By Todd Davidson, Vice President of Programs, and Gabriel Green, Public Relations Associate
State think tanks are constantly balancing between focused execution and maintaining agility to respond to the fluid policymaking environment. By engaging in strategic planning, think tank leaders can equip their staff with the direction and tools they need to strike this balance. One of these tools is a strategic framework.
The strategic framework is a document that aligns your organization’s daily activity to its vision and mission, while still leaving the flexibility to adjust as needed. It establishes your organization’s competitive advantage and your annual goals, and it informs your strategies, milestones, and metrics.
A complete strategic framework articulates:
Let’s take a closer look at the components of a strategic framework and the purpose for each of them.
|Component||Purpose||How Often It Changes|
Vision, mission, and values
|Foundational principles that define why your organization exists and what it does and does not do to achieve its mission.||Rarely. Typically reserved for when your organization is founded or undergoes a major rebranding.|
|Competitive Advantage |
Issue objectives, target audiences, capabilities
|Defines what you do better than any other nonprofit working in your environment. Helps you prioritize: 1) Issues you work on; 2) Your most important audiences; and 3) How your capabilities work together. ||Reviewed annually but only changes at major inflection points in the organization’s growth.|
Policy wins, target audience reach, capability building
|Measurable goals that keep your entire team aligned and accountable. Measures your progress toward: 1) Solving your priority issues; 2) Reaching target audiences; and 3) Building your capabilities.||Set annually and adjust quarterly if needed.|
|Strategies||Aligns the team on how you will achieve your goals and establishes departmental goals. Most strategies are based on the organization’s change model (i.e., how you effect change). ||Set annually. Adjust quarterly or monthly.|
|Milestones||Indicates progress toward achieving departmental and organizational annual goals. When not met, can provide an early warning sign that adjustments must be made.||Set annually. Review monthly or weekly when in fast-paced times, such as during legislative session.|
|Activity Metrics||Focuses individual teams and team members on executing the strategy. ||Reviewed weekly. Adjusted immediately if needed.|
The doctrine component of a strategic framework elaborates foundational principles that define why your organization exists, and what it does and does not do to achieve accomplish its purpose. They establish the organization’s why, what, and how. They are high-level and do not change often.
Elements of this component include:
The vision vividly describes the world the organization seeks to create. Its main purpose is to motivate people to join your cause, and to succinctly articulate the organization’s long-term goals.
Example: A Wyoming that continuously grows prosperity and quality of life by maximizing individual opportunities and freedom.
The mission defines what the organization does to make your vision a reality. For most, this establishes your organization type, such as an advocacy organization or a think tank.
Example: To empower and educate Wyoming citizens and policymakers by informing them of the rights and restrictions on their ability to influence the law.
Values govern your behavior and actions. They are a set of beliefs you deem important to how you operate. Theoretically, there are infinite ways in which an organization could accomplish its goals; your values are how you rule out certain behaviors from the beginning. For instance, if you value “integrity,” you won’t lie to advance policy ideas, or if you value “free markets” you won’t advocate for government control of an industry.
Examples: Integrity, humility, liberty, creativity, free markets, etc.
The competitive advantage component of a strategic framework defines what change you will create and how you create that change better than any other organization in your environment. It is composed of a change model, issue priorities, and a set of target audiences.
The structure of a competitive advantage statement looks like this:
“We are the best at using this [Change Model] to reach these [Target Audiences] to solve these [Issue Priorities].”
Your change model describes in more detail how you go about creating change. It is the nonprofit version of a business’s model for turning inputs into profits. The change model describes how your think tank turns inputs into change—most often policy change. It describes the capabilities that your organization is best at and governs the strategies later in the strategic framework (in Component #4). This portion is what empowers your team to specialize, thereby enhancing their contributions to the organization and increasing your team’s productivity.
It’s important to note that an organization doesn’t have to limit itself to one change model, depending on their size and capacity to scale. For instance, an organization could have a change model for advancing policies in the legislature, and another for litigating against bad policies. The goal is that these change models are optimized for working together and complementing each other, rather than interfering with each other’s work.
As a set, your issue priorities define what your organization works on. They are written as a description of the world you seek to create within each issue area. They are a bridge between your vision and your annual goals. Most organization have between three and five issue priorities.
These are intentionally not measurable. Their purpose is to provide a general direction so that you have both an aim and the ability to adjust to new opportunities or changes in your environment.
Your target audiences define who you must bring alongside your organization and persuade to achieve your issue priorities and fulfill your mission and vision. These are important audiences that your organization can build credibility and influence among. Audiences could include specific people, such as the Governor, or they could be demographic groups, such as suburban moms. For nonprofits, donors are an essential target audience. In your strategic framework, you define each target audience and why they are essential to reach.
