Strategic Planning in the Digital Age with Sarah Olivieri


Strategic Planning in a Digital AgeThis week I spoke with Sarah Olivieri, Founder of PivotGround about how we can align our strategic plans to gain maximum efficiency in the digital age.  You can listen to the entire interview here 

or read the edited transcript, below.   

Amy DeVita for TopNonprofits: I’m here today with a very special guest joining us. Her name is Sarah Olivieri and she helps nonprofits to thrive in the digital age.



TopNonprofits: Sarah, we are excited to hear what you have to say about strategic planning… specifically, in a digital age. I know you have some terrific advice for on how you can take your strategic plan to the next level and make it really work for your organization. But, before we get started, Sarah, can you share a little bit about you and your background and your areas of expertise?

Sarah Olivieri: Absolutely. Well, I am a former executive director, at a couple of nonprofits including one foundation. I’ve also (within the nonprofit space), been the conference coordinator, the marketer, the program director. All those hats you end up getting along the way. And the finance person. I’ve been that, too!  And life took me on a turn, during the economic downturn to lean on my marketing skills. I formed a marketing agency, digital marketing and building websites for businesses and nonprofits. That led me to focus exclusively on nonprofits where I could help the most. And that led me to realizing that many of the nonprofits that I worked with really couldn’t handle great marketing because they just didn’t have the internal structures in place to move effectively and consistently at the speed that you need to move in the digital age to take advantage of digital marketing.

I fell in love with that work, but I was a very reluctant consultant.

Sarah Olivieri, PivotGround

I actually had a client ask me if I would come help rearrange their team and their programs and how they were working. And I fell in love with that work, but I was a very reluctant consultant. I wanted to not just give people my great ideas, but create a way for people to come up with their own ideas and make sure that those ideas were great. As they created their plans and, kind of changed the way they operate so that they can really thrive in this pretty fast- moving digital age and so I did that. I use the impact method, which is the first- and I believe still  only-  business operating framework specifically for nonprofits. And it’s my pleasure these days to train nonprofits in that and provide consulting. I love talking to nonprofit leaders and board members and learning about people’s mission. So it’s such a joy for me to be able to do that work these days.

TopNonprofits: That really comes across in the way you’re telling it. It’s really great to be able to be doing for a living what you really love and what makes you happy. Clearly you’re getting joy from helping others. And those folks are helping other people too. That’s what’s really great about the nonprofit sector. And, like many others out there…I’m sure you have worn every just about every hat at an organization. So that gives you a really terrific perspective. And we’re glad that you got over the reluctancy to become a consultant who can help other organizations. You know, Sarah, when we were talking earlier, about the old-style strategic plan that was in a binder. It got developed, it was put into a pretty binder and it sits on a shelf.  And think of how far we’ve come from that being the way of a strategic plan to what’s available now, digitally. So that being said, what do you see as the biggest misconception of strategic planning with the folks you talk to?

Sarah Olivieri: Yeah. Well, I think it’s kind of tied for two. One is that, creating the strategic plan is really the work of the board. And our world moves too fast. It moves faster than boards can move because boards have to operate as a group. They’re essentially running like a three legged race, but with three people or 10 people or 15 people And they all need to be able to agree, which is really great for governance. B ut it is not really great for continually refining And updating, strategies And the plans that are moving our organizations forward, in an aligned And focused way. So that, I would say that’s one thing. It’s still very much common for people to think, ” Oh, it’s my board’s job to do the strategic planning.” And I would really, in this day and age say, ” No, it really needs to be the staff, the executive director leading in the strategic planning process.”

“… leverage data on a regular basis and consistently improve using data-informed decisions.”

Sarah Olivieri, PivotGround

Sarah Olivieri:And the new board role I really think is to ask of this organization: “Do we have a strategy?” and ” Are we executing that strategy?” And “Does that strategy make sense?” Those are the kind of three things boards really need to be worrying about with strategic plans. And then the other thing I think is that a misconception is that it requires a ton of research in order to complete your strategic plan. And I think, in the old days kind of pre-internet or pre- internet version two and the world of big data, data was hard to collect. And so we did it less frequently. And so it kind of fit well with strategic planning to have kind of this research component. 

SARAH OLIVIERI will be one of the speakers at the Virtual Summit for Nonprofit Changemakers; find out more about this event featuring 30+ Experts over # Days! Learn more

But in today’s world we’re collecting data way more than we can ever use on a daily basis by the second the data is coming in. And so we need to incorporate ways of using our data and making data informed decisions in our daily operations, but we no longer should or need to kind of front load our strategic planning process with a research component. And I’d say if you’re finding your organization doesn’t have the data to make decisions, to have something in your strategic plan, then what you need to put in your strategic plan is “Change the way we operate, so that we can leverage data on a regular basis and consistently improve using data-informed decisions.”

