Funder by the Department of Human Services Auspiced by Our Community

Help Sheet

Strategic planning overview

Every day there seems to be more people in need under the ambit of mental distress.

These include people with experiences of homelessness; multigenerational poverty; childhood abuse, neglect and trauma; refugees with terrible stories to tell; victims of torture; people with experiences of abuse in prisons; victims of crime; and people with medical diagnoses of mental illness or 'personality disorders'.

There are groups who work to 'help' people who are 'mentally ill', poor, homeless, addicted to drugs and alcohol or gambling, etc.

There are groups that arise to educate the public from a 'professional perspective' about the experiences of 'mental illness'.

And there a groups that arise from the experiences of disadvantage whose purpose is to help each other, reclaim hope, critique damaging and expensive services, and, hopefully, change community attitudes as they do so.

All appeal to the public for support.

They all seem worthy, "good causes" but with so many choices and limited resources, people are asking probing questions such as, "Is this organisation making a difference, achieving results?" "In this competitive environment, is it worth my taking time out of my increasingly hectic schedule to personally invest in this group?" "Is there a demonstrated social return?"

Community organisations requesting community support are coming under increasing pressure to clearly demonstrate their capacity to use resources responsibly and strategically.

Just as importantly, they need to give clear indications of their results and how they have changed the lives of their 'target' group.

Public accountability

The strategic planning process is a way for groups and organisations to ensure they are accountable and that their processes are transparent. It enables organisations to think through and document what they are doing, for whom and why they are doing it.

In more organised organisations, the process encourages examination of established directions and strategies for contemporary relevance and results.

In the past, this used to be called "long-range planning". The term "strategic planning" is now used to express the analytic, comprehensive, thoughtful and tactical elements of this type of planning.

During the process difficult questions are encouraged and discussed:

Put simply, a strategic plan is used for one purpose only - to help an organisation do a better job.

A successful strategic planning process will be genuinely inclusive, involving not just the committee of management but all of the organisation's stakeholders - paid and volunteer staff, clients, funders, and the community. It aims to focus an organisation's vision and priorities in response to a changing environment and to ensure that members of the organisation are working toward the same goals.

The strategic plan documents for the organisation and its clients and supporters:

The process

There is actually no perfect formula for planning but most organisations typically work through the following common set of activities or steps in the process.

Different organisations have different names for these major activities and might even conduct them in a different order. The procedural difficulty of the process will be determined not only by the size and complexity of the organisation/group but also by its purpose. A small self-help collective with a deliberate ceiling on membership will be less formal in its planning arrangements than a large and expanding not-for-profit organisation. However, regardless of size and formality a process is needed to make sure that group members are in agreement about what the group is trying to do and why.

1. Environmental scan

This activity reviews the group's/organisation's current relationship to the broader political, social and economic environments. New "hot spots" are identified and analysed. For example, a change of government policy or a shift in demographics may all impact on the organisation. For a small group in the mental health area it might be a change in refugee policy so that the new group of people coming to your town or suburb is from the Horn of Africa rather than Vietnam, or the local council has proposed a project that threatens the future of the local neighbourhood house.

At its conclusion, planners may then look at the way the organisation is placed to meet the challenges described in the environmental scan.

Commonly, this is through a SWOT analysis, an activity that identifies the organisation's current strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

2. Plotting Direction

After carefully investigating the territory in the environmental scan, the organisation must decide what it needs to do to respond to the major issues and opportunities it faces. It needs to make and commit to a set of strategic choices to go forward.

The mission statement

Don't be scared of the term. It is not a bogey even if some groups turn creating it into a laborious task. It is just words to describe what is most important to your group. The group does need to keep track of where it is going and whether this matches where it wants to go. Why does it exist?

The 'Mission Statement' typically contains the basic, guiding principles that provide support and inspiration to the group, committee of management and staff. It should be as short as possible. This is often quite difficult when there is a group of people making a decision about the wording. It may be tempting to try and appease everyone by adding clauses to accommodate all the important points individuals are vying for inclusion. This is not a good idea because it detracts from the utility of the statement.