For each target audience, a Unique Value Proposition (UVP) is needed. A UVP defines the benefits you offer and how you do it better than anyone else. An example could be: “We provide busy city government officials with timely, succinct information they need to navigate their jobs and more easily understand the desires of their constituents.”
The model that made you successful five years ago may no longer be sufficient. Or perhaps new opportunities, competition, or circumstances are forcing you to expand your change model to include new capabilities.
Occasionally, a Change Model Objective is added to the strategic framework, to help define a necessary evolution to your change model. If you need to add this objective to your strategic framework, include it in Component #2 so that it has the same level of importance as your change model, issue priorities, and target audiences.
Measurable goals are how you know if you are making progress toward your issue priorities, reaching your target audiences, and accomplishing change. They must be clearly defined and timebound so that, at the end of your timeframe, you will have no doubt about whether a goal was achieved. Establishing measurable goals is also the stage when the strategic framework begins transitioning from the organizational overview to the departmental level.
Measurable goals line up to the issue priorities, target audiences, and change model.
Issue Objective: Citizens feel empowered to influence government, and government is more responsive to citizen input in turn.
Strategies are how you will achieve your measurable goals. Articulating strategy aligns your team and more clearly defines what individual departments should be doing to achieve organizational goals. Most often strategies follow your change model because your change model has laid out the work you are best at. However, many goals may not need the full force of your change model or the same level of engagement from every department. Every organization should have several strategies they are ready to deploy, at both the organizational and departmental levels.
At first, a strategy is a bet. You are betting that if you execute a strategy, you will achieve your missions and milestones. So long as this bet proves true, you should stick with a strategy. If your bet isn’t helping you realize those measurable goals, it’s time to alter the strategy. An organization’s departmental leadership should monitor how strategies are tiering up to measurable goals, to keep the entire organization aligned yet flexible and adaptive.
Strategies are developed during your annual planning process, but held loosely and quickly altered or abandoned when needed. For most think tanks, a good cadence is to review strategies monthly, if not more often, with a team of organizational leaders across departments and disciplines. You often need diverse departmental perspectives to adequately evaluate a strategy’s effectiveness.
Grassroots Strategy: Through a mix of marketing campaigns and events, coupled with specific education about priority issues, we will generate enthusiastic groups of citizens in each issue area. Government Affairs will then work to help these citizens to meet with lawmakers when relevant legislation is in progress.
A milestone is a critical step toward achieving a measurable goal, and it serves as a good indicator of the success or failure of a specific strategy. When you establish milestones, you position your organization to adjust as necessary.
Milestones are best written for each department, and they should overlap with department-level strategies. Write them in the past tense so you can make it clear when the milestone has been crossed.
Measurable Goal: The number of citizens attending government meetings, and communicating with members of government, has grown by 5% by July 2024.
The final component of the strategic framework, the activity metrics, is where the framework connects organizational focus and department-level strategies to the individual team members’ day-to-day work. The activity metrics are a list of specific outputs that fit within a strategy. Activity metrics also map out exact steps that must occur, which helps minimize decision fatigue among staff.
While leadership monitors progress on strategies, individual staff can monitor their progress on activity metrics and focus on executing. They can maintain flexibility in specific tactics, while understanding how to aim their talent and skills toward defined end goals.
|Measurable Goal (Component #3)||The number of citizens attending government meetings, and communicating with members of government, has grown by 5% by July 2024.|
|Strategy (Component #4)||Grassroots Strategy: Through a mix of marketing campaigns and events, coupled with specific education about priority issues, we will generate enthusiastic groups of citizens in each issue area. Government Affairs will then work to help these citizens to meet with lawmakers when relevant legislation is in progress.|
|Milestone (Component #5)||City Council citizen attendance grew by 2%.|
|Activities (Component #6)||1. Host events and gather contact information to build owned audiences for each issue priority.|
2. Conduct ward-level polling on issue priorities to identify citizen concerns.
3. Educate citizens in target wards about city council meeting timings and issues relevant to their concerns.
No person or team has perfect foresight, and no matter how tidy a strategic framework is on paper, all think tank leaders and professionals know that real-life implementation is often a little messier. The future will inevitably bring changes we didn’t account for in our strategic framework. However, if you build in a routine for adjusting, the core of your framework can remain intact, and your organization can better adapt to new circumstances or opportunities in a way that is consistent with your organization’s doctrine and the impact you want to make in the world.
It’s helpful for your entire staff to revisit the strategic framework annually and refresh or reset goals, strategies, milestones, and activities. In addition to this routine, you should review parts of the strategic framework throughout the year for the following purposes:
State Policy Network offers various strategic planning services for our member organizations. Contact SPN’s Director of Strategy Development Collin Roth (firstname.lastname@example.org), to learn more about how SPN can help your think tank go further, faster, by starting with organizational strategy.