Recent Article: Strategic Planning in Reverse

Strategic planning is the discipline of both affirming and adapting your organization’s goals to meet a changing marketplace.  When we can, we use that discipline to grow nonprofits smartly.  When we must, we use it to shrink them wisely. That’s just “strategic planning in reverse,” says Kent Fuchs, Provost of Cornell.

Most organizations start with “belt tightening.”  A recent survey of college and university Presidents conducted by Inside Higher Ed found that the most common responses to the economic downturn were cutting budgets, raising tuition, freezing hiring, and hiring contract workers.  When the incremental cuts have been made, and it’s not enough, what comes next?

Doug Lederman, Founding Editor of Inside Higher Ed, proposed eight more radical ideas in a recent talk to the Society of College and University Planners, which I share with my commentary.

Scale back your mission

Most likely your mission has grown over the good years, and just as you once added beneficiaries and aims, it may now be time to let them go.

Re-examine your service delivery model

Higher education is shifting from classroom teaching to online instruction.  Medical practices are shifting from doctor visits to e-visits.  Current staff may object, but a younger generation may actually prefer the change.


Combine and consolidate programs.  The University of Southern Maine courageously engaged its entire community in identifying ways to consolidate, as profiled in the article “A Collaborative Approach to Restructuring.”

Reallocate funds from shrinking programs to growing programs

Twenty years ago, French teachers far outnumbered Spanish teachers in most schools.  Over the year, institutions have followed shifting demographics, and changing market demand, and reversed that ratio.

Close programs or satellites

Before we expand, we are smaller.  Then we add the most promising program.  After we contract, we are smaller again.   We have subtracted the least promising program.  The discipline of smart subtraction is the same as the discipline of smart addition.

Invest in areas of high return

Investing in energy conservation immediately reduces costs.  Investing in smart development activities eventually increases revenues.  During the recent downturn, one of my clients grew her development budgets while cutting her program budgets to better position herself for the other side.

Leverage existing assets in new ways

Bunker Hill Community College offers midnight classes to a student workforce that works the evening shift, partly because day, evening and weekend classes were already full.  The physical assets of most colleges and universities are unused hours of every day, days of every week, and months of every year.  Why?

Leverage partnerships

The Five Colleges in Amherst are an example of a thriving partnership between autonomous institutions, where each shares a little, and thereby all gain a lot.  Bunker Hill Community College collaborates with businesses that bring free classroom space, marketing vehicles, tuition payments, and other resources to the partnership.

The University of Southern Maine, faced with rising budget cuts due to declining tax revenues, recently set about strategic planning in reverse.  They:

– Restructured the University from eight colleges to five to create greater interdisciplinary flexibility while achieving significant structural budgetary savings through strategic centralization of academic service functions and structures;

– Moved from eight deans to five, as part of the reorganization, while creating fewer, larger departments within each college;

– Shifted to zero-based budgeting to create greater ease and flexibility in shifting investments from less productive areas to more productive ones.

Some of these strategies are clearly enriching and enlivening to the organization.  Some are clearly challenging to organizational norms.  But all express the creativity and discipline required by strategic planning in reverse.

Posted in: Companies, process