Strategic planning tools

In this chapter

  • Guidance on the application of strategic planning for different phases in your landscape restoration process
  • Useful tools and frameworks will be introduced such as the SWOT analysis, the problem tree, a Theory of Change, qualifying opportunities, and learning loops.

A valuable method for turning broad visions into practical actions on the ground is strategic planning. In landscape restoration, strategic planning can be used like a roadmap. It helps break down complex goals, prioritize actions, allocate resources effectively, and ensure stakeholder participation. By gathering input from various stakeholders and using existing knowledge, strategic planning makes restoration efforts more effective and adaptable. Useful tools to guide this process will be explained in this chapter. Strategic planning has all kinds of uses, from organisational strategies to landscape partnerships. Most of this chapter will therefore be rather generic and broadly applicable. When we refer to a strategy, this can be broadly interpreted, as a landscape plan or any other strategy you develop along the way.

Steps for strategic planning

To begin with strategic planning for landscape restoration, it is helpful to address at least these four questions, which will be explained in more detail below:

  • Who are we?
  • Where are we now?
  • Where do we want to go?
  • How will we get there?

Who are we?

As discussed in the chapter Cultivating a lasting partnership, no organisation nor partnership can be everything to everyone. Every organization has its areas of expertise and weaknesses. With strategic planning, it helps to start focusing on your strengths, even if you feel a strategic need to start doing something you are currently not good at. Acknowledging your weaknesses and leveraging your strengths is crucial for understanding your organization’s identity and purpose. 

A great tool for this is a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis. If you are partnering with one or multiple organisations, a SWOT analysis can be a useful exercise for everyone to do for themselves, share, and compare. Subsequently, a SWOT analysis can be done for the collective partnership. This will provide clarity on how all organisations can be complementary and supportive to each other.


Internal factors that let the organisation excel


External factors that have the potential to boost the organisation


Internal factors that hinder the organisation in its operation


External factors that have the potential to inhibit the organisation

Where are we now?

The second question aims to provide context for the strategy.What is the current landscape situation? What are the primary challenges? What solutions or interventions have already been implemented or tried? If you have already performed a landscape and stakeholder analysis (see chapter, From vision to action: Creating a Landscape Proposition and Landscape Plan) and a 4 Returns Diagnosis, answering the, “Where are we now?” question should be easier. 

This question can help with analysing landscape issues using the metaphor of a “problem tree”: the branches symbolize visible symptoms, the trunk is the main problem, and the roots represent the underlying causes. You might identify several significant problems, which may mean it is more like a “problem forest”. Perhaps some have shared root systems.

Where do we want to go?

To further develop the strategy, we introduce a third question: where do we want to go? This is about your desired future, rather than the journey to get there. Where do we envision the landscape 20+ Years from now? What does that future look, feel, sound, and smell like? Based on your shared values and understanding of what kinds of futures may be possible, it should be possible to formulate your desired future. If you have already developed your shared landscape vision (see chapter Creating a shared vision for the landscape), answering this question should be straightforward and can focus on formulating your goals and direction of travel. You can find the definitions of the vision statement, as well as the goals and objectives, in the conservation standards.

Understanding the 3 Zones (see chapter Defining the Landscape) in your landscape can help to envision what a restored landscape might look like, shaping your vision for the future. By building on the 3 Zones exercise, you can predict how your restoration activities will affect these zones over the next five, ten, or 20 years. For example, you might expand the combined zone through increased regenerative production and management, or create buffer zones around conservation areas to protect natural zones. Using maps that show these zones can be helpful, as they can visually represent your restoration goals. This can guide your actions and make it easier to communicate and explain your restoration plans to (local) people.

How will we get there?

Now, we reach the most exciting phase: the journey toward your envisioned future. Much of this journey cannot yet be planned for in detail, but we can enhance our understanding of the necessary steps along the way. Drawing from the insights gained through previous components such as the SWOT analysis, landscape and stakeholder analysis, 4 Returns diagnosis, 3 Zones maps, and your vision, you should have sufficient information to collectively discuss the best strategy to pursue. 

A surprisingly effective and practical approach for mapping the path to the future is by envisioning yourself in that desired future state. This technique, known as backcasting, involves imagining the desired future for your landscape. Then, consider the key moments or changes necessary to reach that future. How feasible are these as stepping stones from your current position or circumstances? Games are often helpful in making backcasting more realistic. 

