State Policy Network
The What, Why, When, and Who of Strategic Planning

By Todd Davidson, Vice President of Programs, and Gabriel Green, Public Relations Associate

Running a state think tank can be a lot like sailing. Piloting the ship and unfurling the sails—like administering the organization’s operations—is only part of the task. External forces must also be accounted for if the ship, or organization, is to reach its destination.

While sailing, external forces range from wind and currents to accounting for other boats. For state think tanks, there are numerous internal and external factors that can affect success or failure. The public’s social and political desires, donor intent, your team’s interests and skills, the competitive landscape, internal capabilities, and current political realities are just some of the many things that an organization’s leadership must account for.

Fortunately, strategic planning helps you to account for these forces and achieve more wins.  Through a strategic planning process, you gain a better understanding of your operating environment, a narrowed set of decision-making criteria that empower staff to operate efficiently in the moment, and a wider range of potential actions for addressing changes in your environment.

What is Strategic Planning?

Strategic Planning is a process that enables organizations to balance all these competing forces. It ensures that they have established effective goals and are able to accomplish them regardless of any changes in circumstances.

When sailing, you plan for the journey ahead of time to anticipate which changes could affect the crew’s responsibilities and the journey’s course. When running a state think tank, strategic planning is one of the best tools to map your own journey toward impact. Through it, you define your vision of success and align each department around common objectives and goals that will achieve that success.

Strategic planning can take many forms and be facilitated in several ways, but at its core, it involves these steps:

  1. Understanding the environmental forces affecting the organization.
  2. Clarifying a shared vision and objectives for the organization.
  3. Defining the opportunities, challenges, and threats relevant to the organization’s vision and objectives.
  4. Developing the methods by which the organization’s capabilities will be used to achieve its objectives in light of its opportunities, challenges, and threats.

Why should a state think tank engage in strategic planning?

Ideally, an organization’s leadership is always thinking strategically. But strategic thinking is hard to communicate effectively to an entire staff in the moment when an opportunity presents itself. It’s also hard for an organization’s leaders to know when to pivot and when to stay the course if they haven’t thought through the variables and scenarios beforehand.

This is where purposeful strategic planning comes in. Wise leaders know that they need to empower their staff to do what they do best—and to take advantage of opportunities as they arise. Leaders position staff to achieve their full potential—and that of the organization—by ensuring all team members know what goals the organization is driving toward and how their role plays a part. Strategic planning helps an organization maintain clarity and helps individuals know exactly what they need to be doing to fulfill the organization’s vision, mission, and goals.

Strategic planning helps a think tank to:

When should a state think tank engage in strategic planning?

Smart strategic planning is possible when the think tank’s environment is fairly static. This situation allows staff and leadership to think flexibly and to define and clarify the organization’s unified goals, without being worried about failing to execute on something already in the works.

So, let’s start by understanding when strategic planning should not happen. For think tanks, it’s less valuable when an organization is in the thick of execution, such as during the legislative session. It’s also best to avoid planning too far in advance of an unpredictable major landscape change, such as an election. It’s possible to plan strategically before an election; it’s just a lot harder.

The best general timeframe for state think tanks’ strategic planning tends to be between June and October—a timeframe outside the months when most legislative sessions take place. An organization that completes strategic planning in July typically benefits from six months of preparation and implementation before the next legislative session takes place. That’s why we at SPN tend to offer strategic planning workshops and related services to Network members in the summer.

Who should a state think tank involve in strategic planning?

If a state think tank has the capacity to scale feedback in a way that helps leadership make decisions, they should involve as many stakeholders as possible. Relevant stakeholders can include: staff, board members, donors, community leaders, and even members of the public at large. If a state think tank doesn’t have the capacity to scale all that feedback, keeping the group large enough to gather meaningful input is key. Wise and successful strategic planning hinges on having diverse inputs. No single individual on your team is going to have full view on all the areas your organization needs to consider.

Instead, the strategic planning process works best when you engage the experience and perspectives of multiple people on your team—especially the leaders of each department who shape and drive the strategies for your key capabilities, such as fundraising, communications, policy, and government affairs. Having multiple perspectives representing key departments helps avoid blind spots and prevents the organization from undertaking “impossible tasks.” It makes sure the organization doesn’t embrace incorrect assumptions, including ones about its own capacities and what the organization can realistically accomplish with its current talent, time, and resources. The goal is to gather relevant information and insights from your staff so that leadership can use it to shape the organization’s direction and decide on an organization-wide strategic plan.

Within SPN’s Network, regardless of organization size, leaders should aim to include the following perspectives in strategic planning:

Increased staff involvement in strategic planning generates buy-in to the organization’s goals; they’re part of creating the goals, then they help accomplish the goals based on the decision rights that the strategic plan establishes. Even if everyone’s voices can’t be accounted for in the planning process, individual staff and department heads should have the flexibility to adapt to circumstances while driving toward the organization’s end goals.

Strategic planning includes a lot of inputs so leadership can properly understand the entire operating environment of an organization. But, at the end of the process, the organization’s leaders need to make decisions, so inputs should be broad limited to what the organization can effectively process. A think tank’s executive leadership should steer the organization-wide strategy, while department-level leadership should set programmatic strategies that feed into the organizational strategy. Put another way, you don’t want to have the CEO tinkering with the comms team’s specific strategies and tactics, unless the organization is extremely small, and staff are wearing multiple hats for the time being.

Learn more about strategic planning support for your organization

State Policy Network offers various strategic planning services for our member organizations. Contact SPN’s Vice President of Programs, Todd Davidson, ( to learn more about how SPN can help your think tank go further, faster, by starting with organizational strategy.

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Categories: Strategy