Strategic Planning
John A. Yankey

During the past decade, social work organizations increasingly have engaged in strategic planning to determine their future direction. A complex, ever-changing, and competitive nonprofit environment has provided impetus for the emergence of this type of planning as a critical leadership activity. Despite its increased use, however, confusion and skepticism about the definition and value of strategic planning remain.


Bryson (1988) defined strategic planning as a “disciplined effort to produce fundamental decisions and actions that shape and guide what an organization (or other entity) is, what it does, and why it does it” (p. 5). Barry (1986) viewed strategic planning as the “process of determining what an organization intends to be in the future and how it will get there” (p. 10). Pfeiffer, Goodstein, and Nolan (1986) viewed such planning as the “process by which the guiding members of an organization envision its future and develop the necessary procedures and operations to achieve that future” (p. 1). In these definitions, as well as those offered by other authors, strategic planning has been viewed as a process of developing and maintaining a strategic fit among the mission of the organization, the strengths and weaknesses of the organization, and opportunities and challenges in the organization's external environment.

Other themes implicit in various definitions suggest that strategic planning be understood as a process that (1) must be embraced and supported by top volunteer and managerial leaders of the organization; (2) seeks ownership at all organizational levels; (3) requires a commitment of resources, especially time; (4) incorporates analysis, thought, judgment, and creativity; and (5) must be tailored to fit an organization's planning culture.

Some authors have distinguished between strategic planning and more-traditional long-range planning. Bryson (1988) suggested that this distinction results from strategic planning's focus on identifying and resolving issues, emphasis on assessment of environmental factors, development of an idealized version of an organization's future, and design of an action-oriented plan through consideration of a range of possible future directions. Others have incorporated strategic planning into other processes. For example, Eadie (1991), Edwards and Eadie (in press), and the United Way of America (1986) have referred to strategic planning within the broader context of “strategic management”: The entire process from development of strategies through monitoring and evaluation of their implementation.


Many authors (Barry, 1986; Bryson, 1988; Burkhart & Reuss, 1993; Eadie, 1991; Steiner, 1979) have pointed out strategic  planning's helpfulness in (1) providing a common purpose for future organizational development, (2) stimulating forward thinking and clarifying future organizational directions, (3) improving organizational performance, (4) building teamwork and expertise, (5) developing a framework for decision making and establishing priorities, (6) promoting responsiveness to changing community needs, (7) enhancing employee morale and commitment to the organization's mission, (8) directing  fundraising efforts, (9) positioning the organization to act on its strengths and opportunities; and (10) providing a mechanism for educating stakeholders about the organization.

Although these benefits are impressive, critics harbor important reservations about strategic planning. They argue that the process is too time-consuming and that the world changes too rapidly, thereby making strategic plans obsolete by the time they are developed. In addition, they point out that such planning is too abstract and will not be beneficial in day-to-day management.  Many social work organizations are in “crisis situations” wherein they must address survival issues immediately; there simply is not sufficient time to conduct strategic planning. Other critics stress that social work organizations frequently do not implement the strategies they develop in the planning process, often leading to cynicism and disillusionment about the value of planning.


Pfeiffer et al. (1986) referred to the initiation of the planning process as “planning to plan” and identified typical questions that require attention at the outset; for example— Leading the Strategic Planning Effort
A key decision in designing the planning process is to identify the desired membership of a strategic planning committee. The individual selected to chair the committee is an especially important leadership choice. This individual should be in contact with and be knowledgeable about the organization; be viewed internally and externally as an appropriate spokesperson; be able to assume a somewhat objective and facilitative role; possess strong planning, group processing, and negotiating skills; and have affluence and influence. Although the executive director or chief executive officer should also play an important role in planning, the chair of the strategic planning committee more frequently is selected from among volunteer leaders (for example, the president or vice president of the board of trustees, chair of a planning committee, or a key board member being groomed for a top leadership role). In addition to this choice of leadership, successful planning requires that the organization's volunteer leaders and top management team be enthusiastic in their support of and actively participate in the strategic planning process.

Involving Key Stakeholders of the Organization
Another important aspect of designing the planning process is to identify those individuals, organizations, coalitions, and so forth whose perceptions and support of the organization are important. These stakeholders' ownership of the strategic plan will be critical to its implementation. Stakeholders of social work organizations may include members of boards of trustees and advisory committees, management officials, staff members, volunteers, clients, former clients, funders, advocacy groups, other nonprofit (including social work) organizations, government leaders, political leaders, religious leaders, and members of the community. The strategic planning committee should be composed of these stakeholders, although it would not be practical to have all of them serve on the committee. Thus, a decision is required regarding who will be requested to serve, with special consideration given to representation from the board of trustees, advisory committees, and top management.

