The Essential Components of A Nonprofit Strategic Plan [With Template]

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October 13, 2022

Last Updated:

October 30, 2023

You may have heard of nonprofit strategic planning and felt overwhelmed by the concept. But there’s no need to worry!

In this post, we are going to walk you through what a strategic plan is and help provide some insights into how to write the right type of strategic plan for your nonprofit.

We will also include some examples of good nonprofit strategic plans as well as common mistakes to avoid. If you’re ready to develop a strategic plan for your nonprofit, then continue reading to learn more.

5 Free Nonprofit Strategic Planning Templates To Use

What Is a Nonprofit Strategic Plan?

A nonprofit strategic plan is a document that helps drive and guide all of the work of your nonprofit. A good strategic plan will lay out the major goals and objectives you hope to achieve and specific steps for reaching those goals and objectives.

It is important to recognize that a strategic plan is not a linear document. You should think of your nonprofit strategic plan more like a flow chart as it needs to connect all of the pieces of your nonprofit to each other.

If you are working on creating a strategic plan for your nonprofit, you will need to start by understanding the different types of strategic plans. You can use the list below to help determine which type best fits the needs of your nonprofit.

While there are many different strategic planning models, the five that we have listed are most common among nonprofits.

1. Standard Planning: Best for Stable Conditions

A standard planning model is used when internal and external conditions are calm and your nonprofit is operating normally. This is the best model for nonprofits that are creating a strategic plan for the first time, making it the most basic and common type of plan.

The first step to creating a standard planning model is to define your nonprofit’s overall mission. Then, you can lay out the goals that best align with that mission by doing the following:

  • Establish short-term, specific goals you will use to reach the larger goals.
  • Design plans and activities for reaching those short-term goals.
  • Determine who will be responsible for enacting and overseeing those plans.
  • Create a timeline that includes these plans and activities. This timeframe could be anywhere from one to three-to-five years, depending on the size of the goals being reached.

For example, a local shelter for battered women could have a goal of increasing its room capacity to shelter 50 more women and children over the next two years. The shelter determines it will need $20,000 to properly achieve this goal. Its strategic plan should clearly detail who will be in charge of outreach, who will contact donors, who will work with contractors, and any other steps needed to reach this larger goal.

By first determining the smaller goals and who will manage them, the local shelter can focus on meeting the overall challenge successfully in the allotted time frame.

It is common to create a strategic plan that lays out goals for three or five years at a time. By planning a few years at a time, your nonprofit can stay focused on achievable goals while also tying these into a larger picture.

2. Issue-Based Planning: Tackling Internal Challenges

If your nonprofit organization is dealing with internal challenges that need to be overcome, an issue-based planning model can help your organization clearly address these issues.

First, you will need to address the factors that are limiting your nonprofit’s success. Then, you can determine the best steps to address each of these factors.

Maybe your nonprofit is experiencing repeated staff turnover in a turbulent economic climate, or the leadership keeps changing due to disgruntled working conditions. An issue-based model can help solve these specific issues in an allocated period of time.

For example, maybe your nonprofit organization has repeatedly fallen short on its fundraising goal of $100,000. An issue-based planning model can be used to identify why your organization keeps missing its goal and what it can do to fix it.

This could be done by implementing the following steps:

  • Conduct a brainstorming session to identify the things that are holding your nonprofit back from reaching its fundraising goal each year.
  • Agree on how to address each issue to get your fundraising back on track.
  • Figure out who will work on each issue, and then have someone carefully monitor their progress.
  • Have “check-in” milestones established and adjust the plan as needed to make sure you achieve success.

The last two bullets are key to successfully fixing specific issues within your organization. It is imperative to closely monitor your progress and adjust your issue-based plan as needed to get your nonprofit back on track.

3. Organic Planning: Adapting to External Changes

Unlike an issue-based planning model that deals with internal conditions, an organic planning model is used to help your nonprofit organization adapt to external changes that are impacting your nonprofit.

The “organic” nature of this kind of plan means that it will be less structured. You may not determine all of your steps at once, like a standard or issue-based plan. Instead, your nonprofit team will settle on one initial goal and make steps toward it. After you’ve reached that goal, you can organically decide on your next goal to keep moving forward.

