5 Stages of Strategic Planning for start-ups

October 4, 2013


I am a fervent believer of strategic planning. Especially young organizations benefit from asking themselves and their surroundings the five W’s central to information gathering: what, why, who, when, where and how. This information provides young community organizations a roadmap with all the building blocks to reach their long-term goals.

More importantly, it helps to bring it back to the here and now. Essentially, every young organization needs to be smart about moving forward in their first two years if they want to grow well. For example, it is not helpful to pursue a government grant for a community program that is not your main focus.

Yes, you will receive the needed dollars to grow; yet you will grow a type of clientele you are only serving during this grant. After the grant ends, your organization will have to seek other monies to carry out its mission. Only then do most organizations realize this was a short-term solution to start with.

Strategic planning helps young organizations find this balance between long-term and short-term solutions. It also supports the organization in honing its message and telling the right story. When that is achieved, clientele, staff and funders alike can visualize your organization’s vision and are willing to put time, money and skills into it.

Here are five general phases within strategic planning.

1. Developing your Theory of Change

The Theory of Change is the roadmap I referred to earlier. It looks at the environment and its influential factors and how this affects the road to achieve change. The road will then exist of interventions that act as building blocks. Stanford Social Innovation Review presents more information about Theory of Change and potential pitfalls.

Developing your unique Theory of Change entails looking at the following components:

  • What is the problem or issue? Why does it matter so much? Why are you best situated to solve this problem?
  • Who and where is your community? What are the needs of the community? How can you support the community? What influences the community? What needs does your organization have that the community can help you with?
  • What are your short-term results? And what are your long-term results? Some results may be for individuals and others for the community as a whole)
  • What are influential factors on developing your solution(s) and building blocks/interventions? These can be internal and external factors. For example: political or law-related, geography, economy, societal beliefs, and organizational stakeholders.
  • What are best strategies by organizations working in the same field? These can be community organizations, government institutions, as well as private businesses.

2. Drawing a Venn diagram to create a stakeholder analysis

At this phase it is important to identify your stakeholders, such as people, groups or organizations that have an interest in what you do. Stakeholder examples of community organizations are (potential) partner organizations, government institutions, target community and clientele, thought leaders and funders/private donors.

The next step is analyzing whom of those stakeholders you should focus on to enable your organization to implement the strategic plan at a later stage. Look for stakeholders that are already supporting you, their influence and their perceived power.

Practical tools to discover more about your stakeholders and how you can deepen your relationship with them are Venn diagram and Force field Analysis. Both tools will show in a very short time which organizations are relevant to you in this startup phase. For more information about stakeholder mapping you can go to Mind Tools, it has excellent online resources.

3. Environmental scanning

With the Theory of Change and the stakeholder analysis parts of the environment – in which your organization operates or wants to operate – that influence your interventions have already been covered. What weren’t covered are your internal strengths (S) and weaknesses (W) as well as your external opportunities (O) and challenges/threats (C/T). This SWOC/T analysis helps you gaining strategic focus.

Knowing your internal strength helps you in identifying opportunities to grow and position your community organization. Weaknesses and challenges will point out to you what your organization needs to be aware of, especially in your first two years.

4. Unfolding your Vision

The fourth stage is designed to strengthen your vision and hone your message. When you start strategic planning you already have a vision. Your organization is aware of what issue it is aiming to solve. The former stages I have described in this article have helped you understand your issue more in depth, including why your organization should be (one of) the solution provider(s) and who your targeted community is along with relevant stakeholders. And not to forget, you have identified strengths and opportunities during the SWOC exercise.

In this stage you then look with a fresh mind at your current vision and go through the exercise of unfolding your vision. Pick out words you feel strong about and explain why they are important to your organization. Feel free to mention a missing words that describes a value or feeling. Make sure that you feel comfortable this vision is what you want to work toward to in the next five years.

Imagine Canada has many resources in its library to support organizations with developing vision and mission statements.

5. Getting strategic focus

Now you know what your organization needs to do in the next two to three years, it is high time to organize your strategies. As organizational infrastructure such as departments, existing partnerships and so on are absent in young organizations; it is best to lay down the ground works before implementing your strategies in random order.

A mind mappings or timeline exercise can help you understand what strategies (the ones you developed in your earlier stages of strategic planning) need to be in place for the next to be carried out well. Mashable has rated several online tools for you to get started.

Strategic planning is a very intense exercise for your community organization to go through, yet one that is the basis of your infrastructure and your growth as a healthy, strong organization. I hope this article gives you insight in what is part of strategic planning for a start-up community organization.


Lisette Andreyko

Lisette is the founder of Kaleidoscope and is passionate about start-up leadership, personal growth and women in business (and psst.. about tea!). She enjoys connecting with small businesses through her network. You can find her on LinkedIn.