Every couple of months (or weeks or days—what is time in the age of COVID anyway?) my ten-year-old son asks me if I could have any superpower, what would it be? Of course, he does this to tee up his own answer, but I’m game for it every time.

These days, my response is that I wish I could see into the future. Given the rapidly changing world around us and the extreme uncertainty we all face when it comes to the coming weeks, months and year, seeing the future would be a superpower even Captain Marvel would envy. And in actuality, it’s not entirely impossible. Through the process of scenario planning—by envisioning different future situations and developing strategic responses to them—we can be almost as well prepared as if we had a crystal ball.

In this recent post about recovery planning for nonprofits, Schultz & Williams’ Susan Scauzzo and Scott Schultz and pose a handful of questions about what could transpire in the coming months—possibilities on the minds of our nonprofit clients. They also stress the importance of scenario planning—a key component in S&W’s strategic planning approach. Here, I’d like to take that point further and unpack the power of scenario planning in more detail.

Scenario Planning Now

Of course, scenario planning is not new. Many nonprofits have made it part of their budgeting process. But the present moment calls for a different approach. First, for most organizations, the scenarios that must be anticipated are more widely divergent than in ordinary times. (In three months, your operations could be near normal or the environment could pose near-existential threats.) Second, the time horizon is shorter. Planning has to happen now, and it has to anticipate events unfolding over months, not years.

Coming to terms with all this is challenging. However, a few of the main points of our approach at S&W may help in getting started.

Unmask the “What-ifs”. Identify a handful of possibilities on the horizon that hold the greatest relevance to your organization and its mission. And not all the scenarios have to involve doom and gloom. Here are a few examples of “what if” scenarios:

  • What it there is a COVID resurgence in your area and the virtual format for your programs will replace in-person for a prolonged period?
  • What if your organization loses a major funding stream that it won’t be able to regain in the foreseeable future?
  • What if there’s an opportunity to secure major funding, but it’s not in alignment with the current mission?
  • What if you see a sudden surge in the need for your services?
  • What if relevant government policies change, impacting how your organization can operate?

Predict the impact of these scenario on your organization. In addition to the revenue and expense impacts, consider the needs of the community you serve, your ability to deliver on your mission, how the situation will affect your staff, not just in terms of capacity but also on their health and well-being. Also think about any gaps in the equipment, technology and skills needed to serve your audiences. Start with immediate impacts, then potential implications further down the road, in six months to a year.

Develop the rescue plan. Now begins the strategic thinking needed to visualize the response. This is the time to employ the guiding principle of our approach to strategic planning at S&W—inclusivity. Work to bring together a diverse array of individuals and perspectives: meaning staff from different departments in various roles, Board members and even a key partner or major donor. Being inclusive opens-up valuable dialogue to think through situations from a more holistic viewpoint, generates buy-in, and truly fosters creative problem-solving.

Identify the triggers and read the signs. As you shape your response plans, identify the external changes that would trigger your response should a given scenario come to pass. For example, for a job training organization, news that a major local employer is about to make drastic layoffs could prompt action for targeted outreach and development of partnerships with other employers. These triggers will be your cues, alerting you when it’s time to put the provisions of your plan into action.

Match possibilities in the future with actions in the present: As you think about future actions you might need to take, you should also think about present actions you should definitely take. Identify measures now that will position you to your greatest advantage for each development you anticipate. If those events come to pass, you will be thankful you ramped up that online platform, launched that emergency fund, or entered into partnership with that fellow nonprofit.

One guideline here is to look for threads of certainty that can help ground and simplify your plan. Are there steps you can take that will serve you well no matter which scenario comes to pass (or at least in 90% of cases)? Are there points in the near future where new knowledge (about fall enrollment, the results of your next appeal, or a major foundation’s grant-making decisions) will help you rule out some actions and rule-in others?

Revisit and revise the plans. Like strategic planning, a scenario plan is a living document to be revisited and updated as situations evolve. As unfolding events reveal some outcomes to be unlikely and suggest new alternatives that demand your attention, you need to update your plan accordingly.

A Step You Need to Take

In the face of the extreme uncertainty and volatility that exists today, it would be all too easy for you and your organization to become paralyzed, waiting for clarity before taking action—or to move too brashly. Both these alternatives, however, are full of risk.

The step-by-step process of scenario planning offers an answer, empowering you to map a flexible plan of attack and giving your organization a degree of control in creating its future. You could say that good scenario planning creates great possibilities. You could even say it provides you with a sort of superpower. Even if you can’t see the future, you take action as if you could.