Is Strategic Planning an Oxymoron?

Is Strategic Planning an Oxymoron?


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


You are on one side of a mountain range. And you need to get to the other side.

You could go straight up. It might be technically difficult and very dangerous.

You could go to the right for several months, parallel to the range, and then go straight up. There’s a pass up there that would be easier and less dangerous. But still difficult.

You could also go left for even more months and get to a much easier pass altogether.

Heck, you could even go back the way you came, take a plane over the mountains and hike back in to where you need to be from there.

Each choice has consequences for how much time it will take and the required technical expertise, equipment / technology, and money.

You make the best choice you can see and set off in that direction.


Getting to the other side is your Mission. The route you choose is your Strategy. You’ve decided to go THAT way.

So far, that’s Strategic. But it’s not Planning yet.


In fact, Strategy and Planning are completely different.

Strategy describes your compass direction. Planning describes how far you intend to go in that direction over the course of a specific period of time – the next month, or year, or five years. The details are your Goals.

Then you start talking about Logistics. What kind of assistance will you need? Staff? Consultants? Equipment? Training? And how much will all that cost?


In my work, I see a lot of Strategic Plans. Some are better than others. Most of them include tactical-level objectives for fundraising and marketing. Surprisingly few identify how much the plan will actually cost. As a result, the fundraising pieces are relatively pointless.

  • Raise “more” money
  • Increase membership
  • Double corporate sponsorships for the Gala
  • Explore the feasibility of conducting a trail run


When I ask Board members how much money they will need to complete the plan, they have no idea. And if they have no idea what the goals are, then they also have no idea whether the specific activities will be sufficient. The fundraising is actually disconnected from the Strategy and Mission.

This is because many land trusts stop half-way through planning. We’re not specific enough about what we actually need to get done in the time period. We haven’t taken the time to calculate what doing it will actually cost. And our fundraising strategies are based on extrapolations of what we have always done instead of thoughtfully considering what we MUST do NOW. The resulting document is a hybrid that really doesn’t work well as a Strategy and really doesn’t work well as a Plan either.


A better approach would be to take a stab at quantifying how much success will actually cost over the term of the Plan. This will mean how much in capital costs – land, equipment, endowment, and so on. And how much the fifth-year infrastructure will cost – how much the budget will require in annual operating funds by the fifth-year of the Plan.


Now we should imagine generating that much money – as a NET – and use that number as the “Mission” for the Fundraising program.

If we keep doing what we’ve been doing will we make it? What strategies are working right now? Which ones are not? What could we be doing instead to get closer to the required Net?


The point is that, according to Yogi Berra:

                          “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere else.”


And if you don’t know what your fundraising goals are, you’ll raise some other amount, which may or may not be enough.


So here are two great BIG secrets:

  • If you can find a way to involve your donors in figuring out a way over the mountains, they will be more likely to give you money later to put the plan in action.
  • If your Board members know how much money will be needed and clearly see their fundraising activities as connected to Mission and Goals, they will be more likely to lean in.


Cheers, and have a great week!




Photo by Polly Dot from Pixabay



Share this!
  • Sharon Weaver
    Posted at 19:18h, 03 March

    This is a great post, but also a little overwhelming. Thank you for sharing such great advice!

    • David Allen
      Posted at 10:06h, 04 March

      It’s not only overwhelming, it’s HARD. But I like the sign which is said to have resided on Obama’s desk. It read “Hard things are hard.” Right. -da

  • Lisa Haderlein
    Posted at 07:17h, 03 March

    Great timing! Thank you.