Developing milestones can effectively guide landscapes toward their envisioned future. A topic of critical importance is understanding how your organisation needs to change to grow into and sustain that desired future. What changes are needed in organisational structure, team dynamics, finances, and operations to enable the work that needs to be done? Who do you need to collaborate with? Creating a Theory of Change can help to link your vision to tangible activities. 

Theory of Change

A useful tool for translating your vision into action is a Theory of Change (ToC). The core of a Theory of Change is so-called impact pathways or result chains that logically link the ultimate aim (vision) to concrete activities and help make explicit certain assumptions you may have about how certain activities lead to certain outcomes. 

When you use the ToC for strategy development you start with defining your ultimate goal and answering a set of questions that help to build the change logic from your activities to the ultimate goal. You can see what that looks like in following figure. Once you have developed the ToC as part of your strategy, you can also use it as a basis for impact measurement. More on that in the chapter Monitoring the 4 Returns.

In its simplest form, developing a Theory of Change follows a specific sequence of questions, recommended for discussion in every landscape:

  1. Problem analysis. What are the problems and needs in the landscape that need to be tackled?
  2. Prioritise. From these problems or needs, what do we focus on and what are our objectives? Document clearly why you prioritised some things over others.
  3. Which high-level changes are needed to reach these objectives? Which stakeholders need to change their behaviour and in what way? This is your impact or higher effects.
  4. Stakeholders. On which stakeholders do we focus our efforts or interventions, and which do we not? Again, document clearly how you prioritised.
  5. What is needed to create these behavioural changes? These changes are called outcomes or effects. Conduct research (as thoroughly as possible) to identify intervention pathways that have effectively addressed the problems or needs you are trying to address.
  6. What do we need to implement these pathways in our context? These are your outputs.
  7. What do we need to do to get to these outputs? And who of the partners is doing what? These are your activities.
  8. What resources are needed to execute these activities?
  9. Which critical assumptions can you discover? How will you address those in your strategy?

Here are some points of attention for developing a Theory of Change. First, it is important to have a skilled and neutral facilitator for these conversations. Much of the Theory of Change development occurs during workshops involving your organisation, partner organisations, and often some external stakeholders. Having a neutral facilitator can greatly enhance this process. 

Second, it is important to document your choices, prioritisations, and assumptions. As explained in the previous chapter, Creating a shared vision for the landscape, we are consciously choosing an iterative way of planning which involves reflection, learning, and adapting. If decision-making processes are not transparent and well-documented, it will become challenging later on to determine if those decisions were effective or require adjustments. 

Lastly, when setting goals, it is crucial to formulate them on the level of impact rather than just the level of output. For instance, simply training a certain number of farmers in sustainable agricultural practices does not guarantee that these practices will be implemented, let alone achieve the broader landscape-level change you are aiming for. If you set your goal based solely on outputs (such as the number of trained farmers), you may achieve success in that regard but fall short of attaining the impact you desire.

Developing Your Theory of Change

Having shared some information on developing a Theory of Change, you can start creating your own. You can use the template for developing a quick 4 Returns-inspired Theory of Change. Hivos also provides more in-depth guidance on the process of developing a Theory of Change.

To get an idea of a Theory of Change that is aligned with a 4 Returns landscape vision, let’s explore an example from AlVelAl Association. Their Theory of Change can be found below. AlVelAl’s Theory of Change was developed in 2023 and builds upon their existing strategy and experience in the Altiplano Estepario landscape in Spain since 2014. Its aims are:

  1. Serving as a starting point for monitoring and learning
  2. Providing a framework for communicating their impact theory in fundraising settings
  3. Offering guidance for setting annual targets in the organisational plan
  4. Facilitating internal conversations about the strategy

An impact monitoring expert facilitated the process of developing this Theory of Change. It was designed by a small project team, who collected feedback from the entire AlVelAl team. To explore their envisioned impact, follow the impact pathway elements in the Theory of Change. From the bottom up, it reveals the activities they implement in the landscape (the roots of the tree), how these generate the various returns both within and outside the landscape (the leaves of the tree), leading to their ultimate aim (the clouds). The Theory of Change is designed to be easily understandable and therefore doesn’t show all the complexity behind the relationships between activities and returns. These are detailed in a more comprehensive version that can be used by the team.

"A Theory of Change is a good way to visually summarise what we do and where we want to go. For us, it’s valuable to synthesise our objectives, actions, and envisioned achievements for the future into a single image. This allows not only our team, but also people who don’t know us, to see clearly what our vision is."