Having your team meet regularly (maybe every quarter) will ensure your organic planning model is progressing successfully or if any adjustments need to be made.

4. Real-Time Planning: Navigating Sudden Crises

A real-time planning model is the perfect choice for nonprofit organizations that are facing either an internal or external crisis as a result of an unexpected event (consider that events of 2020!).

Usually, the impact of the event comes quickly and unexpectedly, so this kind of plan focuses on short-term goals that can be managed one step at a time to successfully make it through the real-time crisis.

For example, 27% of nonprofits across the globe have been a victim of cyberattacks, leaving their donors’ private and personal information vulnerable. This is the perfect example of a crisis that can be handled by a real-time planning model:

  • Have an initial meeting with your team to establish the short-term goals to face the cyberattack crisis.
  • Decide who will be working on each short-term goal.
  • Continue to meet to evaluate what has been done, discuss the next steps, and reaffirm the short-term goals of each team member.
  • After the crisis is over, have the team meet again to review the success of the plan and what could have been done better. 

As you can see from the example above, the goals of a real-time planning model are smaller so that they can be managed quickly and in a short period of time.

If your nonprofit is working on another strategic plan when a crisis hits, the real-time planning model will supersede any traditional strategic plan that is in place.

5. Alignment Model: Synchronizing Teams and Departments

Communication issues amongst your team members are normal, but if your staff and departments are out of sync and it’s affecting your organization, you may need to develop an alignment model strategic plan.

An alignment model will essentially streamline and restructure the way your team members communicate by focusing on the interdepartmental communication problems.

The objective of this type of nonprofit strategic plan is to align goals throughout each department so that everyone in the nonprofit can work and communicate more effectively.

Here are some ideas for how to develop this kind of plan:

  • Everyone meets to discuss the specific issues each team member is facing due to the lack of communication.
  • Small goals are set for each team member based on an established common mission. A larger goal is also set (i.e., clearer social media efforts, overall fundraising goals, etc.).
  • A framework is developed that illustrates the short-term goals each team member must achieve to improve internal communication.
  • Future meetings are established in which the team will check in and report their individual progress toward both their individual goals and the larger goal of the nonprofit.

You should choose this type of nonprofit strategic plan if your team needs help getting back on the same page and working toward a common goal. We have more information on how your nonprofit can better communicate, not only internally but also with donors, volunteers, board members, and the general public.

What Are the Benefits of Having a Strategic Plan?

Now that we’ve explained the different types of strategic plans, it’s time to go over how they can contribute to your nonprofit’s success.

Below, we have outlined the top ways a nonprofit strategic plan can benefit your organization and further its impact.

Provides Clear Direction

Your nonprofit strategic plan acts as a blueprint that guides your organization toward specific goals. As such, it provides clear direction to everyone on your team.

Without a strategic plan, you may not be able to determine if your goals are being met over the course of your given timeframe.

Once you develop the right plan for your organization, you will be able to clearly assess your nonprofit’s progress in achieving its milestones and objectives.

Enhances Grant Writing Chances

Another reason your organization should consider developing a nonprofit strategic plan is because it will enhance your grant writing success.

If you have worked with grantmakers before, you may have noticed that they often ask for you to include your nonprofit strategic plan with your grant proposal. Funders want to see how their grant would contribute to the overall strategic goals of your organization.

Your nonprofit strategic plan can also help you determine whether a specific grant is even worth pursuing in the first place. If the funding opportunity does not align with your strategic goals, you will probably waste time and effort developing a losing proposal.

Reflects Stability and Structure

A nonprofit strategic plan also communicates stability and structure to your organization’s stakeholders.

Donors, grant funders, corporate partners, etc., all want to see that your organization has carefully planned out its goals and how to achieve them.

Many nonprofit organizations even share their strategic plans on their websites so that these stakeholders and future supporters can check them out themselves.

For example, the Gates Family Foundation, a nonprofit committed to different philanthropic goals in the state of Colorado, offers their five-year strategic plan on their website. That way, their donors, partners, and staff can have a clear understanding of the structure and stability of their organization.

