Resources for Creating a Business Plan for Your Nonprofit

If you work in the nonprofit sector, when you hear "business plan" you may think it doesn't apply to your work setting. But nonprofits and for-profits have a lot in common, including the need to use and develop resources wisely and plan for the future. Business plans in both the for-profit and nonprofit worlds provide a picture of an organization's current capacities and structure and serve as a resource to build a strategic plan for future development and sustainability.

Creating a Business Plan

A solid business plan ideally should be in place from the beginning of an organization's life. Through the process of developing a business plan, you'll be forced to answer questions such as:

  • What is our mission?
  • What service/products/support will we provide?
  • Who will we serve?
  • Where will we work?
  • What need are we addressing?
  • How will our organization complement the work of other nonprofit organizations doing similar work?
  • How will our organization be structured (i.e. management and staffing structure)
  • How will we fund our work and ensure long-term sustainability?

The business plan is a living document. It will need to be reviewed at least annually to make sure it still reflects the work of the organization and its priorities.

One way to generate ideas for your business plan is to conduct what is known as a SWOT analysis. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. Going through a SWOT analysis with your colleagues can help you to identify those areas where your organization needs to apply more focus or that require a change of direction.

If you need an introduction or refresher to the SWOT analysis process check out Mind Tools or an overview on Management Study Guide.

Strategic Plans vs. Business Plans

In the nonprofit sector, it is much more common to hear references to strategic plans than to business plans. While the two are related, they serve slightly different purposes. You'll want to develop both as part of your organizational planning process.

In the business plan, you define what you do, who you work with, who you compete against, and who you serve. A strategic plan builds off of the business plan and gets at the next question, which is how to make things happen.  In the strategic plan, you'll create a plan that addresses what specific steps you'll take to realize your organizational goals.

In the process of developing your strategic plan, you'll also get to explore your "why": Why are you doing what you do? Is it what you need to be doing and are you using your resources --human, time, financial--effectively to achieve your desired impact?

Your strategic plan is also where you define what success looks like for your organization and how you'll measure it.

Why You Need Business & Strategic Plans

if You Want to Win Grants

In the private sector, potential investors expect to see a solid business plan from a company or start-up before they decide to invest their money in it.  When a company can produce a solid business plan and demonstrate that it has a strategic plan in place to meet its goals, it reassures potential investors that the company has its act together. While not a guarantee that the company will be a good steward of its resources, it is a sign that the company is disciplined enough to plan and strategize for its future growth.

Foundations and government agencies are the nonprofit sector's investors.

Just like individuals evaluating a company to determine whether to invest in it, foundations and government agencies want some reassurance that if they give your organization funding,  you'll be able to--not just launch a project--but deliver results. They want a return on their investment in the form of social impact.

Going through the process of developing business and strategic plans will help ensure that you'll be prepared to discuss with potential funders what your organization stands for, how it is structured, and how you plan to meet your goals.

Will you need to send potential funders copies of your business or strategic plans as part of the grant application process? Probably not. However, you should expect to draw from your business and strategic plans when writing proposals. After you have your business plan in place, you'll be able to use excerpts in your grant proposals to describe your organization's leadership, structure, mission, direction and, perhaps most importantly, financial health and long-term sustainability.

Resources for Nonprofit Business Plans

There are both for-profit and nonprofit resources to help you craft your business plan. Below are some options to explore including articles, websites, and books.  Note that this list is based on research and review only and is not a list of endorsed products or services. Before you download, purchase, or commit to a service or product, always investigate the company and its services carefully to decide if they are right for you.

Web-Based Resources

You can find free resources on how to develop business and strategic plans on the websites of both for-profit companies and nonprofit resource centers.  Many of the resources below include downloadable templates you can use as models for your business plan.