Social Work Strategic Planning
Karun K. Singh
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0111


Strategic planning (SP) is a highly sophisticated, resource-intensive, future-oriented management technique comprised of a set of concepts, procedures, and tools used by leaders and managers to increase the control, value, and performance of an organization in its core domain or set of core domains. It is a systematic, participatory, iterative, regularly updated, and cyclical process that requires an organization to undergo a sequence of specific tasks and subtasks to manage itself and its future direction better in response to environmental changes and stakeholder demands. SP enables nonprofit organizations (as well as public and for-profit organizations) to thrive in environments marked by ongoing volatility, unpredictability, and competition by helping them to invest resources in courses of action that minimize their weaknesses and threats and capitalize on their strengths and opportunities. SP can also allow them to develop indicators that compare the difference between desired and actual performance. Recently, SP has undergone an evolution on two important fronts: It has become institutionalized in an increasing number of organizations as an integral component of an overall sophisticated strategic management and performance measurement system for operating and leading the organization, and it has evolved into a core methodology for facilitating strategic collaborations between nonprofits and like-minded partner organizations to jointly address complex community challenges. This article identifies SP resources with particular reference to the nonprofit human service organizations most frequently led and studied by social workers. These resources are drawn from the field of social work and from relevant allied disciplines, notably, business, public administration, and nonprofit management.

Introductory Works

Although excellent references are available, they differ along a continuum of how comprehensively they introduce and subsequently treat the specialized subject of SP in nonprofit and social service organizations. Most of the resources describing this technique provide examples with a strong focus on SP practice in social work-related entities. Bryson 2004 is unquestionably the best-known and most widely used practical text describing the SP planning process involved in public and nonprofit human service organizational development. Bryson’s book would be the best choice for faculty looking for an authoritative SP text to use in graduate-level macropractice courses. A major complementary volume is Allison and Kaye 2005, which is also a detailed exposition on the subject of SP in nonprofit agencies. This resource is extremely useful for students writing papers and doing presentations on collaborative SP projects. For students and managers, Yankey and Vogelsang-Coombs 2005 does an excellent job of concisely synthesizing the major steps and critical issues to consider when planning and implementing the SP process. Professors, doctoral students, and researchers interested in learning more about the association between the level of completion of SP tasks and superior organizational performance, as well as the conditions under which SP is more or less likely to be effective, should consult Singh 2005.

  • Allison, Michael, and Jude Kaye. 2005. Strategic planning for nonprofit organizations: A practical guide and workbook. 2d ed. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

    A finely detailed and easy-to-read work that is used to supplement Bryson 2004 in many courses for graduate students interested in SP for nonprofit human service administration. A case study of a social service organization is used to illustrate seven primary steps in planning. An accompanying CD-ROM contains worksheets, checklists, and tables that are useful for designing and implementing strategic plans.

  • Bryson, John M. 2004. Strategic planning for public and nonprofit organizations: A guide to strengthening and sustaining organizational achievement. 3d ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    This is the most popular text on how to conduct the SP process in public and nonprofit organizations. Ten core planning steps are described that form the basis for Bryson’s preferred approach to SP, the Strategy Change Cycle (SCC). There are innumerable tips on how to train an organization’s leaders to think strategically, as well as a diverse array of tools for implementing a strategic plan.

  • Singh, Karun K. 2005. The impact of strategic planning process variation on superior organizational performance in nonprofit human service organizations providing mental health services. PhD diss., Columbia Univ.

    To reconcile differences in the conceptualization of SP as a management intervention as well as an independent variable suitable for hypothesis testing, this investigator developed an instrument, the Singh Strategic Planning Measure for Excellence (SSPMX), which was used to define the SP process operationally as a set of thirty-four subtasks and to statistically confirm hypotheses associating the use of SP with superior organizational performance.

  • Yankey, John A., and Vera Vogelsang-Coombs. 2008. Strategic planning. In Encyclopedia of social work. 20th ed. Edited by Terry Mizrahi and Larry E. Davis, 169–173. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    The authors present an overview of SP based mainly on Bryson 2004, note its value for leaders of social service agencies, and discuss some of the more crucial planning steps in detail, such as those connected to strategic issues and strategic alternatives. Additionally, they point to trends affecting SP significantly.

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