Strategic Planning: Why Every Nonprofit Leader Should Watch “Shark Tank”

 © Liz DiMarco Weinmann, 2/15/21

The current online edition of the Chronicle of Philanthropy features a thoughtful advice article summarizing the key strategic and operational assets the top three charity-monitoring groups look for when evaluating nonprofits.  They include, in varying terms: governance, financing, fundraising, and effectiveness.  An excellent reference tool, the article is also an impetus for strategic planning.  After all, few would argue that a fully operational strategic plan encompasses the assets that smart funders – like those on the popular CNBC series, “Shark Tank” – look for in deciding whether to support an organization.

As a former private-sector marketing executive who transitioned to nonprofit fundraising after the events of 9/11, I know it’s almost impossible to secure adequate funding from major donors and foundations without a fully operational strategic plan.  [More at:]  A strategic plan needn’t comprise dozens of pages. In fact, some of the best strategic plans I’ve produced are under five pages, and one of the first grants I ever secured for over $1million was presented in a one-page proposal.  It was to a corporate foundation whose previous gifts to my client’s organization had topped out at $100,000. The proposal reflected my client organization’s strategic plan, which I had recently revised.

If developed and written well, a nonprofit’s strategic plan indeed can be distilled to a single page or graphic that also can be used to secure internal engagement of staff, board members, and other volunteers.  Which brings us back to Shark Tank.

[To book a 15-minute pro bono session with me on how to jump-start your strategic planning process, please send me an email – – and we’ll make it happen.]      

Here are just a few reasons why a few episodes of Shark Tank – perhaps binged early in the day with a triple espresso (oh, just me?) – could serve as a master class for the importance of a strategic plan when meeting with demanding funders:

  1. With increased competition for funding, and fewer resources to accomplish goals, there is more intense pressure to demonstrate how and when your organization’s strategy and operations will create measurable positive impact. In times of crisis, a strategic plan becomes much more than a road map.  The plan should drive – i.e., operate – the organization, so that leaders look forward and move ahead, while also dealing with short-term priorities.
  2. The intensity of the Shark Tank “plot structure” is how fundraising meetings often play out, i.e., it’s not just for TV. The principles and scenarios of Shark Tank apply in real life.  As one who has faced discerning and demanding funders (and aren’t they all?), I know having a strategic plan to reference is crucial.
  3. Nonprofits seeking funds today are expected to commit to memory myriad facts and figures about their organization. A strategic plan provides a framework for that data to be presented with the precision, clarity, and confidence that convinces donors to give.
  4. Venture capitalists and private equity investors (such as those that appear on Shark Tank), often stipulate that a firm’s pitch for funding be summarized in an oral introduction of no more than five minutes, and that written summaries be limited to a single page. Impossible for a nonprofit? Not for someone who has done it a thousand times, with a high success rate.

If you’re a current or aspiring nonprofit leader or board member who has an upcoming meeting with a demanding major donor or foundation,  then here’s what you should watch for on Shark Tank to prep for your meeting:

  1. Watch to see if the private-sector entrepreneurs present a concise case to scrupulous venture capitalists, about how their product is a solution, or enhancement, or completely different, than anything currently on the market.
  2. Watch to see how succinct and precise contestants are about their entire business plans when hoping to secure funds, whether for thousands or millions.
  3. Watch to see how they deal with the most scrutinizing questions and objections when a “Shark” requests more of a profit share than the entrepreneur thinks is fair.
  4. Watch to see how the word “profit” can become an analogy for your organization’s stated theory of change, or projected outcomes, or desired societal impact, and what a major donor or foundation might expect.

Now imagine your toughest donors, and the nonprofit monitoring groups they consult, will behave like those “Sharks.” As we all know, they often do.   While there is much defensiveness and protest about whether nonprofits should face the same – and sometimes higher – expectations of transparency and accountability than the private sector, it is no longer a question of “should”.  The reality is that the expectations are already there, and they are mounting – with every grant proposal you write, every business cycle you evaluate, every quarterly report you distribute, and every 990 you file. For those reasons alone, a fully operational strategic plan is no longer a “should” proposition, or a “someday” option.  It is a must, and that day is now.



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