The BJA Grant Writing and Management Academy
Strategic Planning

Introduction

Strategic planning is a process to help an organization define its direction. A strategic plan can serve as a management tool—a road map to lead an organization from where it is now to a future end result.

Problems can be complex and opinions about the problem and its causes may vary, so it is essential that you try to understand the problem more in depth. Strategic planning is a process of understanding the problem, developing a direction for the future, and detailing how to get there—how to reach a vision, how to solve a problem, and how to implement a program or project. Strategic planning can take place at many different levels; it can focus on an entire organization or a specific service or project. This training focuses on the latter—a strategic planning effort to carry out a specific project.

Some may question the need to expend time or effort to undergo a strategic planning process when you simply want to apply for grant funds. There are three reasons strategic planning is important to the grant-writing process.

First, strategic planning focuses your thinking and efforts on thoroughly understanding the problem and enables you to back up that understanding with critical or relevant data. Strategic planning helps you clearly articulate how the proposed activities will address the problem and maps out a strategy to accomplish the goals and objectives, and it lays out how progress will be demonstrated—again, using data to illustrate success.

Second, strategic planning provides thought and planning for how this project—the one being applied for—fits into and complements other activities and projects that your agency or community is working on. It allows a more intense and focused effort to be brought to the problems being addressed.

And third, it helps your agency ensure adequate accountability and transparency about your project because it clearly states what your project hopes to accomplish and what it does accomplish.

In addition to these reasons, the information contained in a strategic plan gives you a jump start on your application. Most of the data collection and analysis, the goals and objectives, and the performance measures can be taken from your strategic plan and used in the program narrative of your grant application. If the information in your strategic plan was developed well in advance, make sure it is still appropriate and relevant at the time you are drafting your grant application.

Understand the Problem

A strategic plan provides an understanding of the problem, determines how to address the problem, and identifies measurements for results. The strategic plan for conducting your project should be built on a thorough understanding of the problem you want to address. Since problems are complex and different people may have different viewpoints about the impact or importance, it is essential that you try to understand the problem in the most in-depth and objective way possible. That means collecting and analyzing data on the extent and nature of the problem. For example, what is the size of the problem and where it is located? What populations are most affected? And what are the contributing factors or underlying causes of the problem? The best way to understand the problem is to start with data collection and analysis.

Why is data so important? Data provides a far more objective and credible picture of the problem than anecdote or opinion. It helps demonstrate the gravity of the problem and the urgent need to address it in an unbiased way. Data helps distinguish your problem from everyone else’s. If your grant application does this in an objective manner, it can more effectively demonstrate the need for funding to a funding source.

But remember, you are not collecting and analyzing data just to impress a funding source in a grant competition. Data provides valuable information about the problem and the best way to address it. The data may validate what you already know about the problem through experience or intuition. But it may also tell you that some aspect of the problem does not match conventional wisdom; hence, your response will need to be different from what was originally planned. Data also helps you and any potential project partners reach a common understanding of the problem so that you can all get on the same page about the best remedy. The data should also help you identify a specific target for the project; for example, the geographic area, the offender population, or the type of crime on which your project will focus.

The data you collect and analyze to build your project plan is likely to come in handy down the road as well. Quite simply, the data you collect on the problem as it exists today provides a valuable reference point—or baseline measure—that can be used in the future when you evaluate your project, if it is funded. A baseline measure is a prerequisite for demonstrating how the problem has changed for the better as a result of the project activities you carry out during the grant period.

Data analysis can be quite complicated. A couple of suggestions for documenting the nature and extent of your problem include:

Strategic planning provides an understanding of the problem, determines how to address the problem, and identifies measurements for results. Data collection and analysis are critical parts of your strategic plan because they provide objective information about the problem, identify the best way to address it, and demonstrate how the problem has been changed for the better as a result of the project activities you carry out.

Address the Problem

A thorough understanding of the problem provides a basis for establishing sound goals and objectives for the project. Goals and objectives are always key components of a sound strategic plan. Goals and objectives are important communication devices that help everyone associated with the project understand the project’s purpose, the end result you want to attain, and the key steps that will be taken to get there.

The proposed project should have at least one goal. Depending on the complexity of the effort, there may be more. Goals tend to be general, but they still must be realistic and focused on what you ultimately hope to achieve. For example:

Project goals should always be consistent with the overall purpose and mission of the organization and provide the foundation for developing specific project objectives.

Objectives are the steps that need to be taken to reach a goal. Hence, they need to be concrete, action-oriented, and measurable.

When developing the objectives of your project, it is a good idea to think about them in terms of both project implementation and project outcome. Implementation objectives relate to the operation or delivery of the project. For example:

Outcome objectives relate to the changes or benefits you hope to produce through the project. Keep in mind that outcomes are events or conditions that are external to the project and of direct importance to the intended beneficiaries of the project and the general public. Outcomes typically are substantive, observable changes in knowledge, attitude, skill, behavior, or performance.

Measurement experts have long stressed the need to describe project outcomes in stages. Doing so facilitates planning and also future measurement by identifying the full range of benefits a project might produce. Short-term outcomes refer to those changes or benefits that are likely to be noticed soon after project activities are delivered; for example, finding that the job skills of high school dropouts increased once they completed a vocational training program.

