Strategic versus operational planning

An operational plan determines what your organisation is doing day by day and month by month, whereas strategic planning determines your organisation's overall direction, including what it's not doing but should be doing. The two types of planning are not the same thing, but they must be integrated.

Strategic planning

This used to be called "long-range planning". The term "strategic planning" is now used to express the analytic elements of this type of planning.

The aim of a strategic plan is to focus an organisation's vision and priorities in response to a changing environment and to ensure that all members of the organisation are working toward the same goals. In turn, strategic management harnesses an organisation's full potential by considering daily operational decisions in the context of the strategic plan. Strategic management is a task for the whole organisation all the time. It is a way of thinking and a guide to action, and it should govern the behavior of everybody concerned. It enables organisations to think through and document what they are doing, for whom they are doing it, and why they are doing it.

The planning process encourages organisations to re-examine their established directions and strategies for contemporary relevance and practical results, asking questions such as these? Do we need to change our mission? Have the needs of our target community changed? Should we abandon much-loved programs that have outlived their usefulness, and concentrate our resources somewhere else? Do our current staff and management have the capacity and commitment needed to achieve our goals?

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Above all, the strategic planning process needs drive - the continuing commitment to pushing the process on through difficulties, obstacles and opposition. The whole process requires someone to be designated as coordinator and to be responsible for keeping the process according to agreed timelines. Without a strong commitment, there will be no outcome.


After this comes the ability to recruit, consult and persuade members and stakeholders. A successful strategic planning process will be genuinely inclusive, involving all its stakeholders - paid and volunteer staff, board, clients, funders, and the community.


There are resource implications in embarking on strategic planning. It's going to take time, staff, and attention away from your day-to-day operations. If your board isn't prepared to commit resources to the project, then consider whether you're better off not attempting it.

The strategic planning process

1. Environmental scan
Review your organisation's current local, political, social and economic environment. Identify needs, challenges, and opportunities. How are you placed to deal with all these? Run a SWOT analysis, an activity that identifies the organisation's current strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
2. Plotting direction
On the basis of your environmental scan, identify the strategic decisions involved and decide what you need to do to respond to the major issues and opportunities you face.
3. The mission statement
Review your mission statement (the reasons why your organisation exists). Draw up guiding principles that will provide guidance and inspiration to staff and to the board.
4. The goals (or objectives, or outcome statements)
On the basis of the mission statement, choose your specific priorities. What are the things that need to be accomplished for the organisation to achieve its mission? Goals or objectives should be designed and worded to be specific, measurable, and realistic.

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Action plans

These are the strategies or activities that have been prioritised and selected to help the organisation achieve its goals. They clearly reflect and respond to the findings of the research documented in the environmental scan with a number of broad activities matched to each strategic goal.

Action planning also includes specifying responsibilities and timelines with each objective, or who needs to do what and by when.

Some large organisations also develop plans for each major function, division department, etc., and call these work plans.


Establish methods to honestly monitor and evaluate the plan and its results. Document how the organisation will know who has done what, to whom and by when.


What are the financial implications of your strategic and operational plans? Budget planning is an integral element of both types of planning. Consider what you will need to spend - and what income you will need - to carry out your activities and fulfil your mission.

Strategic planning - a process, not a monument

The important thing to remember is that an organisation's strategic plan is not a monument, an end in itself, but rather a means of achieving its purpose. Many management experts have emphasised the need for the people implementing a strategic plan to have enough flexibility and authority to be creative and responsive to new developments. In reality this will often mean changing the activities that have previously been undertaken to achieve the organisation's mission in the light of new opportunities or challenges.

The process is helpful only if it assists organisations to honestly test old assumptions in the light of new information about the present, and anticipate the environment in which the organisation will be working in the future.

Finally, keep in mind the reasons why you go through this exercise. It's easy to get bogged down in Post-It notes, whiteboards and endless rounds of minor revisions. They give strategic planning a bad name. But if you focus on examining your mission and if you honestly re-consider the best way to fulfil it, planning can provide an organisation with renewed vigour. In the end, it's about changing people's lives for the better.

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