Two months and counting into the COVID-19 crisis, we find ourselves at an important point of transition. Nonprofits everywhere have changed the way they do business, reacting to the emergency with resourcefulness and speed. Now though, having addressed their most pressing tactical issues, they realize they face different challenges in the weeks and months ahead.

Put another way, the house fire may be under control, but how are they going rebuild, what will the new place look like, how are they going to pay for it? And how can leaders feel certain in their decision-making while operating under such uncertain times?

At Schultz & Williams, as we’ve talked to clients facing these questions, we realized that what they need is the guidance of a solid strategic plan, but that a plan developed pre-COVID is unlikely to remain relevant without revision. Instead, organizations need a strategic planning vehicle built to navigate unknown waters and chart a course to recovery for the next six weeks to six months to a year. And they need it now.

Our planning team’s answer has been to develop STARR—Strategic Assessment and Roadmap to Recovery—an accelerated planning process to help nonprofits reorient and reposition immediately. Tailored to the needs of each client, STARR is designed to illuminate the path to recovery and resiliency.

Why Plan Now?

With the staff of every nonprofit stretched and stressed, focusing on strategic planning may feel overwhelming. But its immediate outcomes are more urgently needed than ever. For organizations across the nonprofit world, the coming months will prove absolutely decisive.

The core reason, then, to engage in a process like STARR now is because you need a smart plan to guide you in making the right moves at a critical time. But there are other benefits too:

  • Opportunities for Innovation— The new circumstances we face may reveal new ways for your organization to have a positive impact. And, if you have struggled with organizational change in the past, you may find you have a new mandate for action. After all, when business as usual is no longer possible, change has to be.
  • Consensus for Action—Even if your path forward actually seems clear, by taking the steps up front to build ownership across your Board and key staff for your intended initiatives, you will be able to move decisively and in unison. In the first days of the crisis, good leadership from executive directors made all the difference. Going forward, however, responsibility for an organization’s fate needs to be shared in a meaningful way.
  • Staff Morale—To stay confident, energized, and effective, your people need to know that your organization has a clear direction, that their efforts are making a difference in the right way, that they are part of a bigger plan.
  • Stakeholder Relationships—Your members, donors, and friends want to know how you’re doing. They also want to know that you have a plan and what it is. To maintain their commitment and support, you need to be prepared to tell them.

As Scott Schultz, S&W’s president, explains, “Just as it is essential to re-examine and reset your strategic direction, it is also essential that your donors know you are doing it. They need assurance that your organization is responding in smart, decisive ways.”

Planning Well and Planning Fast

The kind of rapid planning process STARR exemplifies differs from traditional strategic planning in several ways:

  • Whereas a more typical planning process spans many months, rapid planning happens over approximately eight to ten weeks.
  • Whereas a typical planning process responds to evolving trends in your environment, rapid planning starts with your situation right now. It defines the short-term future as the next six weeks, the intermediate as the next six months, and the long term as a year at most.
  • Whereas more typical planning charts an overarching path forward, STARR guides you in preparing for multiple specific scenarios, reflecting different possible outcomes regarding the pandemic, the economy, and electoral politics.

All that said, some traditional principles of planning apply now as much as ever. You need to be inclusive, engaging stakeholders meaningfully, though quickly. You need to communicate about the planning progress intentionally and frequently. Finally, you may find you need a fresh outside perspective, someone who can ask tough questions without agenda, who can challenge assumptions that have become invisible to you, and who can catalyze and coordinate the process.

Most importantly, this is a time of decision. Committing to planning now is a way to move from reaction to action—to assert agency. That means it is also a chance to build new strengths of lasting value, to emerge from this crisis as a more agile and adaptive organization.