©2019 by Leadership Advisors, LLC. Saint Paul, Minnesota.

  • Stephen Usery

Non-profit strategic planning: The Environmental Scan

When embarking on strategic planning, non-profits and associations need to step back and ask fundamental questions. One of these is, “What environment do we operate in and how does that impact us?” For some organizations the answer is straightforward, while others find that exploring this question reveals layers of complexity and ambiguity that their strategic planning process must help resolve.


An environmental scan serves to:

1. Define the ‘ecosystem’ in which the organization operates

2. Identifies other players in this ecosystem, their roles and relationships to the organization

3. Documents trends and issues in the environment which create opportunities or challenges for the organization.


But how should the organization define its ecosystem? Our recommendation is that you start by looking at those you serve – your clients (for many non-profits) or your members (for associations). It is important to put them at the center of your thinking and realize that you are part of their ecosystem. A good place to begin is by listing other organizations, government entities, individuals, etc. that impact your clients. Look at the environment from their perspective. And then ask yourself: how does our organization fit into this picture?


Once you have identified the key players in your clients’ environment, you may be able to summarize them into categories. For instance, categories identified by an organization involved with performing arts might include:

· Writers

· Performers

· Presenters

· Audiences

· Funders

· Educators

· For-profit service providers

· Non-profits serving artists in the field.


In addition to these categories, which form their clients’ ecosystem, the organization’s environmental scan might also include analogous organizations in other fields.


Once the categories and players within them have been identified, more detailed research can begin. This research may involve several steps:

1. Triage: review the list of categories, and entities within them, to identify those most relevant for your organization. Subsequent steps can then focus on those most closely related to your work.

2. Desk research: examine websites, IRS Form 990 filings, and other online information to develop a “foundation of facts.”

3. Internal interviews: Use the expertise of staff and Board members to validate the results of the first two steps and to provide insight on how your organization functions within this cohort.

4. Preliminary summary: step back and identify the key themes which have emerged so far, including known opportunities and challenges in the environment plus issues for further review.

5. External interviews: identify a handful of key stakeholders – funders, clients/members, partner organizations – and ask them to react to your summarized findings. Following this input, you may need to loop back to earlier steps to incorporate new information, correct errors and omissions, etc.

6. Distillation: identify the 5 – 10 most critical issues revealed by the environmental scan. This is no mere quick summary but requires deep thinking about what has been learned and the implications for your organization’s strategy. What are the biggest opportunities and challenges in the environment that need to be addressed by your strategic plan? You should also ask: How can we change, or even disrupt, this environment for the better?


The output from the environmental scan then becomes one of many inputs for the strategic planning process. Often overlooked or done in a perfunctory manner, the environmental scan can provide critical insight to inform the work of your organization, both now and into the future.