Embedding ethics into nonprofit strategic planning

We have had over thirty years experience in sitting through incredibly tortuous nonprofit strategic planning sessions, reading thousands of strategic plans that were nothing more than wish-lists, and advising Boards and senior leadership teams who viewed the strategic plan as a necessary management evil that really didn't make much of a difference.

Based on our experiences, we have seen the following major flaws in over eighty percent of the strategic plans we have reviewed.

  • The planning team is either made up of only staff, only the nonprofit Board, or only Board and staff. This is a fundamental flaw is it focuses on only one or two points of view (Board and/or staff) and ignores other critical points of view about the Embedding ethics into nonprofit organization that may impact on its direction. The planning team should be made of those people whose points of view are critical to the organizations future: the Board, key staff, outside experts or opinion leaders, key stakeholders, etc


  •  There is no scanning, environmental analysis, scenario building, or what we term "backcasting". This in turn leads to nonprofit strategies that are, essentially, just more of the same. True strategy takes into account what might happen in the future, and measures strategic impact on these possible futures. True strategic planning is based on questions, not on preconceived answers.


  • There are no timelines around the achievement of the strategies and the resultant action plans. If there is a timeline there is either no start date (just a finish date) or no finish date (just a start date). My personal favourite is the "ongoing" description of a timeline (Translated as: don't know if we are getting there, but let's keep going).


  • There are no success measures, or if there are, then they are too vacuous to be measured, and don't measure the true indicators of what would be termed success.


  •  The risks associated with each of the strategies are not identified and dealt with.


  •  The impact of ethics is not considered as part of the planning process.


This article focuses on the last point, where the impact of ethical considerations on strategies is not considered.

There have been numerous examples in the past few years of the strategic mismanagement of organizations and the resultant devastating impact on shareholders, the business environment and the community generally. The business decisions that arose out of traditional strategic planning scenarios have often resulted in an angry consumer base, cries of foul play from industry regulatory watchdogs, and general negative publicity resulting from a disenchanted public.

Far from minimizing the negative effects of change, strategic planning often exacerbates the problem by ignoring the ethical implications of any proposed strategies. In the current environment, where nonprofit governance and ethics are under increasingly closer scrutiny, any major organizational decision should consider the ethical dimension. Ethics should not be viewed as a "right" or "wrong" concept, but rather as an issue that can, in fact, provide strategic advantage to an organization if the issues are recognized and dealt with strategically. The most effective way to ensure this ethical dimension is considered, is to embed a consideration of ethics into the nonprofit strategic planning process from the outset.

The strategic planning process typically leads the planning group through the visioning, SWOR (Strengths Weaknesses Opportunities Risks) analysis, strategy setting and action planning stages. The more sophisticated strategic plans will then shape the Board's agenda, and lead to the development of staff and Board performance measures.

Ethical implications of proposed action plans need to be considered at the action planning stage. Identifying and analyzing ethical implications of proposed action plans can add robustness to your strategic planning that will add value to the actions and protect the nonprofit organization.

We have found that the best way to describe ethics is by utilising the following four words: rights, obligations, fairness and integrity. These four words have energies underlying them that seem to get at the basis of ethical considerations


• Name of Strategy

• Action Plan description

• Scope of action plan

• Resources required

• Start date

• Finish date

• Project Manager

• Success measure

• Ethical implications

• Risks






Once the ethical implications (rights, obligations, fairness and integrity) have been identified, then their implications and management can be rewritten into the Scope section of the action plan.

The ethical implications of rights, obligations, fairness, and integrity are essential ingredients of any strategic planning process. The future of our organizations, the people they represent, and the wider community can only be strengthened by embedding ethics into the nonprofit strategic planning process.