What Makes a Plan Strategic?

I just read another 'strategic plan' for a wonderful arts organization that provides strong arts education programming to its community. But like too many other organizations, this one has created a strategic plan that is more generic wish list than strategic plan.

Making a list of ideals: we will improve programming, we will market better, we will raise more funds and we will strengthen our board is not creating a strategic plan. This generic list of goals is not wrong, and probably fits for most arts institutions today. Which organization does not want to market better or raise more funds?

But simply listing these goals does literally nothing to ensure that the organization will actually achieve them. When organizations make the effort to develop a plan, and see little change as a result, they come to believe that planning is a waste of time.

It isn't.

But what is required to make a plan useful is a far more focused analysis of the specific situation in which the organization finds itself, of its strengths and weaknesses, of the opportunities it enjoys and the constraints it must overcome.

This analysis, in turn, demands a thorough investigation of the environment in which the organization operates -- what makes operating an opera company, ballet company or theater in your town difficult? What are peer organizations doing that should influence your strategic choices? What is changing in audience and donor demographics that will affect your ability to sell tickets, enroll students or raise funds?

This environmental analysis must be paired with a clear, honest appraisal of the current capabilities of your organization. Is your art wonderful? Or not? Have you created a strong presence through your marketing activities? Do you have the staff skills required to raise funds, exploit new technologies, engage the press, etc.? With which donor segments do your board members have the most contact? The least contact?

It is this evaluation of the environment and the internal strengths and weaknesses that supports the development of specific strategies that will allow the organization to utilize its strengths and overcome its weaknesses. Exactly how should we be focusing our marketing? What specific tools should we use? Which should we avoid? Which donor segments present our best opportunity for adding to fundraising revenue? Which cultivation techniques do these segments find most appealing? It is this pairing of analysis with action steps that makes a plan 'strategic.'

You would be skeptical of a football coach who said the game plan was simply "to pass and run well, score lots of points, and offer a strong defense." You would expect the game plan to reflect the other team's strengths and weaknesses and your own team's special capabilities and vulnerabilities.

You must demand the same level of rigor and specificity in the development of your own strategic plan. While many arts institutions may have the same general goals (sell more tickets, raise more money, etc.) the path to achieving these goals will differ markedly from one organization to another.