As you touch on the data aspect, a lot of folks are afraid of data. ” What do we ask about?:, ” what data do we need to collect?” , ” What do we have now?”, ” I’m not a numbers person.” I’m just thinking of the things that I hear frequently from folks. With that in mind, do you have any advice for basic data that you would say,” Okay, you don’t have to do all kinds of research, but start with these points.”

I think building in a routine at looking at data is step one, before even worrying about what data you’re collecting.

Sarah Olivieri, PivotGround

Sarah Olivieri: I’d say the number one thing is if you have a weekly staff meeting, pull whatever data you can easily grab and just start looking at your data. I think building in a routine at looking at data is step one, before even worrying about what data you’re collecting. Just get used to looking at it. And then after that, you don’t want to overwhelm yourself with too many data points. You can pretty much always at this point, dig into deeper data should you need it. But I’d say , find a few key data points that, are really relevant to your organization.

 I’ll give you a few specifics, but I’ll just say, there’s quantitative data. That’s numbers. And there’s qualitative data, which could be the stories of success or failure that are happening with your clients or with your staff members, struggles that you’re experiencing or even gut feelings. Those can be valuable qualitative data.

Don’t forget about qualitative data. It’s extra important for nonprofits because often our missions are hard. I don’t know many nonprofits where they can put a, number that tells them exactly that they’re achieving their mission, because usually their mission is a little soft. I t’s not a kind of environment for putting numerical data on. So don’t discount your qualitative data. But that being said, as far as your numbers, you should probably be looking at a few financial numbers, for the health of your organization. Things like your overall cost to raise a dollar, or your profit margin. You do have a profit margin or you can call it your net revenue margin. you want to have a sense of, you know, are you building enough wiggle room into your organization to be growing.

It’s also helpful to know your overall worth. I think a great number to look at is called LUNA, it stands for your Liquid Unrestricted Net Assets. It sounds big and scary, but it just means all the cash you have available and everything that’s worth money that could be turned into cash pretty quickly. It’s like how much do you have in your bank account, essentially if you’re just thinking of personal stuff, to have wiggle room to do things. So those are some financials. 

Otherwise you might look at, you know, how many people did you serve that week, that month, that year. And, if there’s a number that you can put on that represents the quality or the satisfaction of that, that’s helpful. If not, stick with the qualitative data around that, the stories of success, and you probably want something around your fundraising, too. Whether it’s total money coming in or your gross fundraising revenue. So your fundraising income, after the direct fundraising expenses. So that you know, whether or not that’s healthy.

Know your overall worth. I think a great number to look at is called LUNA, it stands for your Liquid Unrestricted Net Assets

Sarah Olivieri

TopNonprofits:  So I’m glad that’s great that you put that out there and everyone, I’m sure you’re taking notes that between financials or the number of people you’ve served, or your fundraising, those are, those are figures that you don’t have to dig very deeply to find. And you can certainly put them into any kind of framework that is easy for discussion, and easy to comprehend so that you’re not freaking anybody out. I sit on a board, going back to what you were saying about boards not exactly being nimble. Not only do we have to be in agreement, but we only meet once a month. So how quickly is anything going to happen?

It’s going to take at least two months And in a digital age, two months is like an eternity! But, we went from a financial person who would give a vague one-sentence report to somebody who created a dashboard that shows everything. As a matter of fact. It kind of gives me a little anxiety looking at it because there’s so much in it. But, it answers everybody’s questions: “Where did money go?” ” How is it being spent?”  “Where did it come from?”  I think the hardest part of that for him was figuring out what points to report on. As you said, you know, it’s not necessarily finding the information, the data cause you have it.

Sarah Olivieri: Absolutely. And I would say related to finances, I actually have a budget template here. You’ll see in that all the formulas for calculating percentages and margins. I really find those numbers, which tend to be small numbers, are much more telling than the actual dollar numbers themselves. I encourage you to look at those.

TopNonprofits: Yeah, that’s great. So, speaking of numbers, leads me down the road of thinking about growth. Can you clarify the difference for the folks listening the difference between growth And scale?

Sarah Olivieri: Sure. This is one of the things I think not enough nonprofits are really thinking about. Most nonprofits, I think, are focused on growth. And growth is great.. to a degree. And I’ll explain the difference and give you some examples and then you’ll see why you’re going to want scale over growth. 