Gates Family Foundation

Clarifies Roles Within the Organization

Because a successful strategic plan outlines your nonprofit’s goals and gives specific timelines on how to achieve them, it clarifies the roles and responsibilities of your team members within the organization.

Your strategic plan will help your staff, board of directors, and anyone else working with your nonprofit understand what their roles are within the organization. That way, everyone can stay on task and know how their contributions are critical to achieving the larger goals of the nonprofit.

Values Team Members' Contributions

A strategic plan also helps to show your nonprofit’s staff how important their contributions are. Having a nonprofit strategic plan is a great way to illustrate how valuable your team is to achieving success and furthering your organization’s impact.

Your plan should illustrate how each team member contributes to making your nonprofit’s vision a reality. This clarification can be incredibly motivating because your team clearly knows that their efforts are making a difference.

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What Is the Difference Between a Nonprofit Business Plan and a Strategic Plan?

You may be wondering whether you really need a nonprofit strategic plan because you already have a business plan.

While they may seem similar, business plans and strategic plans serve distinct purposes. We will outline some of their key differences and use cases below.

Key Components of a Nonprofit Business Plan

Both a nonprofit strategic plan and a business plan support a nonprofit’s overall mission. However, a business plan focuses on three key elements for the nonprofit:

  1. Marketing
  2. Finances
  3. Operations

A business plan is more of a guide for how the organization will run successfully—the finances, goods and services, marketing techniques, and overall operations of the organization.

On the other hand, the nonprofit strategic plan will be guided by a specific goal or goals during a specific point of time—one year, three years, five years, etc.

Here are some key elements that a typical nonprofit business will include:

  • Detailed budgets
  • Financial reports
  • Marketing plans
  • Financial projections
  • Audience and team information
  • Impact and operational plans

As you can see, a business plan focuses more on the practical operational side of your nonprofit organization.

Key Elements of a Strategic Plan

The key elements of a nonprofit strategic plan are determined by two things: the goals of the plan and the type of plan that is used to achieve those goals.

Each type of plan, however, should include the following:

  • Who is working on the plan and their designated role;
  • The time frame of the plan; and
  • Any adjustments that may need to be made to meet the established goals.

Duration and Time Frame

Most nonprofit strategic plans will run anywhere from one to five years, depending on which strategic plan you need and the goals of the plan. Those involved in the strategic plan should meet regularly—maybe every quarter—to make sure the plan is on track or if adjustments need to be made.

A business plan may also be a blueprint of three to five years, but most business plans usually cover one year of goals and objectives.

Target Audience and Stakeholders

The target audience and stakeholders of a nonprofit strategic plan will depend on the goals of the plan.

In general, you should reach out to key staff members who are working on the short- and long-term goals, board members, and important community partners who also play a role in achieving the goals within the plan.

In business plans, the target audience is usually the end user of the product. Therefore, most business plans focus on why their product is a good fit for this demographic. For a nonprofit, these are the benefactors of your supporters.

Role in Organizational Development and Growth

Nonprofit strategic plans play an important role in organizational development and growth. Not only are these plans a great way to engage new donors, but they can also help make your staff feel valued and important to achieving your organization's goals.

In a similar way, nonprofit business plans will focus on how your nonprofit makes a difference in your community over a period of time. It will document milestones of growth in actionable ways.

Flexibility and Adaptability

A nonprofit strategic plan is a living document, which means it is flexible enough to adapt with the environment and the nonprofit’s need for change. This is why having regular team meetings is key—that way, the team can assess whether the strategic plan is on track or adaptations are needed to better meet the goals.

Business plans are also an operational roadmap, and with that also comes flexibility. There are things that may come up that you cannot predict in a business plan. So, keeping it flexible as your nonprofit grows will help your organization adapt to changing times.

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5 Steps to Create a Nonprofit Strategic Plan

1. Understand Your Mission

While it may sound strange to list understanding your mission, any good strategic plan starts with the basics.

Because all goals and objectives need to align with your mission, you must first make sure that everyone involved in the strategic planning process truly understands the mission of your nonprofit.