Laura Nuñez, Monitoring and evaluation, AlVelAl Association

Qualifying and prioritising opportunities

Now that you’ve developed a landscape vision and a strategy to achieve it, which includes desired activities, you may find that there is a lot you could do. Unfortunately, only limited time and resources are available, so it is important to make clear choices. To help provide a framework for these choices, we recommend the framework for “qualifying” opportunities by Prosocial World. When your “why” is in place, you can “qualify” different opportunities in terms of how they fit with both your vision and capabilities. You can change factors in both vision and capability to see how they fit in with your case. 

Fit with vision

The first step involves comparing the possible opportunities with the vision you have created. Define the criteria you will be using for this comparison. In your local sphere of influence, ask, “What would it look like if we had a positive impact?” These are your criteria for success. They need to be observable or measurable. Those put forward can be evaluated for their “fit with vision” according to these criteria. Defining these criteria for success allows you to decide on the best projects to pursue. 

Fit with capability

Once you have decided which opportunities are the best in terms of their “fit with vision”, the next step is to ask, “Do we have the capability?”. The SWOT analysis mentioned earlier can be used as a yardstick for this step. If a potential project is not a “fit for capability”, no matter how attractive it is in terms of “fit with vision”, it is not a good idea to pursue it because you will be setting yourself and others up to fail.

Mindsets to identify priority activities

This is where the mentalities for holistic landscape restoration that were shared in the chapter How to get started come in handy. These may help in figuring out which activities should have priority. 

Think big, start small, act now. Landscape restoration consists of slow processes, and to keep the inspiration high it is important to create some tangible short-term results while working on the bigger outcomes that take more time to realise. What small thing could you do next week that will already get you a tiny bit closer to your goal? Start with “low-hanging fruit”, the easiest or most readily achievable restoration opportunities. These are typically the tasks or initiatives that can be tackled quickly and yield immediate results, helping to build momentum and motivation for larger-scale and longer-term activities. 

Build on existing initiatives. Create ownership and connections, and make use of, or strengthen, existing initiatives rather than setting up something completely new from scratch. And finally, follow the energy, work with the willing. Most people are initially resistant to change. Rather than trying to convince them, it can be a more effective approach to work first with those who are open to change and create lighthouse examples with them, that will then help entice others to join in. 

Embedding an action plan

The last generic step in the strategic planning process is to create an action plan for allocating resources and plotting major milestones over time. This action plan is usually included in the strategy itself and can link to other planning and coordination tools. 

The action plan lays out practical steps for the near future, typically covering one to three years. While aiming to stay flexible, during this timeframe, you can have a good idea of what to expect and can plan in more detail. Putting together an action plan is similar to creating a project plan but with a special focus on organisational development and governance. 

The following steps are suggested to create an action plan: 

  • Break the milestone(s) for the first one to three years up into more specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) goals.
  • Identify tasks and prioritise them.
  • Allocate resources (financial, human, etc.).
  • Plan organisational development and alignment, as well as partnership governance.

Element 4 will dive deeper into landscape finance in general, which is about the long-term financial plan for the landscape. For an action plan, however, it’s useful to also take quick first steps to gain the finance needed to support action. We’d like to refer to step three of the Conservation Standards  for guidance on this practical part of financial planning. It guides you through how you refine budgets, identify potential funding sources, develop funding proposals, and obtain financial resources. 

Organising for the long term in short-term cycles

Having created an action plan, the cycle isn’t closed. We view large-scale landscape restoration as an iterative process: a programme of activities set up as a series of the so-called “design cycle”. The design cycle helps break up the audacious long-term goal into clear bite-sized chunks and allows for flexibility to change directions under changing circumstances. You can see the 5 Elements as one cycle. Over a year, there can be one — or even several — iterations of the cycle, and as such, together with our partners, you keep reflecting, learning, and adapting. Each iteration focuses on a clear, digestible piece of the long-term vision, which helps to get into “action mode”. A practical way to implement this iterative process is to build shorter-term planning cycles into the long-term vision and process. 

What’s next?

In this element, we’ve transitioned from dreaming about our ideal landscape to putting concrete plans into motion through strategic planning. By bridging the gap between our vision and practical action steps, we’ve equipped ourselves with tools like the Theory of Change, which helps us map out the journey ahead amidst uncertainties. The emphasis on flexibility reminds us that adaptation is crucial along the way. In Element 4 we delve into different aspects of the action phase: covering landscape finance, carbon finance, regenerative business, regenerative agriculture, and policy influencing.

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