Other stakeholders not serving on the strategic planning committee can and should be involved in the planning process. Although each organization engaged in strategic planning may have its own mechanisms for such involvement, stakeholders can, for example, provide their perceptions about the organization's strengths and weaknesses, serve as members of a panel providing information regarding external environmental trends, help identify or clarify issues requiring strategic consideration, participate in strategy development sessions, or act as “devil's advocates” in reviewing potential strategies.

Developing Steps and a Timetable for the Planning Process
The specific steps of the strategic planning process should reflect the planning culture of the organization.  As indicated, various authors have proposed models of planning, four of which are particularly appropriate for social work organizations (Barry, 1986; Bryson, 1988; Burkhart & Reuss, 1993; Pfeiffer et al., 1986). Although these models involve some differences in emphasis, each includes steps common to most definitions of strategic planning found in the literature:


Strategic planning involves values, beliefs, philosophy, purpose, meaning, and vision.  Thus, it is both logical and necessary for the planning process to focus initially on clarification of an organization's mission.  The aim of mission formulation is to determine the purpose of the organization and the values and philosophy that guide it.

Benefits and Obstacles
Clarifying its mission helps an organization have a shared set of values, define its business, determine the programs and services it wants to undertake, state its purpose clearly to all stakeholders, direct its human and financial resources, and suggest the kinds of knowledge and skills required to carry out the mission efficiently and effectively. Although the importance of mission clarification seems self-evident, the task may encounter resistance, possibly based on the notion that the organization's purpose is self-evident or the belief that the existing charter, bylaws, and mission statement are sufficient. Other resistance may stem from a concern that a discussion of values and philosophy will lead to arguments, controversy, and disagreement. Others resist this “philosophical discussion” because, in their view, it detracts from the true purpose of strategic planning, that is, developing action plans.

It is often stated that an organization can never be greater than the vision that guides it. A vision is a description of an organization's preferred future state. In short, it is a statement of what the organization wants to be in the future. A vision emanates from deeply held values, experiences, views of the future, intuition, and dreaming. Answers to the following questions represent components of a vision:

The creation of a vision for an organization necessarily deals with values and philosophy and provides the framework within which mission clarification occurs.  Pfeiffer et al. (1986), in their applied strategic planning approach, offered a use- ful “values audit” element to help identify the commonly held values of an organization.

Clarification of the Mission
On the basis of the consensus reached about the values and philosophy guiding the organization, strategic planning can focus on a clear formulation of the mission. A series of questions—chosen from the following list—may be used to clarify thinking about the mission:

  1. Why does the organization exist?
  2. Who does, and who should, the organization serve?
  3. What are the organization's most important programs and services?
  4. What does the organization do best?
  5. What does the organization do least well?
  6. What makes the organization unique?
  7. What is the organization most noted for in the community?
  8. What would the community lose if the organization were to cease to exist?
Answers to these questions will provide the elements to be integrated into the statement of the organization's mission. However, it should be noted that development of this statement may represent one of the more formidable tasks in the strategic planning process. Reaching consensus on the specific language of the statement will require a tolerance of differences, a willingness to compromise, and patience.  Among other things, a mission statement should be consistent with organizational values and philosophy, clear and understandable to all stakeholders, brief enough to be kept in mind and easily communicated, broad enough to allow flexibility but not so broad as to lose focus, and worded so as to serve as a motivational force and a guide to organizational decision making.

Although the aim in crafting the mission statement is to make it as succinct as possible, its length will vary among organizations.  Clearly, nonprofit organizations of all kinds have moved away from mission statements exceeding one page. Such brevity often is accomplished by including a section on underpinning values and philosophy before or after the mission statement in the strategic plan. Whatever its length, the mission statement provides the reality grounding for the next step in strategic planning: assessing the organization's internal and external environments.

A frequently used tool in strategic planning is the SWOT analysis: an analysis of the internal strengths and weaknesses of the organization in relation to the opportunities and threats presented by its external environment. This step in strategic planning is important in helping position the organization to maximize its strengths and capitalize on its opportunities. A SWOT analysis will prepare an organization to respond effectively to its external environment before a crisis erupts.

Internal Analysis
Assessment of the internal environment of an organization should include attention to its resources (people, money, facilities, equipment, information, technology, and so on), present strategies, and performance (operational assessment). Any data that would help the strategic planning committee gain a comprehensive overview of the organization's strengths and weaknesses should be included in this analysis.  Operational assessment is approached through an analysis of performance history or an analysis based on comparative performance. Social work organizations probably will have an extensive amount of data available regarding resources, less information available regarding current strategies, and even less data on organizational performance. In the absence of such information, the committee often must rely on self-assessment and perceptions of key stakeholders as to how well the organization is performing.

