Mindful of the Future: Strategic Planning Ideology and the Culture of Nonprofit Management

By Mulhare, Eileen M. | Human Organization, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Mindful of the Future: Strategic Planning Ideology and the Culture of Nonprofit Management


Mulhare, Eileen M., Human Organization


The widespread use of strategic planning (SP) by nonprofit organizations (NPOs) in the U.S. may be attributable in part to the professional culture of nonprofit management rather than SP's efficacy as a management technique. Nonprofit management emerged as a profession in the 1980s, a decade after business theorists began losing confidence in SP. SP advocates helped shape the new profession's culture by promoting SP and its basic tenets (ideology) as fundamental for organizational success. The experience of nonprofit managers in southeastern Michigan (1982-1990) illustrates this process. Some NPOs did benefit from SP. In cases where they did not, the professional culture encouraged users to blame faulty execution rather than question the validity of the technique. Today the profession still endorses variations of SP as "best practice." The discussion recommends that applied anthropologists and other management advisors consider first whether the NPO's customary style of decision making (an aspect of its organizational culture) can be adapted to formulate wiser decisions about the future. If so, adopting SP may be unnecessary and even counterproductive.

Key words: strategic planning, organizational culture, nonprofit organizations, management, anthropology of work

Why do organizations adopt a management technique long after experts have raised doubts about its efficacy? A case in point is the current, widespread use of strategic planning (SP) among nonprofit organizations (NPOs) in the U.S.1 In this article I describe how and why SP came to be accepted as "best practice" within the professional culture of nonprofit management in the 1980s, despite business theorists' waning confidence in it. A key factor was the newness of nonprofit management as a profession. SP advocates played an active role in shaping the profession's emerging culture. I illustrate this process using the experience of nonprofit managers in southeastern Michigan from 1982 to 1990. Today the profession still endorses variations of SP as best practice, while acknowledging that there are other ways for NPOs to reach wise decisions about the future. The final section of the article offers suggestions for applied anthropologists and other management advisors trying to decide whether a particular NPO will benefit from a formal planning technique like SP.

To assist readers unfamiliar with strategic planning, I include an overview of its basic concepts and tenets (ideology), a summary of the objections raised by SP's critics, and a brief history of SP's origins in business and industry. This article is not intended as a primer on SP methodology, however. See instead Bryson (1995) or Grace (1996). Nor is it meant to test whether SP is efficacious in principle. SP's critics believe the debate has already been settled in their favor (Brown and Eisenhardt 1998; Mintzberg 1994). Other experts continue to promote SP, albeit in much revised forms, as a management technique of proven worth (Fogg 1994; Howe 1997; De Kare-Silver 1997; National Performance Review 1997).

The disputes over SP's efficacy are, at base, disagreements over management ideology. As Hamada (1989:5) reminds us, "currently accepted management principles... represent certain ideological positions, rather than definitive truth." Ideology, by definition, is a belief system that disallows challenges to its basic tenets and requires that these be accepted on faith (Bohannan 1992:250). Management ideologies allow managers to act with confidence in situations where the outcome is uncertain (see Geertz 1973:218,220). This confidence carries over to associated management techniques. So long as the users are convinced that a technique's guiding principles-its ideological foundations-are sound, they can blame any poor results on inexperience, carelessness, or other errors in execution (Mintzberg 1994:210-214).2 This means a technique need not produce consistently satisfactory results to gain acceptance. …

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