So growth is like everything gets bigger together. So you have a program, it serves 10 people And you want to double. So you’ve got one staff member for 10 people And now you’re going to double. So you’re gonna have two staff members and you’re going to serve 20 people, right? The number of staff members is going up kind of proportionally with the number of people you’re serving. That would be growth.

The more we scale, the more efficient we become at delivering on our missions.

Sarah Olivieri, PivotGround

Scale is really about innovation. When you figure out how to scale, you figure out how to serve more people or make a bigger impact without increasing the resources it takes to deliver that impact at the same rate as the impact. Meaning you can serve more people with the resources you have now, or with just a little increase in resources you can serve exponentially more people. In that same example, you have a program and the teacher teaches 10 people. Well, maybe you figure out how to educate 20 people just as well as you did in the group of 10 without adding another teacher. That would be scaling. So, the more we scale, the more efficient we become at delivering on our missions.

Great examples. I feel like I have a better handle on it now, too! Thank you.

Sarah Olivieri: Let me also mention, if you are feeling overwhelmed And stuck, you might have to do what I call scaling backwards. So you might not be ready to add the number of services, but your version of scaling might be how can we continue to deliver what we’re delivering now, but really reduce the amount of time, energy, And resources it takes to do it. Then we can dedicate or redirect some of your resources towards your fundraising capacity And other things that often get neglected as nonprofits grow. Some nonprofits get stuck in this awful overwhelming burnout space, which I don’t think is right And it’s certainly not helpful. So scale might not look for you initially, like serving more, but just treading water while reducing the pressure on your team.

TopNonprofits: Oh, and who wouldn’t love to be able to reduce pressure on their team? Maybe this is a silly question, how do I know when it’s time to revisit a strategic plan

Sarah Olivieri: I say you should routinely plan to visit your strategic plan, whether you think it needs visiting or not, every 60 to 90 days. In the impact method, we do it every 60 days so that we really don’t slip. But otherwise, if your team starts growing, if the number of issues that are just coming through your door starts growing, all of a sudden really quickly revisit your strategic plan. Or if, you just get the general sense of overwhelm is heating up, revisit your strategic plan. Also with those, I simultaneously recommend that you revisit, your organizational structure.

Typically, what I find is when kind of bad symptoms are happening, it’s either that you’ve added something to your plan without putting it on your plan, or you’ve just gone off track And didn’t realize it. And what’s great about that is when you revisit your strategic plan as the solution, you can say all this stuff that’s causing all these problems. It’s because we went off course. So we’re going to stop going off course and we’re not going to do all those things. It’s causing problems. Or sometimes it’s because you did grow and you need to change the way your operations are so that you can turn that growth into scaling And not have that effort increasing exponentially on you.

TopNonprofits: As we’re looking at a revised plan, or a new plan, who at the organization do you feel we need to get buy- in from and how?

You really need buy-in from everybody who’s going to have to execute the plan.

Sarah Olivieri, PivotGround

Sarah Olivieri: You really need all the kind of leadership voices in agreement. But you really need kind of more fine – tuned buy in from, everybody who’s going to have to execute the plan. That’s part of the reason why I really advocate for EDs and their teams to be the ones who are really creating these plans more than a consultant, more than the board. More than anyone from the outside. Because part of the part of having a great plan isn’t just what goals you set, but the order that you decide to work on them in and the amount of work that you decide you’re going to do within a given amount of time towards achieving those goals. Only your team really begins to know what is accomplishable in your organization in a month or two months or six months.

Sarah Olivieri: So I’d say, the more people the better. And that’s partly why we built into the impact method a visual layout for strategic plans. We actually build them. They look like mind maps and that is because it’s easy to stay mission-focused when every goal And every action to achieve that goal you set has a line directly connecting it to the mission. It visually clues us in. And also that line visually explains a lot of things that you don’t have to put into words n ow. So we actually put the mission at the center And then we draw, you know, three to five lines out And we put our core goals that we’re trying to achieve, our core outcomes that we’re trying to achieve that are to likely help us make our mission possible.

TopNonprofits: What better way to really be very focused and intentional . How can we keep them handy?

Sarah Olivieri: We use a digital tool. it’s free or very low – cost, if your team is larger, called Zen kit. so we keep them digital so that everybody can look at them and, and collaborate on them. We’re changing them every two months, so it’s great. It’s time-saving to have it be this living digital document, because we’re pulling it up for the whole team every two months. So everybody has a link and can look at it as much as they want, but they’re definitely looking at it every two months. And they’re looking at a smaller part. We build our execution plans physically, digitally linked to the strategic plan. And we look at that part of the execution plan every two weeks. So it’s always top of mind. And that helps us stay focused and get more done. And it also helps us when, when the barrage of suggestions about what we should be doing starts coming through our doors, we can say,” yep, yep, it’s on the plan for the future.” Or we, you know, “We’ve noted it to review, but that’s not our focus this two weeks we’ve got our plate full.”