This step in the strategic planning process may involve extensive gathering of data from an organization's documents; door-to-door, mail, telephone, or shopping mall surveys; focus groups; individual interviews; and panels of experts. Information may be sought on issues such as the organization's image, program and services, governance, management, staff, volunteers, external communication, facilities, funding, and fundraising. Hard data, to the extent that they exist, should be used. However, qualitative data, especially the results of a perceptual analysis, will almost certainly represent an important element in the SWOT analysis.

External Environment Analysis
Often the external environment is not well known; however, what happens there directly affects the organization. A good strategic planning process will include information about outside forces likely to influence the future direction of the organization. Bryson (1988) and others have identified three major categories of information as important elements in any systematic approach to environmental scanning: forces and trends; clients, customers, or payers; and actual or potential competitors.
The key forces and trends in the external environment usually will be identified in four to six broad categories. Although economic, social–demographic, political, and technological categories appear in many environmental scans, volunteerism and philanthropic categories are especially important additional categories for social work organizations involved in strategic planning. The data for this analysis of forces and trends come from literature reviews, government documents, university-produced studies and reports, nonprofit and for-profit organizations' environmental scans, public hearings, key informants, panels of experts, and so forth. These forces and trends are analyzed in terms of the potential opportunities for and threats to the organization, and they represent critical considerations in charting the organization's future course.
A thorough SWOT analysis also requires focusing on clients, customers, or payers. These groups must be given attention as to their potential positive or negative impact on an organization's future.  This aspect of the SWOT analysis will identify the needs of present and potential client groups that the organization may wish to serve in the future. Equally as important, funding sources, both public and private, must be analyzed in terms of the opportunities or threats they present for the organization's future.

A final element of the SWOT analysis is a competition analysis. Although some social work organizations do not perceive themselves as being in competition with other nonprofit organizations, virtually all compete on some level (for example, clientele, public visibility and acceptance, or funding). An analysis of competition helps shape the future competitive positioning of the organization in the markets it chooses to serve. The data required for this analysis will address such issues as with whom the organization is competing, the foci of the competition, and relative competitive strengths or weaknesses. More specifically, this analysis will focus  attention on competitors' current market presence;  production, distribution, and promotions; competitive differences; profitability; and image in the marketplace. The results of a SWOT analysis provide a solid base from which the strategic planning committee can identify issues to be stressed.

Eadie (1991) defined a strategic issue as a “major change challenge—opportunities and problems that appear to demand an organizational response, so a successful balance can be maintained between the organization's internal and external environments” (pp. 292–293). Bryson (1988) defined such an issue as a “fundamental policy choice affecting an organization's mandates, mission, values, product or service level and mix, clients or users, cost, financing, organization, or management” (p. 56). A strategic issue may be a welcome trend, event, or development that presents an organization with an opportunity to build on its competency, or it may be an unwelcome trend, event, or development emanating from an external environmental threat or an internal shortcoming.

Determination of an Issue as Strategic
Although many issues generated by strategic planning are critical, not all are strategic.  Criteria for determining whether an issue is strategic include whether it is (1) an issue that is likely to have an impact on how the organization carries out its mission, (2) one that must produce a response of organizational commitment of human and financial resources, and (3) one over which the organization may reasonably expect to have some influence.

Bryson (1988) and the United Way of America (1986) provided guidelines on the information necessary for a thorough consideration of strategic issues. This information includes a description of the issue, a discussion of the factors that make the issue strategic, and an examination of the consequences of failure to address the issue. In addition, attention must be directed toward the developmental stage of the issue (that is, emerging, developing, maturing, or declining). Further, the analysis entails consideration of such questions as, How great will the impact likely be? What will be the focus of the impact? Who are the major actors, and what positions are they likely to take on the issue? What are the options for the organization to deal effectively with the issue?

Approaches to Issue Identification
Barry (1986) suggested three approaches to the identification of strategic issues:  direct, goals, and “vision of success.”

Direct approach.
Direct approach. In the direct approach, the strategic planning committee moves from a clarification of the mission and the SWOT analysis to an identification of strategic issues. Kearns (1992) presented an in-depth explanation of the way in which strategic issues can emerge from a SWOT analysis. This approach works well when there is no preexisting agreement on goals, no well-defined vision of success, and no hierarchical authority choosing to impose goals.

Goals approach.
Goals approach. The goals approach is based on organizational objectives being agreed upon and in place. In addition to agreement on goals and objectives, there must be sufficient specificity to guide identification of issues and potential strategies. This approach then develops strategies for carrying out the mission of the organization. The approach works well in organizations with hierarchical authority that wishes to impose goals on the planning process. The approach does not work well when values are diverse, agendas are broad, and stakeholders are powerful.

“Vision of success” approach.
“Vision of success” approach. The “vision of success” approach is similar to the visioning activities associated with mission formulation. In this approach, the organization is requested to create a “best” picture of its future as it fulfills its mission and achieves success. Strategic issues are related to how the organization should move from the way it is now to how it would behave on the basis of its vision. This approach can be especially useful when drastic change is required or when it is difficult to identify strategic issues directly.

