What should a strategic plan include?
The end is in sight! Now that everyone has had a chance to contribute their ideas, the options have been wrestled with, the choices have been made, and the details worked out, all that remains is to commit the ideas to paper and make it official.
The Draft and Review Process
First of all, who actually writes the plan? Remember that writing is done most efficiently by one or two individuals, not by a whole group - the writer simply crafts the presentation of the group's ideas. Often an executive director will draft the plan, or the task may be delegated to a staff person, board member, or a consultant who has been working with the planning committee. In the end, it really does not matter who writes the strategic plan; what matters is that it accurately documents the decisions made, that it represents a shared vision, and that it has the support of those responsible for carrying it out.
That is why the process of review and approval is the most important consideration in this step - much more so than who does the writing. The planners should decide in advance who may review and respond to the draft plan; obviously committee members will participate in the review process, but should the full board and the full staff? The guiding principle of participation in the strategic planning process is that everyone who will help execute the plan should have some input into shaping it; whether or not this includes review of the final drafts of the plan is a judgment call that really depends upon the particular circumstances of an organization.
Ideally, the big ideas have been debated and resolved, so that revisions only amount to small matters of adding detail, revising format, or changing some wording in a particular section. Still, if reviewers get bogged down in crossing too many t's and dotting too many i's, the plan could linger in draft form forever. The planning committee must exercise leadership in setting a realistic time frame for the review process and in bringing the process to a timely close: the committee needs to choose the level of review appropriate for the organization, provide copies for review to the selected individuals, and set a deadline for submitting feedback (usually allowing one to two weeks is sufficient). Upon receiving all the feedback, the committee must agree on which suggested revisions to accept, incorporate these into the document, and submit the strategic plan to the full board of directors for approval.
Standard Format for a Strategic Plan
A strategic plan is a simply a document that summarizes, in about ten pages of written text, why an organization exists, what it is trying to accomplish, and how it will go about doing so. Its "audience" is anyone who wants to know the organization's most important ideas, issues, and priorities: board members, staff, volunteers, clients, funders, peers at other organizations, the press, and the public. It is a document that should offer edification and guidance - so, the more concise and ordered the document, the greater the likelihood that it will be useful, that it will be used, and that it will be helpful in guiding the operations of the organization. Below is an example of a common format for strategic plans, as well as brief descriptions of each component listed, which might help writers as they begin trying to organize their thoughts and their material. This is just an example, however, not the one and only way to go about this task. The point of the document is to allow the best possible explanation of the organization's plan for the future, and the format should serve the message.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
The final document should include a table of contents. These are the sections commonly included in a strategic plan:
I. Introduction by the President of the Board
A cover letter from the president of the organization's board of directors introduces the plan to readers. The letter gives a "stamp of approval" to the plan and demonstrates that the organization has achieved a critical level of internal agreement. (This introduction is often combined with the Executive Summary below.)
II. Executive Summary
In one to two pages, this section should summarize the strategic plan: it should reference the mission and vision; highlight the long-range goals (what the organization is seeking to accomplish); and perhaps note the process for developing the plan, as well as thank participants involved in the process. From this summary, readers should understand what is most important about the organization.
III. Mission and Vision Statements
These statements can stand alone without any introductory text, because essentially they introduce and define themselves.
IV. Organization Profile and History
In one or two pages, the reader should learn the story of the organization (key events, triumphs, and changes over time) so that he or she can understand its historical context (just as the planning committee needed to at the beginning of the planning process).
V. Critical Issues and Strategies
Sometimes organizations omit this section, choosing instead to "cut to the chase" and simply present goals and objectives. However, the advantage of including this section is that it makes explicit the strategic thinking behind the plan. Board and staff leaders may refer to this document to check their assumptions, and external readers will better understand the organization's point of view. The section may be presented as a brief outline of ideas or as a narrative that covers several pages.
VI. Program Goals and Objectives
In many ways the program goals and objectives are the heart of the strategic plan. Mission and vision answer the big questions about why the organization exists and how it seeks to benefit society, but the goals and objectives are the plan of action - what the organization intends to "do" over the next few years. As such, this section should serve as a useful guide for operational planning and a reference for evaluation. For clarity of presentation, it makes sense to group the goals and objectives by program unit if the organization has only a few programs; if some programs are organized into larger program groups (e.g., Case Management Program in the Direct Services Program Group), the goals and objectives will be delineated at both the group level and the individual program level.
VII. Management Goals and Objectives
In this section the management functions are separated from the program functions to emphasize the distinction between service goals and organization development goals. This gives the reader a clearer understanding both of the difference and the relationship between the two sets of objectives, and enhances the "guiding" function of the plan.
The reason to include any appendices is to provide needed documentation for interested readers. Perhaps no appendices are truly necessary (many organizations opt for brevity). They should be included only if they will truly enhance readers' understanding of the plan, not just burden them with more data or complicating factors.