The Impact Method is a holistic system…to make sure that a nonprofit is operating at maximum efficiency…

Sarah Olivieri, PivotGround

TopNonprofits: Absolutely. That’s a great response to a question that I know gets asked a lot. Sarah, you’ve brought up “impact method” a couple of times during our conversation, so can you define what that is and how it works?

Sarah Olivieri: Sure. I like to think of it as a business framework, or you could call it a holistic system, for how to make sure that a nonprofit is operating at maximum efficiency for delivering impact. And it really has three, three key components. And those are the idea that you have to have a great, method of organization or leadership to keep everybody working together in your organization. And in the impact method, we have two core components that allow us to do that. Which are an alternative to an org chart. We call it the nonprofit blueprint. It’s a structure of accountability. And then we have what I call the heart, the heart of your brand. Which is who you are as an organization, if your organization were a person. And that helps people really align with your organization.


So that’s the how you know, who you are, how you are able to operate, how you’re organized as a group of people. The second component is your roadmap for taking action. And in the impact method, we have two core components in there. The strategic plan, we call it an impact strategy. That’s the mind map piece. 

And our CAP, our continuous action plan, which is where we’ve broken down the action steps we’re taking in a 60 day period into two- week chunks. And then the third element is the process for improvement. So when you get a great way of being and leading and operating paired with a great way of moving forward all in the same direction and taking action. Then, when you add in a process for continually improving, you have the synergy between all three of those things making this like super machine.

…You have the synergy between all three of those things, making this like a super machine.

Sarah Olivieri-PivotGround

And so our process for improvement consists of, biweekly meetings where we’re checking in on what we’re, what we’re taking action on in those 60 days. 60 day meetings where we are looking at our strategy and reviewing that and refining that. And then a total of four weeks of respite each year that are built into the impact method, because I’m such a strong believer that we need to rest. Whether it’s totally time off or just time off from being so aggressive with making forward progress. I really felt it was important to build that into the method. So that the rest was not an optional, extra- thing, but is something considered necessary and crucial for success.

TopNonprofits:  We applaud you for including that! Yay! The burnout rate in the sector is just crazy. So, to be able to work that into a plan where it’s expected And it’s not looked down upon that you’re taking time off. It’s not like you have to apologize for it. This way, we expect it because it’s worked into the plan.

Sarah Olivieri: If you’re not taking time off, that’s bad business for nonprofits because burnout is extremely inefficient. So to be operating at maximum like mission delivery efficiency, you can’t be burned out. So I think it’s really crucial. It’s not just a luxury, it is something that is critical for, succeeding.

If you’re not taking time off, that’s bad business for nonprofits because burnout is extremely inefficient.

Sarah Olivieri, PivotGround

TopNonprofits: Absolutely. Thank you for mentioning that. We’ll have to have  another episode talking exclusively about ways to avoid burnout. What is the best way for someone to get in touch with you?

Sarah Olivieri: The best way is to go to my website, . You can apply for a free consultation call if you really want to have a conversation with me. It is a free consultation, not a sales pitch. So come ready with an issue that you’re looking for help with And I’ll make sure you leave with one to three great next steps. Otherwise you can just contact me on our website or you can reach out on Facebook or LinkedIn.

In closing, I would just say, I think the answer to being not overwhelmed, the answer to really succeeding in your nonprofit is that you have to do things quite differently than a lot of best practice information. out there. There’s certainly lots of great information, but there’s lots of old information. And I just encourage you and your boards, and all your leaders that you’re a nonprofit to be brave and try something new.

TopNonprofits:I love that. Great. Be brave. Try something new. Thank you. And thanks for joining us.

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About author

Avatar for Amy DeVita

Amy DeVita

Amy DeVita is managing partner at TopNonprofits. A publisher, entrepreneur, mother, wife, social media enthusiast and fan and avid supporter of the do-gooders in the nonprofit/ for-impact sector. She has written for TopNonprofits and Third Sector Today; she has been quoted on pieces about social media and social impact on The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast. She was named to the Leading Women Entrepreneurs in NJ Monthly and was a member of Social Media for Nonprofits' Leadership Council. In her spare time she enjoys kayaking, yoga, hiking, traveling, and playing Scrabble. Amy lives in New Jersey with her husband, two children, and three dogs. In 1984 she earned the "Most Improved Average" honor on her bowling league.

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