Even if you feel that your mission is clear, discussing it as part of the planning process will help you understand why you do what you do. Reviewing this information will make it easier to create clear goals and objectives.

Check out our post on writing a good nonprofit mission statement to make sure that your mission statement is working for you and is aligned with your goals and objectives.

2. SWOT Analysis

SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. Completing a SWOT analysis involves identifying all items within each of these categories for your nonprofit.

The process of identifying strengths, weaknesses, obstacles, and threats will help your nonprofit understand what actions need to be taken to reach desired goals and objectives.

Typically, this type of analysis is focused on all items related to your nonprofit, not just those specific to the goals and objectives within your strategic plan. It is also important to complete this analysis often as the items in each category can change frequently.

Below is an example of a SWOT analysis chart or map which is a good way to visualize the information within this type of analysis. You can check out this example and more SWOT analysis charts here.

3. Choose the Strategic Planning Model

You can use the information from the SWOT analysis to understand what is keeping your nonprofit from being successful.

Once you understand the current obstacles and threats, you can determine the type of planning model that best suits the current needs of your nonprofit. Here are the most common to choose from:

  • Issue-Based Planning Model: This begins with the identification and analysis of key issues and then formulates strategies to address these issues. It's often used when there are pressing problems that require immediate attention.
  • Goals-Based Planning Model: This model is popular as it helps organizations define clear, measurable objectives and then develop strategies to achieve these goals. It ensures alignment between an organization's mission and its actions.
  • Balanced Scorecard Model: The balanced scorecard is a common choice for organizations looking to balance financial and non-financial performance metrics to measure and manage their strategies effectively.
  • Scenario Planning Model: Scenario planning is employed by organizations that want to be prepared for a range of potential future scenarios, making it common in industries with high uncertainty.

4. Set SMART Goals and Objectives

Now that you have evaluated your mission, completed a SWOT analysis, and chosen the right type of planning model, you should be ready to set goals specific to your strategic plan.

Setting SMART (Simple, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-based) goals will help you create a clear path for reaching these goals.

An example of a general goal would be “increasing the reach of our educational programs”. To make this a SMART goal, you would get more specific: “we will reach 300 new students through 10 separate reading programs between June 1, 2023 and May 31, 2023.”

5. Clearly Assign Tasks

One of the most important parts of a good strategic plan is being specific. The goal of this document is to help your nonprofit be successful in reaching specific objectives, therefore it needs to include specific tasks.

Your staff need to understand their role(s) in helping to reach the goals and objectives of the nonprofit. You also want to include timelines for these tasks so that you can monitor progress.

Keep in mind that because you have assigned specific tasks with timelines, you can adjust your strategic plan as needed. The document is not set in stone, so if you find things are not working out as you intended, adjustments can be made.

Common Mistakes When Making The Nonprofit Strategic Plan

Building an effective nonprofit strategic plan can seem intimidating to even the most seasoned nonprofit staff. To help you understand how to write a successful nonprofit strategic plan, we have identified a few of the common mistakes so that we can help you avoid them.

Not Being Specific

A key part of creating a good nonprofit strategic plan is to write actionable steps for achieving your intended goals and outcomes.

If you are not specific with your plans, it will be difficult to be successful in reaching your goals. A good nonprofit strategic plan will include specific tasks that are assigned to specific people and mapped out over time.

Not Involving Your Whole Team

Another important factor when learning how to write a good nonprofit strategic plan is to make sure to involve your whole team.

For your nonprofit, this team may simply be a board of directors, or it may be a larger staff as well. While each person may not be involved in every step of the planning process, they all need to be included on some scale because they will be the ones completing the work to reach the goals that you set.

It is also important to involve your whole team when completing your SWOT analysis as those involved in day-to-day nonprofit operations will understand the strengths, weaknesses, obstacles, and threats better than anyone.

Thinking the Document Is Set In Stone

We have mentioned a few times that a good nonprofit strategic plan needs to be a living document. Because both the internal and external climate surrounding any nonprofit change constantly, your strategic plan may need to change as well.

While you may create a strategic plan that maps out three to five years of plans (depending what type of planning model you use), it is important to continually monitor and reevaluate your successes and failures.

