Top Questions on Nonprofit Business Planning
One of my favorite cartoons is from Tom Fishburne’s “Brand Camp.” It does a great job of illustrating our inner monologue as we consider a new venture. I tell my students that successful entrepreneurship is half about skill — what you know and do — and half about mindset — what you tell yourself along the way and how you overcome the inevitable obstacles (e.g., motivation, discipline, attitude). Think of the famous athlete who practices technical skills on the court, but also practices improving mindset off-the-court. We saw this play out in the summer Olympics when Simone Biles showed how important mindset is to her sport. Entrepreneurs — whether on their own or as intrapreneurs — need this same mental conditioning. To help you improve both skillsets, we are sharing answers to top questions on business planning.
How do I start?
Before you decide on the exact venture to move forward with, we recommend brainstorming all the possible options. We call this “ideation.” Sometimes this means you may need to back up a little, explore the research, talk to the community and then determine “best fit.”
I recently had a student come to me with an idea for her neighborhood in South Dallas — she wanted to start a community garden. I applauded her passion, then asked her the all-important question — did you ask the community what they wanted? At first, she answered, “Who wouldn’t want a garden?” Then, she thought a little and agreed — she wanted to provide greater access to fresh fruits and vegetables in an area known as a food desert, and a garden was only one way to do so. After she did her research, she realized that the community had attempted many community gardens but didn’t have the capacity to keep them going. Undeterred, she explored many ideas, following my frequent advice to “fall in love with the problem and not the solution.” She later discovered that her neighborhood had lower-than-average SNAP (food stamps) enrollment and decided instead to do a social marketing campaign to sign folks up on SNAP. She reasoned that this was a long-term solution to give them greater access to food. Then, once folks were signed up, she set up a weekly farmers market that accepted SNAP as payment.
As I like to say — every idea is a good idea, but not every idea is a viable idea. Through this level of inquiry and curiosity, you can narrow your focus to the most viable business. We have a helpful step-by-step process, which works for both organizations and individuals, to help you focus on the best option.
Why a business plan and what should my business plan include?
To move forward and share your idea, you often need something to showcase your work and the logic behind the business model. Business plans have two jobs: 1) for leaders, it forces the discipline around telling the story of your venture from beginning to end; and 2) for funders or investors, it communicates the vision and reasoning behind it. Business plans are, on average, 90 pages long. Now, we have a more succinct option — the business model canvas — which is closer to 10 pages. Both options have merit and are judged on their content and readability. This is why the first and most important question you should ask yourself is: who is your audience and what do you need them to do? If you are exploring a brand new idea, you may want to start with a pitch, prospectus or business model canvas, which is a visual flow of your idea and its business case. If you are creating a company or organization, you may want a full business plan, which doubles as an operating guide. All are worthy of exploration and can be mixed and matched based on need and audience.
What process should I follow?
Business planning — short-form or long-form — can be overwhelming. To make things easier, we recommend breaking the process up and recruiting others to help. After you have decided on an idea and tested feasibility, start by building a team, creating an outline and developing a meaningful work plan.
- Identify a champion: Every project needs a lead. Find someone who can really commit to the project and who passes the “drive test” (i.e., he or she will think about the venture all the time, including on their drives to/from work).
- Build a team: We consider business planning — much like strategic plans and grants — to be a team sport. We encourage our clients to convene a group of staff, board members and volunteer experts to serve on a core team and/or an advisory team. The core team should include staff and volunteers who are enthusiastic, committed to the idea and have the time to commit to the process. The advisory team should include anyone who has less time to commit, but who can provide key insights and an objective perspective. We have devised a quick template to help with this brainstorming process.
- Create an outline: Once you have decided what you need from your business plan, you should develop an outline. We have created a template with key questions to assist with this process. Then, divide the work up among your core team based on their interest and availability. We have created a worksheet to get each section considered, completed and reviewed.
- Develop a work plan: Deadlines drive plans forward and create momentum and energy. Develop a reasonable, yet ambitious work plan to drive the process forward and allow the team to agree on key deadlines. We have developed a sample work plan, but we encourage groups to use online project management tools, too.
Where can I get help and advice?
You do not have to do it alone. Outside of your network of staff and volunteers, there are many sources of help. SCORE and Executive Service Corp chapters can provide pro-bono or low-bono assistance. College and MBA interns can provide manpower and great research assistance. Even librarians at your local library can help research difficult questions using their access to proprietary databases. Be on the lookout for business plan competitions (a.k.a., pitch competitions) to test drive your plan and get objective feedback.
We do not recommend hiring a consultant to write a business plan for you. Much like when you were a kid in school, when you copy off of someone else’s homework, you don’t learn anything. Business planning is less about the plan itself and more about the process that forces you to think, plan and make decisions about the business. However, do feel free to hire a consultant to assist with market research, business coaching or project management.
What are the keys to success?
The most successful business plan should tell a compelling story about your venture and serve as a roadmap for implementation. It should be balanced in its approach — optimistic, but also realistic about success. When the reader is done, the plan should have instilled confidence in you and your venture. The best business plans are living documents and are updated regularly as circumstances change or lessons are learned.
We welcome your input on the questions above. Feel free to send us any additional questions you have about business planning.