organizations’ work, yet her team isn’t producing to the level they are capable of. Most are highly skilled and professional, yet they struggle to really get traction. She hears things from them like, “I’m not sure what we should be doing next”, “Every time the board meets, we just get more work” and “I don’t feel like we ever really accomplish anything.” On top of that, several veteran staff people recently resigned and they are struggling to fill the new positions. She is concerned more will follow.

The board, while deeply committed to the organization, provides little guidance or direction. They tell Roberta to follow the strategic plan they spent all that money on a couple of years ago. But since then, the pace of decision-making has sped-up, and the scenarios are more complicated. Roberta feels alone and not sure what to do next to keep the organization moving in the right direction.

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This all-to-common scenario in nonprofit organizations often leads to my poking around about their strategic plan. The executive director or board chair frequently interrupt my questions and tell me, “We have a strategic plan, that’s not the problem.” However, my experience tells me otherwise.

Over the course of my 25 years of working for and with organizations, I have discovered an interesting phenomenon around the process of strategic planning. Just because one has a strategic plan, doesn’t mean it is the right plan, and certainly doesn’t mean the organization will follow-it. My experience and observations have led me to the five reasons strategic plans don’t produce desired results.

1.  Strategic plans are rarely based on honest feedback and complete information

 When in a room together, board members and staff are often reluctant to be completely forthcoming when talking about the organizational needs or blind spots. Power differentials, politics, territory, pet projects, fear of retaliation and just plan personality clashes often play an intervening role in preventing the reality of the organization’s culture from surfacing.  

It is not possible to solve what we cannot talk about or see, which is why the

‘elephant in the room’ interferes with an organizations ability to create an effective strategic plan.” 

                                                                                                            Mary Kay Delvo, INspiring SIGHT

2.  Inefficient use of the full board’s time.

The executive director, who nearly always struggles to get the board in a room together, has so much information that requires discussion, the agenda is over-packed and rich conversation is cut short. Typically, boards spend the morning doing some form of information gathering / SWOT Analysis. By time they get to decision-making, it is afternoon and board members have lost focus and are restless to get back to their paying jobs, resulting in rushed decision-making.

3.  Role confusion and blurred lines between vision and mission.

Board members and leadership teams often lack understanding of their differing roles and how each contributes to the success of the organization. Equally confusing is knowing what the vision and mission each mean and how to utilize both as a guide for decision-making across the entire organization.

4.  Strategy doesn’t align with the organizational reality and lacks the employee voice

The strategic plan is often created without solid knowledge of how the organization operates. A vision and mission without meaningful connection to the actual work will never be realized.

5.  Staff and board members lack the muscles required to keep the plan alive in their day-to-day.

Asking strategic and awareness raising questions is a developed skill and mindset which most employees and leadership teams don’t possess. Having a plan does little for you if you don’t know how and when to ask the necessary questions for digging deeper, assessing, and connecting everyday actions and decisions to broader visions and purpose. This is an essential component of plans that work.

Strategic plans are the map for your entire organizational system. When only understood and discussed at the board and leadership team level, there is a reduced chance of it living in your staff and throughout your organization.

Mary Kay Delvo is a small business owner with twenty-five years of nonprofit and board experience. She is an organizational alignment coach for INspiring SIGHT.


Mary Kay Delvo