Recently, I have encountered multiple nonprofits who decided to include grants in their strategic plans. Some have even been swayed to hire a grant writing consulting firm based on promises to integrate the grants process into their strategic planning. However, as a firm that facilitates implementable strategic plans AND provides quality grant writing, these approaches are like oil and water—they just don’t mix.
One might ask why not? Applying for grants can and should be strategic. Why shouldn’t strategic plans include grants?
The short answer is that grants, even when approached strategically, are a tactic. They are a method for implementing goals set in the strategic plan. They are not goals for the organization as a whole.
Before moving forward, I wish to clarify some language. A goal is the object of your nonprofit’s ambition or effort, an aim or desired result. In general, most strategic plans will identify 3 to 5 overarching goals that an organization wishes to accomplish over the course of the plan. A strategy is a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a goal. Most implementable strategic plans will have 2 to 5 strategies per goal. A tactic is an action carefully planned to achieve a specific strategy. For example:
Goal: Serving 500 new people with your services by 2024
Strategy: Raise an additional $500,000 to serve these people
Tactic: Expand grant revenues, by identifying and applying for 25 additional grant opportunities per year.
A strategic plan directs your organization down a path into the future. It can cover your organization’s governance, administrative/financial approaches, programming, development, marketing, and evaluation. The plan can be tactically based whereby there are specific activities to accomplish, or it can be big-picture-based with staff creating the plan to implement the larger long-term goals that are agreed upon.
In either case, the goals of the organization should focus on its mission and purpose—how it is helping people, animals, the environment, society, or the world. The strategic plan goals should not focus on how to raise grant money.
Let’s just say that a nonprofit decides its goal is to increase grant funding, with the intent of supporting the organization or its programs so that the mission can be accomplished. How will this occur? Will the nonprofit have to chase the funding dollars by creating programming to receive funding? This approach is difficult, inefficient, and most importantly, leads to mission-creep. Is the purpose of your nonprofit to secure grants at any cost or is it to serve a greater purpose?
Also, assume that foundations are smart, and their program officers realize when a program is being created to chase dollars. This approach does not focus on building relationships which is the long-term solution to increasing grant support. Therefore, creating goals in a strategic plan to chase specific foundation dollars or increase grants is ineffective and can negatively impact the reputation of the nonprofit.
The best practice is for a nonprofit’s strategic plan to include grant writing as a tactic or, in a separate development plan. This does not mean that grants cannot be strategic, but the strategy in applying for grants is focused on the micro-level and is funder specific, and not on the macro level as an organization goal.
So where do grants fit in strategic plans? They don’t. They come into play when implementing strategic plans, not during the planning process.
Marty Zimmerman | Co-Founder & President
Marty has more than 20 years of experience in non-profit development, facilitations and trainings, internal and external communications, project management, human resources and general business management. Marty has a Master of Social Work and Nonprofit Management from the University of Michigan and a Bachelor of Science in Public Relations from Syracuse University.