Three Keys to a Great Strategic Plan


Strategic plans can be 30 pages or a single page - they can even be presented as drawings or artwork. At Maliasili, we’ve helped our partners with at least 15 strategic plans over the past several years, and no two strategies are exactly the same.  But at a fundamental level a good strategic plan should address a core set of questions – here are three simple and basic ones that we always push our partners to answer:

  • What does an organization do uniquely well?

  • What does an organization need to get better at?

  • What should an organization not be doing at all?

These three questions can serve as a useful guide to thinking about any organization’s work and strategy, and a reality-check to any strategic planning process.


1. What does an organization do uniquely well?

A fundamental question for any organization is: ‘What are you great at?’ Answering that question clearly lies at the heart of delivering the kind of excellence that can really achieve significant impact.

Many organizations wind up doing all sorts of different things- a farming project here, a forest initiative there, a health center over there and maybe a few education projects thrown in. This is a pervasive problem across the social sector- maybe an organization just lacks focus, maybe they are opportunistically chasing money, or maybe they get pushed or pulled into different activities by their constituents, board members, or funders.  But the result is often a scattered set of mediocre efforts as it is extremely difficult and equally rare for an organization to be world-class at so many different things. It is almost impossible to design, deliver, and monitor effective interventions that achieve impact across so many different areas of work.

In contrast to this common NGO ‘jack of all trades’ approach, successful businesses often focus on being really outstanding or best-in-class at doing one specific thing, as described in Jim Collins’ best-selling book, Good to Great.  These businesses find something that they can be the best in the world at, and then they doggedly pursue that vision of excellence.

We find that many of our local partners have become increasingly focused over time- often by answering the question above, which helps them to dial in on their strengths and build on those through iterative strategic planning processes. A few examples:

  • Ujamaa Community Resource Team (UCRT) has become a field-leader amongst African civil society organizations in enabling local communities in northern Tanzania to document and legally secure their lands. They have developed and refined established methodologies for doing that work and scaled up over the past 4-5 years to reach more and more communities across northern Tanzania.

    They are great at: securing indigenous community land rights

  • Lion Guardians is a uniquely skilled organization in the design and implementation of programs and methods that help resolve conflicts between people and wildlife, particularly lions and other large carnivores. They spent years developing their initial model in the field in southern Kenya, and have adapted those methods in other contexts since then, always carefully monitoring results and outcomes.

    They are great at: developing techniques to reduce conflict between people and wildlife in a low-cost, community-driven manner

  • Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC) has built up a track record and reputation as a pioneer in African community-based natural resource management over more than three decades of work in Namibia, helping create one of the world’s most successful community conservation models.

    They are great at: facilitating community management of natural resources- in all its complexity and local variety


2. What does an organization need to get better at?

A critical tension for any organization is balancing the need to hone in on what they do really well, with avoiding becoming stale, uncreative, and rote in how it works. To maintain high performance, an organization needs to constantly refine and innovate–simply put, change–even those things that it already does at a world-class level.

The best organizations- like great athletes- stay great because they are always looking to improve their performance. This keeps organizations agile and adaptive in the face of change, which is always happening due to external forces. So while an organization needs to understand what it is great at, it also needs to figure out what it needs to do better and improve. This lies at the heart of learning and innovation- and strategic planning provides a unique opportunity to critically examine where an organization is delivering results and where it needs to improve.

Often strategic planning will highlight that an organization is not focused on the most important issues or problems in relation to its mission. As one Maliasili partner put it some years back while midway through a strategic planning process: “We realized we were allocating only 10% of our resources- time and money- on 90% of the problems we faced in achieving our mission, and that that needed to change urgently.”

A few examples from recent work with partners over the past several years:

  • As mentioned above, UCRT has developed over the past decade into a field-leader in helping local communities secure rights over their lands and territories. But what their last strategic planning process highlighted was the important of going beyond that, to focus much more on not only securing land, but improving the management of the rangelands, so that healthy rangelands can better support local livelihoods. This is now a new area of focus for UCRT across all their work.

  • Similarly, a recent strategic planning process with Grevy’s Zebra Trust in Kenya brought a new laser focus on the issue of rangeland management. While an area of work that GZT had been involved with for a long time, their new strategic plan places much greater emphasis on the need to come up with rangeland management solutions that address current challenges, as the key to delivering their long-term mission.

  • Also in Kenya, the South Rift Association of Land Owners (SORALO) is a unique community-based organization working for sustainable land and natural resource management with pastoralist communities in the South Rift region.  Several years ago, they realized that the core challenge they faced was land use fragmentation due to subdivision of communal lands and a shift from communal to individual land holdings. Their new strategic plan provides much clearer focus on solving this challenge, through land use planning and other mechanisms to secure communal lands.


3. What should an organization not be doing at all?

Strategic planning is above all about making choices and matching an organization’s ambitions with its capabilities. Organizations need to constantly ask themselves if they really have the skills and aptitude to do all the things that they are doing, and in some cases if they would be better off leveraging partnerships with other organizations with different skillsets. Such partnerships and collaboration are often a huge opportunity for achieving more by sharing skillsets and resources, while enabling individual organizations to be much more focused.

For example, in northern Tanzania, UCRT, Honeyguide, and Carbon Tanzania are three exceptional local organizations working at the community level in large landscapes, using collaboration to achieve more than they could alone. UCRT brings their expertise in strengthening community governance institutions and community land use planning processes. Carbon Tanzania is specialized in developing forest conservation projects that can be used to generate carbon credits, earning revenue for local communities from forest conservation. Honeyguide has expertise in community wildlife management, including human-wildlife conflict and law enforcement, and tourism development. Combined, these skills can help all three organizations achieve stronger results in areas of northern Tanzania where they are working together. UCRT’s latest strategic plan highlights the impact achieved by their collaboration with Carbon Tanzania in Yaeda Valley, where Hadza communities have earned over $250,000 from carbon credits, and Honeyguide increasingly emphasizes more structured collaboration with UCRT at its key sites.

This helps all three organizations stay focused on what they are great at, while leveraging the skillsets of others so they don’t get pulled in too many different directions.

Strategic planning done well is invariably challenging and demanding for any organization. It forces organizations to be reflective, introspective, and disciplined in analyzing what they do well, what they need to do better, and make the hard choices about what they shouldn’t be doing. But organizations that develop that kind of focus, self-awareness, and self-critical habits are the kinds of organizations that achieve great things.

By Fred Nelson, ED at Maliasili

Strategy, PeopleFred Nelson