Planning Too Far Ahead

While a standard nonprofit strategic plan typically focuses on three to five years, you need to make sure you don’t plan too far ahead.

Your nonprofit needs to determine a feasible timeline that fits its specific goals and objectives so that it can be successful. You do not want to create a strategic plan just to say that you have one; you want to make sure you can successfully achieve the goals included in the plan.

If you try to plan too far ahead, it will be difficult to understand how daily tasks are actually impacting your success. Planning too far ahead can also become overwhelming and hamper the success of your nonprofit.

Best Nonprofit Strategic Plan Examples

One of the best ways to learn how to build a strong nonprofit strategic plan is to review examples from other nonprofits. We have created a list of what we feel are some great examples, but there are many out there.

Because your strategic plan is often a public document, you can find many examples simply through an internet search. We wanted to be sure to highlight some that we feel are well put together and demonstrate the information we have shared.

1. The Nature Conservancy

The Nature Conservancy is a national nonprofit focused on helping to protect natural places across the United States. We have chosen to highlight the strategic plan created by the Pennsylvania and Delaware chapter.

Their strategic plan does a great job of laying out clear goals and objectives, while also keeping things simple so that the plan is accessible to anyone. You will see that they break down the plan into geographic/project focus areas which is a great way to organize the information.

The nature conservancy also uses a great layout that makes the document easy to read and understand.


Another clean and organized nonprofit strategic plan that is a good example comes from YWCA of Greater Cleveland. We have chosen their strategic plan because they very clearly lay out their goals and their plans to reach them.

Similar to the plan from The Nature Conservancy, YWCA uses photos and graphics to make the document easy to read and digest by the public.

3. Philadelphia Museum of Art

Another great example of a good nonprofit strategic plan comes from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Their strategic plan is clearly organized into key focus areas which include goals and steps for achievement.

Similar to our first two example strategic plans, the Philadelphia Museum of Art uses images and a clean layout to make their plan easy to follow. We also like how this nonprofit uses active words for their goals such as engaging and activating.

4. St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital

St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital is a well known nonprofit focused on curing childhood cancer and other childhood diseases.

Their strategic plan stood out to us because it is available through their website as a live document. What we mean by this is that you can actually click through the pages as if you were holding a physical copy of the strategic plan.

Because this nonprofit focuses on medical research, their strategic plan is a bit more in-depth so that readers can see the types of work they are planning. Their plan still focuses on clearly defined goals with details about their plans for success.

They also use visuals throughout to break up the text of the strategic plan. Even though their strategic plan is a bit more text heavy, they make sure to break things down in a way that stakeholders can understand.

5. Horizons Atlanta

Our final example nonprofit strategic plan comes from Horizons Atlanta which is an organization focused on helping youth become valuable members of their communities.

We chose their strategic plan as one of our examples because they use a good structure that clearly lays out their strategic priorities early in the document.

They break down the details associated with each strategy later on, but having all priorities identified early helps those that may just want to understand the basics of the plan.

We also liked the way that they provide some good background on their nonprofit at the beginning of the plan to help those that may not be familiar with their work.

Keep in mind that a grantmaker or any other stakeholder reviewing this document may be hearing of your nonprofit for the first time. A good strategic plan will include some background which will also help put the goals and plans in perspective.

Helpful Resources for Nonprofit Strategic Plans

For those looking to draft their nonprofit strategic plan, Instrumentl provides easy-to-use nonprofit strategic planning templates that can guide you through the process.

Instrumentl Easy-to-Use Nonprofit Strategic Planning Templates

These free strategic planning templates for nonprofits will guide you through the process from beginning to end. Check them out today!

Wrapping Up: How to Write a Nonprofit Strategic Plan

We have broken down what a nonprofit strategic plan is and provided some insights into how to create a good nonprofit strategic plan. We also provided several example nonprofit strategic plans for your review.

Using these clear goals as the backbone of your strategic plan will help your nonprofit be successful in reaching your goals.

Up next, pair this guide with our guide to the characteristics of successful nonprofits. Doing so will help you benchmark your nonprofit and where the opportunities are to improve.

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