An objective focused on a short-term outcome such as this might read:

Long-term outcomes manifest themselves later in time, and they are more likely to reflect behavior or performance change. Long-term outcomes might be higher employment rates for the high school dropouts who complete vocational training.

An objective focused on a long-term outcome such as this might read:

Short-term outcomes are easier to measure than long-term outcomes because they are more likely to occur or manifest themselves within the project period. Also, they are less likely to be influenced by external factors that can make measurement more complicated and costly.

As part of the strategic planning process, you should also think through and specify the project activities that need to be put in place to address the problem. What are the specific tasks and action steps that need to be taken to ensure that project goals and objectives are achieved? In a nutshell, you should be able to specify:

Tasks and action steps should be specific enough to document the sequence of a project’s operations. For example:

Specifying the sequence of tasks that need to be taken helps you identify the types of commitment needed from staff and partners to implement the project. Understanding how project tasks flow sequentially can also help you identify any problems that arise during project implementation so that corrective action can be taken.

At this stage of the planning process, it is also a good idea to give some thought to any factors that might impede or facilitate the implementation of your project and its overall chances for success. If you identify any potential barriers or weaknesses in your project approach, now is the time to devise a plan for dealing with them. You will also want to ensure that your project builds on your organization’s strengths and takes advantage of existing community assets.

Again, goals and objectives are key components of a sound strategic plan. Goals and objectives outline the project’s purpose, steps that need to be taken to implement the project, the outcome or end result you want to attain, and the key tasks or action steps that will be taken to get there. These elements provide an understanding of how the project will flow sequentially and can help you identify challenges during project implementation so that you can take corrective action and increase the overall success of your project.

Measure the Results

The final step in the strategic planning process is measuring the results of your efforts. This means creating a blueprint for evaluating your project. How will you and the funding source know if the project’s goals and objectives were met? How will you and the funding source know if the problem was favorably addressed? These are not easy questions to answer, but if you have a feasible assessment plan in place at the start of your project, you will be in a far better position to produce meaningful answers.

Keep in mind that your assessment plan should serve two major purposes. First, it should provide BJA with documentation regarding project accomplishments. Second, it should generate feedback that will help you manage the project. In other words, your assessment should identify any problems that may emerge during the life of your project so that corrective action can be taken.

A practical assessment approach for most projects is to engage in what is formally known as performance measurement. Performance measurement is the ongoing monitoring and external reporting of program accomplishments, particularly progress toward preestablished goals and objectives. It involves establishing performance measures for your project and collecting and reporting data on each measure. For example:

Sometimes BJA will specify the performance measures that you will need to use. If not, you will need to develop your own measures, typically for the key objectives of the project.

Sound performance measurement typically addresses both a program’s outputs and its outcomes. Outputs are counts of workload or service delivered—such as the number of clients served—whereas outcomes are the substantive changes or benefits produced by the project—such as higher employment rates. Taken together, output and outcome measures document the nature and extent of program effort, as well as the real-world benefits the program provides.

In practice, performance targets are set for each measure you use, and data is then collected and analyzed to determine whether the performance targets are being met. The key is to ensure that all performance measures are relevant to the project’s objectives and that the performance targets that are set are meaningful and realistic. That is why you are encouraged to write objectives that are SMARTSpecific, Measureable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-oriented. In addition, care must be taken to ensure that data is available for each measure you use. Both the data source and the frequency with which the information will be collected must be considered in advance.

It is critically important that performance measures be appropriate for the project. Performance measures must have a realistic chance of being affected by project activities, so avoid using measures that are routinely influenced by factors the project cannot control. Choosing the right measures can be a challenging task, but asking fundamental questions about the project’s purpose and its intended beneficiaries can yield insights about the right measures to use. As a general rule of thumb, quality is better than quantity. It is better to focus on just a few good measures for which performance data can be collected and reported on periodically over the life of the grant to demonstrate the value of the project.

Performance data is likely to have the greatest impact and value when it is shared with project management and staff as well as key stakeholders, including funding and oversight organizations. Sharing performance data in this manner is the best way to meet accountability demands, market the project, and manage for success. When analyzing performance information, it is important to keep in mind that there may be times when a project does not fully reach expectations because of unforeseen or uncontrollable events. Hence, performance shortcomings should first serve as a signal to investigate what might be causing the performance deficit and then, when appropriate, to make the adjustments that will lead to program improvement.

Remember, the final step in the strategic planning process is measuring the results of your efforts. Your strategic planning assessment will provide BJA with documentation regarding project accomplishments and generate feedback that will help you manage the project. Providing data for a few good performance measures over the life of your grant can help identify areas for adjustment and demonstrate the value of your project.

Conclusion

Strategic planning is important because it helps put your project in a position to be successful. Planning helps you understand the problem you want to address, and it helps you identify the best ways to address that problem. A strategic plan helps ensure that everyone associated with the project shares a common vision about the project’s intended end result and how you are going to get there. It helps ensure that your project aligns with the overall mission of your organization, and it helps you identify the factors that may facilitate or impede the implementation of your project. Finally, a strategic plan will help you establish a practical process for documenting results. In practice, strategic planning will help you design an effective project and a successful grant application.