The mission statement is a succinct description of the organisation's basic purpose, along with the activities or business it undertakes to achieve its purpose, and the basic values that the organisation holds in common and endeavours to put into practice.

For groups who are worried by the term used this paragraph as a blueprint. A mission statement for a self help group might be,

Undertaking a strategic planning process might also present the opportunity for a long-standing, well-respected organisation to question the rationale for its very purpose. For example an organisation that solely exists to support newly arrived refugees in a particular location might decide to close or significantly review its mission when the community's migrant reception centre moves to another suburb.

Setting the Goals (sometimes called "objectives" or "outcome statements")

For those people from academic backgrounds in 'education' who have been indoctrinated in the minute differences between 'objectives' and 'goals', forget your training! In setting goals for consumer groups these differences are unimportant. Rather, this process is about working out priorities.

This exercise might or might not be contested. The activity needs to be ends oriented and the ends need to be determined by the mission. Done well it should all fit together.

Goals or objectives should be designed and worded as much as possible to be 'SMARTER':

They can be seen as milestones to achieving the group's overall purpose. Don't let drafting them become a millstone around the group's collective neck.

3. Action planning


These are the strategies or activities that have been prioritised and selected to help groups and organisation achieve their 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 for each objective, or who needs to do what and by when.

It is also common for organisations to develop separate operational plans that include staff work plans for the coming year. Larger organisations will develop plans for each major function, division, department, etc. and call these work plans. Smaller groups will have a less sophisticated plan but people in the group needed to know 'what' they are expected to do by deciding on a mission plan and priorities. They also need to know when and how they are expected to do it through the process of action planning.

For very small unfunded groups this action planning may be informal to the point where actions can be decided meeting by meeting or week by week with volunteers asked to perform simple tasks that are a good fit with their interests and skills.

For small funded groups the ground rules change a little because once any money is received the responsibility of the group changes. All money received by the group has to be used judicially and the group needs to plan for this. The group will need to carefully work out who is going to do what, where and how.

Having well thought out timelines that are expressed in clear and easy to follow ways will help the group but it will also help everyone within the group no matter how minor the funding. To get funding the group will need to be incorporated and this may well be the first action item on the agenda.


Your planning process should also include methods to honestly monitor and evaluate the plan and its results, including documenting how the group/organisation will know who has done what, to whom and by when.

When planning for evaluation it is important that it is built into the everyday activities of your group or organisation and not seen as an add-on or after-thought.

It is also a mistake to write an evaluation plan that is too onerous on group members or staff who need to collect the information.

Sometimes multiple, simple, evaluation structures will be needed to collect information because different data is needed for different purposes. Data may be needed to:

  1. ensure that there is a match between what has happened over a period of time with the group's objectives for that period;
  2. reassure funding organisations;
  3. collect information for your own history - stories for publication, for exmple, or checking out how different group members are experiencing the group in different ways; and
  4. test whether you, as a group, are fulfilling the expectations of the local community.

Two very useful texts that have been written very simply (and with great cartoons) for community groups are 'Do it Yourself Social Research' and 'Everyday Evaluation on the Run.'. Both these books are written by Yoland Wadsworth and published by Allen and Unwin. They will be available in many public libraries and, if not, your group can ask the library to order them.


Usually budgets are included in the strategic and annual plan, and with work plans.

Budgets specify the money needed to implement the annual plan. Budgets also describe the main items of expenditure, for example, for human resources, equipment, materials.

Strategic planning - a process not a monument

The important thing to remember is that an organisation's strategic plan is not a monument, or 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 normally mean changing the activities that have previously been selected to achieve the organisation's mission in the light of new opportunities or challenges.

The process is helpful only if it assists organisations or groups 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, the process is about building commitment and embracing public accountability through engaging key stakeholders in the regular process of identifying priorities and evaluating strategies in the pursuit of changing people's lives for the better.

An initiative of Department of Human Services, Developed & Managed by