strategic planning
Strategy Published Date, 2024

Successful Strategic Planning: How To Think Like A Psychologist

Created By: Andrea Bastiani Archibald, PhD
February 27, 2024

As I come up on my first work anniversary here at Orr Group, I’ve been reflecting on my professional journey as a whole and how it has led me to where I am today – working for an organization that partners with some of the most ambitious nonprofits across the sector and around the globe to scale impact. Having studied, trained, and worked primarily as a psychologist who later served for many years as a nonprofit executive leading research, engagement, and strategy development, to now having the privilege of collaborating with other nonprofits on their strategic advancement and related efforts, I’ve found that the bridge between the starting point of my career in psychology to the way I approach the nonprofit work I do today is not all that wide. My background is particularly helpful to me when I have to deal with challenges and plan ahead, a difficult but essential process that nonprofits refer to as strategic planning.

While no two psychologists think exactly alike, there are several characteristic ways in which they approach problems. Consider this — psychologists analyze behavior, consider multiple perspectives, think critically about underlying issues that could be driving individual outcomes, and often apply research methods to understand and explain the thoughts, behaviors, and actions of those they work with. As you start framing the strategic planning process for your nonprofit organization, channel your inner psychologist (encourage your team to do so as well!) with the tips below to ready yourself for new learnings, refined focus, and even greater impact in the future.

Identify and understand your organization’s values.

Psychologists often get to know people by asking them about themselves and having them name their values or what’s most important to them in life. Values revealed here can be seen as foundational to maintaining healthy behavior or changing it to improve well-being. Whether people want (or need) to change their behavior, or even maintain it in difficult circumstances, they’re guided to do so in ways that continue to align with their values. Now apply this understanding to strategic planning: if you have identified your organization’s values, you can integrate them throughout the strategic planning process, particularly when it comes to prioritization and decision-making. When faced with unavoidable changes and shifting priorities, remember to return to those values and assess whether a particular choice or path forward is in alignment with them. If it’s not, reconsider that decision and let your values help you refine your approach.

Lead with cultural competence and inclusivity.

Psychologists strive to be culturally competent, continually developing their awareness and appreciation of diverse backgrounds and belief systems, and recognizing their own and others’ biases that impact the populations they work with. Along the same lines, cultural competence in strategic planning involves engaging and understanding diverse perspectives within and beyond your organization. Identifying existing or potential future stakeholder expectations (or even concerns), considering cultural nuances in receptivity to past, current, or potential new initiatives, and adapting to different or expanded interests, needs, and contexts are all elements to enhance cultural competency for nonprofit organizations. This adaptation ensures that strategic plans are inclusive, respectful, and effective across settings and enhances the likelihood of successful implementation in new communities and/or with services made more relevant and appropriate to wider audiences.

Consider potential blind spots and confront “brutal truths.”

Just like psychologists assist people in acknowledging difficult feelings or underlying circumstances to anticipate pitfalls on their path to growth and prepare them for more effective ways of coping, identifying blind spots and confronting brutal truths about your organization’s history or current state is crucial to strategic planning. Suppressing or ignoring challenges (or emotions) doesn’t make them go away. It’s incredibly important to recognize even harsh realities that may limit your organization’s success. This recognition promotes a realistic understanding of potential vulnerabilities and enables planners to develop resilient and robust strategies that not only acknowledge such challenges but put plans in place for possible pitfalls in an ever-changing business landscape.

Stay flexible.

Psychologists leverage their skills to identify alternative approaches tailored to individual and contextual needs and try to help those they’re working with see different ways of responding, too. In this way, psychologists can play a key role in driving positive outcomes by offering a number of different ways to successfully achieve the same specific objective. Similarly, those involved in strategic planning can engage in brainstorming and comparing alternate paths to achieve their goals. Weigh the costs – perhaps resources or efforts involved, and benefits – impact on the program, organization and/or mission, and come up with plans you can feel confident in. There’s generally never “just one” way forward.

Keeping this notion of flexibility top of mind throughout your planning process also allows for adaptability in dynamic environments. It enables your organization and team to respond promptly to changes – even later in the implementation stages – seize emerging opportunities and allows your plan to remain relevant and effective over time.  

Maintain optimism.

Lastly, psychologists and those engaged in strategic planning believe in the ability of people and organizations to grow and change in positive ways – this is, inherently, optimistic! Like people, nonprofit organizations must regularly reflect on their strengths and the “why” of what they do, and consider how they can continue to adapt and improve their business model or service delivery to realize their vision, be that evolving to sustain in a competitive market, to increase relevance, or grow impact.

Just as psychologists help people see their agency, tap into their skills and networks, and realize their potential to perform at a more optimal level, nonprofits can and must seize the great opportunity to do the same.

Orr Group brings a unique perspective, a business mindset, and a proven track record in impact to design and implement effective fundraising plans. Get in touch to understand how we can help your organization chart a new path forward.

Andrea Bastiani Archibald

Andrea Bastiani Archibald, Ph.D., is a Managing Director at Orr Group. Andrea is an applied developmental psychologist and thought leader with expertise in nonprofit strategy and leadership support, and has a strong background in utilizing data-driven insights to build partnerships and design mission-based solutions.

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