6 min Read
November 15, 2023

4 tips for when your nonprofit strategic plan goes awry

Bob Happy

A nonprofit strategic plan outlines the goals your organization wants to accomplish in the coming years that get you closer to accomplishing your larger mission.

After you create a strategic plan, it can be exhilarating to dive into your first projects and begin chipping away at the big goals you want to achieve.

But what about when a curveball comes your way, whether that be an emergency, a major shift in the community you serve, or economic uncertainty? What happens to your nonprofit’s strategic plan then?

Even organizations with the most thorough strategic plans are bound to face challenges like these, so it helps to be prepared and be ready to adapt. Here are four tips you can use to successfully pivot when your strategic plan goes awry. 

1. Assess the challenges you’re facing.

When an unexpected challenge comes your way, the first thing to do is assess the situation. This will help you gauge how this challenge will affect your strategic plan and set you up to successfully adapt to a change of course.

Here are some ways to assess any challenge you’re facing: 

  • Review your metrics. You’re likely tracking your progress toward the goals you laid out in your strategic plan. When you encounter a roadblock with one of your goals, take the time to review your metrics. Evaluate your current progress and research how much the roadblock will set you back on the timeline you’ve set for your organization to reach the goal. It will also be helpful to make note of when your plans went awry so that you can keep that in mind when viewing future metrics.
  • Identify the root cause. There may be something bigger at play when you face a challenge to your progress. For instance, say you realize that you can’t carry out the marketing plan for an upcoming campaign because a staff member left your nonprofit. Further investigation might tell you there is a larger turnover problem at your organization, so you need to address some workplace issues to strengthen your team and successfully move forward with your strategic goals.
  • Be optimistic and realistic. Challenges can make it difficult to rebuild the momentum you once had driving your organization toward accomplishing its goals. As you size up your challenges, be optimistic about getting back on track, but resist the urge to sugarcoat the situation, as downplaying the issues you’re facing can hinder your ability to develop solutions.

Once you know what your organization is up against, you can start creating a new path forward to reach your goals. Remember that challenges may affect your team’s morale and enthusiasm for your strategic plan, so make sure to emphasize that your goals haven’t been abandoned, just put them on pause while you rework your strategy. 

2. Embrace flexibility. 

Author Robert Ludlum once wrote, “Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape.” This ability to go with the flow is essential in nonprofit work, especially when it comes to dealing with the ups and downs of carrying out your organization’s strategic plan. 

Flexibility empowers your organization to expect the unexpected and anticipate that even when you make a Plan A, it will be important to have a Plan B (and maybe even a Plan C!). Being adaptable will ensure that your organization is primed to see all the different ways you can reach your goals instead of being discouraged when the only way you’re committed to doesn’t work out. 

Being flexible will also allow your organization to continually experiment with the best methods of reaching your strategic planning goals and, more broadly, carrying out your nonprofit’s mission. 

As a leader at your organization, strive to model a growth mindset and encourage creative problem-solving and continuous learning. Practicing flexible thinking will prepare your team to be adaptable in the moment when faced with challenges.

3. Maintain transparent communication with your entire team. 

As you navigate challenges to your long-term strategic plan goals, trust between your organization’s leaders and team members will be key. To maintain this trust, prioritize transparent communication. 

Here are a few ways to ensure you’re being transparent with your team: 

  • Promptly acknowledge challenges. When a challenge comes your way, don’t hide it from your team and hope that the solution will present itself. Instead, quickly communicate challenges so that you can all work together to address them.
  • Share accurate information. Provide the full context and details for challenges to your strategic plan. You should also explain the impact the challenge has on your strategic goals and your organization as a whole. When your team has a strong understanding of the situation, they’ll be better prepared to move forward in a positive direction.
  • Involve your team in developing solutions. Most importantly, your entire team should be involved in developing solutions to problems that arise. Harnessing everyone’s talents, viewpoints, and creativity will bring you to solutions and success faster than leaving one leader or department to tackle the issue on their own, and will demonstrate to your team members that you need and appreciate their contributions. 

You will also need to maintain transparent communication with your organization’s stakeholders—your board members, sponsors, program participants, donors, and community or corporate partners. Since they’re invested in your success, it’s important to let them know when things go awry and to share how you’re working to get back on track. This will help instill confidence in your organization and strengthen your relationships with your stakeholders. 

4. Adjust your plan. 

Once you’ve assessed the challenges facing your nonprofit, resolved to be flexible, and communicated your challenges to your team, it’s time to make adjustments to your plan. Working off of your original strategic plan, you should: 

  • Review your goals and objectives. When you initially created your organization’s strategic plan, you set specific goals and objectives to help improve how your organization operates and delivers its mission. As you begin making adjustments to your strategic plan, revisit your goals and objectives, comparing them to your larger mission and vision for the future. Do your strategic goals still align with what your organization wants to accomplish in the long term and what your community needs, or do your goals need some refining?
  • Examine your timeline. The timeline of your strategic plan is essential for helping you prioritize the most important projects and allocating funding, team time, and materials to those projects. Don’t be afraid to extend your timeline to give your team more breathing room to accomplish your goals. Sometimes a few extra weeks or months can make all the difference in your efforts to reach specific milestones without overextending your team.
  • Focus on achievable targets. Instead of focusing on what you’re no longer able to do because of the challenges you’re facing, focus on what you can do to make progress toward your goals. For example, maybe because of the challenges that have come up, your organization won’t be able to launch and complete a capital campaign in the next three years. But you may be able to set a goal to conduct a planning and feasibility study at the end of that three-year period to prepare for a campaign you’ll start outlining in your next strategic plan.

Going forward, make plans to regularly review your newly adjusted plan. This will help you accurately assess how effective your new strategy is and allow you to make any further revisions to your plan. Plus, getting in the habit of conducting regular reviews will empower you to quickly pivot again should any additional challenges arise. 

Nonprofit strategic planning is important for growing your organization and implementing positive change that helps you better address your community’s needs. But your strategic plan will never be without challenges. 

When your strategy goes awry, apply these four tips to your strategy so that you can quickly get back on track and reach the strategic goals your organization is dreaming of.


About the author: Bob Happy brings nearly 35 years of experience providing expert leadership and direction to clients across the not-for-profit sector to his current role as President of Averill Solutions. Before forming Averill Solutions, Bob served as the Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of CCS Fundraising.

Bob Happy - President at Averill Fundraising Solutions, LLC