Now what?

Posted in operations plan / staff team / programs and services

Now what?

The strategic planning session is done. The board is happy with the results. The goals, outcomes, and indicators have been decided. Everything is handed over to the executive director for the next step. Now what?

I don’t know what to do!

A non-profit executive director’s part in strategic planning doesn’t stop with typing up the notes and filing the report. Now the ED takes the strategic plan and turns it into an operational plan full of the programs and services the non-profit will run for the year. That’s where the momentum often hits a wall.

Suddenly the excitement of picking the big-picture goals turns into “whoa, what do these words even mean.” Or maybe it feels more like, “I don’t know how to do this.”

Creating the operational plan isn’t particularly complicated, and while there isn’t a perfect formula, there is a flow that can make the process easy and fun.

Pick the operational planning team.

Operation planning can be handled by the executive director on their own, but if the staff team is strong, interested in participating, or simply genuinely willing, operations planning can be a wonderful team building exercise.

Translate one language to another.

Start with a discussion to translate the strategic plan language of goals/outcomes into the operational language of programs and services. The board will provide the goals/outcomes as broad statements and won’t specifically suggest programs. That’s not the board’s job. It is the job of the operations planning team.

This is the step that trips up a lot of executive directors and their teams, because it takes the most time and there is no single, perfect method for interpreting a goal/outcome. The key is taking the time to have a discussion, examine the words used, draw on the staff’s knowledge of the clients, and bounce around ideas.

Use lots of flip chart paper, sticky notes, colourful markers, and all the brainstorming tools learned over the years. I like to have each goal/outcome printed large-scale. Then I tape each to the wall in the meeting room. Seeing the pieces of the strategic plan, large enough in a physical space, with room to write or draw on each page, creates an exciting environment for creative thinking.

Aim for a discussion result stating that the staff team, using their operational expertise, interprets each strategic goal/outcome pair to mean [this], for [these] reasons.

Record the reasons for the interpreted meaning.

From the discussion, the operational planning team will have not only the interpreted meaning of the goal/outcome pair, but also a list of reasons to justify that interpretation. Both are important. An executive director will want to record the interpretation AND the rationale for that interpretation, to share with the board in reports throughout the year.

Pick the programs and services.

Picking programs and services is the next step and it can be both exciting and frustrating.

The discussion continues as the operational planning team talks about the programs they want to offer for the next year. The discussion will consider a balance of current programs that can be repeated and new programs that are needed. 

The challenge at this step will be staying away from choosing programs simply because “it’s always been done that way.”

Check for alignment. Weed.

At this point in the operational planning process an executive director needs to be able to step in and firmly guide the discussion towards choosing only the programs and services that align with strategic goals/outcomes.

This part can be hard. People will have favourite programs. People will want easy/hard/you name it programs. The bottom line is the organization doesn’t exist to run programs the staff team likes the best. The organization exists to fulfill its vision and mission.

Use the interpreted meaning of the goals/outcomes, determined in the previous step, to choose programs that align with the strategic plan. Everything else, no matter how much fun, needs to be weeded out.

Determine what the organization can afford. Prioritize.

We’re rounding the corner towards a finished operational plan! When the list of programs, that align with the strategic goals, is chosen, it needs to be prioritized.

Priority will be determined based on client need, budget limitations, and the capacity of the staff team to make it happen. Unlike the previous step, no programs are weeded out. A priority division line is determined. Programs that fit within budget and capacity, are kept.

Programs that are outside of budget and capacity, are tucked away for moments when a new funding program is announced, or budgets fluctuate. If an opportunity arises, the staff team needs to be ready to shift that priority division line, and select from additional programs that have been pre-screened for strategic alignment.

Create work plans and GO!

The last piece of the operational plan puzzle is to decide who will do the work. All the programs and services need to be administered by someone on the staff team and this is a good place to check that the operations plan isn’t too ambitious.

There is a lot of benefit in mapping this out while still in the planning room, using flipcharts, sticky notes, and creating a calendar for the entire year. Seeing everything laid out for the year, along with holidays, and planning time, will create a nice reality check so the operations plan can be tweaked one last time.

Two benefits.

An operational plan, that is carefully crafted to align with the strategic goals and outcomes has two benefits. First, it is proof the staff team selected the best programs and services to meet the wants and needs of clients, members, and stakeholders. Second, the executive director has a clear map for achieving the strategic goals set out by the board in the strategic plan.

What’s one thing?

Operations planning might not always be possible for every non-profit team. Whatever method an executive director chooses to create their operations plan, they can feel confident when programs align with the strategic goals.

What questions do you have?

Writing an operational plan can be intimidating. Did I provide the details you were looking for? If you have questions, I want to know! Please use the form on the right side of the page to let me know.


Hi, I'm Christie. I help executive directors develop the systems and processes needed to run a non-profit.

I learned early in my career, there is no non-profit school. Browsing the internet for resources from big-city experts doesn’t provide practical solutions to balance the budget, write a work plan, or conduct an employee evaluation. Leadership development tips don’t really resonate when you are also taking out the recycling and cleaning the washroom.

I created so non-profit leaders never need to wonder how to do the job – no matter how big or small that job is.

I have been the executive director of small-team, small-budget, non-profits for 20+ years. My experience isn’t theory. It is the real, operational, and practical solutions I use every day.

I love my work and I want to help you love yours too.

© Christie Saas 2023 All Rights Reserved

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