Whatever approach is used, strategic issues are politically and technically important in the strategic planning process. Political decision making focuses on issues, and strategic planning can have a positive impact on an organization by shaping the way issues are framed and resolved. If issues are carefully framed, future decision making is likely to be both politically acceptable and technically workable.


Once strategic issues have been selected, the strategic planning committee often establishes work groups to develop goals and strategies to address them. These work groups may be strengthened by the addition of key stakeholders who have expertise in specific issue areas.

Strategy Development Process
Bryson (1988) preferred a five-part strategy development process in which members of the strategic planning committee or the work groups would address the following questions about each strategic issue:

  1. What are the practical alternatives that might be pursued to address this strategic issue?
  2. What are the barriers precluding the realization of these alternatives?
  3. What major proposals could be pursued to achieve these alternatives?
  4. What major action with existing staff must be undertaken to implement these proposals?
  5. What specific action steps must be taken to implement the proposals?
Various approaches to strategy  development encompass similar foci of critical thinking. For example, another approach entails (1) identifying the current strategy, (2) delineating problems with that strategy, (3) pinpointing the core of the strategy problem, (4) formulating alternative strategies, (5) evaluating these strategies, and (6) choosing a new strategy. Yet other approaches highlight identification of obstacles to implementation and steps or actions to be taken to overcome such obstacles.

Evaluation of Alternative Strategies
An especially critical aspect of developing strategies is the establishment of a clear and explicit set of criteria. The United Way of America (1986) suggested a model for evaluating and selecting strategies that was adapted from business strategy within the for-profit sector. The United Way approach includes a criteria selection checklist based on the following nine issues and questions:

  1. Suitability: Is there a sustainable advantage?
  2. Validity: Are the assumptions realistic?
  3. Feasibility: Does the organization have the necessary skills, resources, and commitment?
  4. Consistency: Is the strategy externally and internally consistent?
  5. Vulnerability: What are the risks and contingencies?
  6. Timing: When must the organization act, and  when will it benefit?
  7. Adaptability: Can the organization retain its flexibility?
  8. Uniqueness: What makes this strategy distinctively different from others?
  9. Usability: Can the organization readily implement the strategy?
Analysis of the alternatives through this screen of nine questions represents United Way's first attempt to narrow the number of strategies. The approach also suggests a second process whereby the remaining alternatives are examined more thoroughly in regard to the support they will require for implementation. This level of consideration focuses on organizational resources, structure, and systems.


After selection of strategies a first draft of the strategic plan is developed. Although there can be wide content variations, many strategic plans include the following sections: introduction and background; strategic planning process and participants; environmental analyses; mission, values, and philosophy; strategic goals and strategies; strategic plan implementation; and conclusion. This initial draft of the plan is reviewed and modified by the strategic planning committee until a consensus on its content is reached. Consideration of how the plan is to be implemented, monitored, and updated is a part of this deliberation.
The strategic planning committee submits its final version of the plan to the board of trustees (or executive committee if this committee reviews matters before their submittal to the full board). Because a number of the members of the board will have been participants in the planning process, the document's review and subsequent approval will benefit from firsthand knowledge of the thinking implicit in the selected strategic alternatives. At this point, much more in-depth attention is given to the implementation challenges regarding the organization's commitment, its allocation of resources, and the required structure and process for monitoring and updating the plan. A decision also is made as to who will assume responsibility for translating the strategic plan into an operational or tactical plan. In nonprofit organizations, this responsibility is increasingly being shared in a partnership arrangement between the organization's paid staff and the appropriate board committees. The design of the operational or tactical plan should include the activities and responsibilities for monitoring and updating the strategic plan, which should be done—at a minimum—on an annual basis.


Experience with strategic planning in the 1980s and early 1990s has resulted in important lessons about why such planning may produce less than organizations have hoped for. The following are among the practices that have led to problems:

  •   delegating strategic planning to other professionals in the organization
  •   ignoring political considerations in designing and implementing the planning process
  •   failing to build ownership of the plan, especially among those responsible for implementing it
  •   failing to allocate sufficient time for a meaningful planning process
  •   tending to be overly optimistic regarding an organization's capacity
  •   failing to plan for contingencies
  •   failing to plan for a transition from strategic to operational planning
  •   allowing the plan to become outdated
  •   shelving the plan after completion.
  • For social work organizations attentive to avoiding these pitfalls, the strategic planning process provides a powerful mechanism for making critical choices regarding their future. It is a vehicle that can take organizations beyond merely forecasting their  future to envisioning the future they want and creating the road map to get there.
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    John A. Yankey, PhD, ACSW, LISW, is Leonard W. Mayo Professor, Case Western Reserve University, Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, 10900 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44106.

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    Key Words
    decision-making processes
    strategic planning