At the start of each year, personal finance experts remind us of some resolutions we can make for a sounder financial life: calculate your taxes early, reduce your debt, and build an emergency fund. It is important to have that emergency fund and to budget for those unexpected problems that modern life might throw at you. Your roof could leak, your car’s “check engine” light could activate, or you could break a finger at pick-up basketball. 

Well-run non-profit organizations avoid bad financial surprises (more on that another day). But even well-run organizations can be ill-equipped to handle the inverse situation: assessing and acting on an exciting new opportunity that you had not budgeted for. Few businesses are as regularly tested by “market” opportunities as non-profits. When you exist not to return value to owners, but to serve the community, the way you serve your community is constantly evolving. New funds, new partners, and new elected officials are common changes that require your non-profit to pivot, sometimes multiple times each year.

As a leader, these are exciting! In my leadership roles, these were the moments that would motivate me to do more, and to “level up” my impact. Unfortunately, the resource-constrained environment of non-profits makes these moments critical decision points.

Each opportunity is a calculus of community impact, new funding, public profile, unbudgeted expenses, overstretched staff, and the squishiest problem of all: possible mission creep. How will you run this calculation?

If you have already created an outcome-oriented strategic plan, your calculations will be grounded and avoid the fuzzy math of navigating vague, vision-like goals. For example, if your strategic plan is designed in part around a goal of “reducing overdoses in Springdale by 10% in the next five years” the new partnership with an expanded health-care company will be easier to assess than a goal of “reduce or eliminate overdoses.”

I have seen hundreds of strategic plans and, by my estimate, only about 25% of them are based on measurable outcomes. The other 75% have a “we will figure out what this means later” approach. 

A good strategic plan is the basis for ongoing decision making. It is a point of reference that your team organizes their work around on a weekly and monthly basis. A bad strategic plan outlines a to-do list, or vague goals, neither of which guides you when opportunities arise.

What about you, do you have clear community-oriented outcomes for your work? If you do, you are most of the way towards good strategic discipline!