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Strategic Planning and Business Planning: What’s the Difference?

Kicking off a series of posts on strategic planning and how it continues to evolve, below is a blog post that I wrote a few years ago while I was a capacity building consultant. This post focuses on the difference between strategic planning and business planning. It is meant to provide some guidelines and understanding for organizations considering one or both of these planning processes. Stay tuned for more on the OE Knowledge Center addressing recent conversations around the different variations of strategic planning and how newer takes on this process may address concerns related to the importance of real-time planning.

Understanding the difference between a strategic planning process and a business planning process allows for a deeper understanding of why and when an organization should embark on these processes; how they complement one another and how they can significantly impact an organization’s future pathway. Here, I aim to explain the difference and underline the reasons why a nonprofit should consider engaging in one, the other, or both initiatives.

What is Strategic Planning All About?

Strategic planning involves setting the overarching goals and organizing an intention that creates a roadmap for achievement over a specific period of time (we recommend no more than three years). An example of a strategic direction could be to expand an organization’s geographical footprint to another part of the country, or to reach a new population that fits within the organization’s mission. Regardless of the specifics, these “big picture” goals are the key components of an organization’s strategic priorities, that are articulated in a strategy document/action plan, (often called a strategic plan). A strategic planning process should be spearheaded by a group of staff and board members that make up what we commonly call the Strategic Planning Committee or Taskforce, and seeks the perspectives and input of funders, volunteers and community members. The initial phases of the strategic planning process should engage these and other potential relevant groups in order to craft a strategy that represents key voices of constituents and relevant environmental issues that might impact an organization’s future direction.

How Is a Successful Business Planning Process Different?

Most successful business planning processes flow from an already agreed upon strategic plan, which has staff buy-in and board approval. A strategic plan should include an implementation component that includes details that articulate “how” plan goals will be instituted and reflected by the organization moving forward. From there, a business plan breaks down the specifics: What is the actual cost of implementing goal X? What is the return on investment? What is the revenue and expense model that will support our priorities? What staffing model will ensure our success? The business plan is related to the nuts and bolts; it uses the information from the strategic plan and determines what it will take to implement the priorities effectively from a financial and business modeling standpoint. While strategy processes may (and should) include a budget component, a business plan’s central imperative is to articulate “what it will take” to implement an organization’s strategic priorities and vision over a set period of time. It can be helpful to think of both processes as cascading levels of details, with the strategic plan being the broadest level, moving towards implementation, and then to the more specific business planning process.

Why Plan at All?

Strategic planning and business planning efforts are both time and labor intensive, and can often feel like a distraction from important, daily functions. As a former nonprofit executive and consultant who supported hundreds of nonprofits with these processes, I get this. Whether or not you engage a consultant to facilitate one or both of these processes, a significant amount of time, attention and thought is required of an organization to make a successful end product that is actually utilized on a daily level by an organization (that is the goal, right?).

Not all organizations need to have both a strategic plan and a business plan completed at any given time. Many organizations might initially prioritize conducting a strategy process and over time realize they are missing key components that should be addressed in a business planning process. Other organizations may have a strong strategy already in place that they are following and require a stronger business and financial modeling component in order to truly map growth, revenue expansion goals and other major model shifts. Regardless, these efforts enable an organization to have a clear pathway and decision-making lens that will guide what to do and not to do – new programs, staff growth, funding resources, etc. – and how to do it in a systematic and visionary fashion. These processes and the end “product” for any planning effort should be perceived as key tools rather than simply time-intensive headaches. Whether it is a strategic plan or business plan, an organization should focus on a collaborative and engaging process that will deliver outcomes for key stakeholders to rally around and embrace – something that provides both direction and inspiration.

This post was edited and republished with permission from Olive Grove.  

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