I was spontaneous once… it didn’t go as planned

June 20, 2020
Niharika Jindal

I love to plan. Whether it is to proactively take up physical activity with the goal of making my body strong and healthy (we all know how that goes) or building detailed schedules around my next holiday, including where to go, what to see, and where to eat. Planning not only helps me keep sight of what I am moving towards, it keeps me from getting overwhelmed if things change suddenly.

However, when it comes to work, the word planning makes me break into a sweat. And the same is the case for many of my colleagues in the social sector. Planning takes precious time, effort and mindspace  – all of which we think can be better utilized working towards our mission and goals. Add to that the different kinds of plans – business plan, strategic plan, operational plan, implementation plan, financial plan – they may sound different, but with definitions changing with each funder and “consultant”, they end up confusing more than helping. I bet you are already tired of how many times the word “planning” has been used  in the last two paragraphs!

Having said that, there are ways of making the process more useful and less intimidating. In my experience of working with different non-profits, foundations, donors and intermediaries, here are some tips that have helped make strategic planning – the most critical of all the planning processes –  a lot more effective, and maybe even a little enjoyable.

Planning it better

1. Thou shalt not go it alone

It is commonly, but incorrectly, assumed that planning is an exercise that is best done by a founder/director alone. In fact, one of the main reasons why plans may not translate into reality is because they don’t have buy-in from the team. This is definitely easier said than done. Many times, having multiple voices at the table may end up destroying consensus more often than building it (take it from someone who has been part of a few such endless discussions). But this doesn’t need to be. The open airing of divergent opinions, and contradictory visions can ultimately lead to more buy-in from team members even if there’s no superficial consensus at the start. To this effect, sometimes bringing in an impartial external advisor may help you drive the process more smoothly, allow for harder conversations, and save you some precious time.

2. Thou shalt write a Theory of Change

It is still surprising how many organizations, including those that have been around for a few years, skip the process of articulating a formal Theory of Change. And it is not tough to guess why. To put it mildly, writing a ToC can be a mind boggling exercise. But trying to come up with a strategic plan without a ToC is like driving without navigation. You could end up going around in circles, or end up at a completely different destination than you intended. A ToC acts as a guide for both current and future program planning. It allows you to be more intentional about decision making, protects you from mission drift and acts as a framework for evaluating new opportunities.

3. Thou shalt not write a proposal

While no one is denying the fact that one of the primary uses of planning is to better prepare you to raise funds, a plan is not a proposal. One of the places where I’ve often seen this line blurring is in the financial projections. Many of us assume overheads as a flat percentage of the total budget, because that is all a funder will accept. However, if your actual overheads are higher, it means you need to raise more core funding. But you wont realize it if you keep trying to think from a funder’s point of view. The plan is about what you want the organization to do, and how it will get done. Take the extra time to build in the details. They will save you from a potentially stressful situation in the future.

And last but not the least, Thou shalt keep it simple! As Mark Twain famously said – “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”  Your business plan doesn’t need to be 50 pages long – use diagrams, graphs, and far fewer words where you can.

Are there any methods that you used to make strategic planning easier for your organization? Do write to us and share your experience at info[at]svarya.in

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