How To Make Charity Strategy Effective

Having a theory of change, or other strategic plan is fine, but strategy is what an organisation does, not a plan and most fail at implementation. Here are the key barriers that cause that and what to do about them, to ensure your strategic plan is the success you want it to be

If Not You, Then Who?

Senior staff are usually very hard pressed and the urgent often triumphs over the important. 

If you’re the top team, try asking yourself this question, because somebody has to do it. And then stop thinking about this as a lack of time – even those who work only their contracted hours have 35 hours a week. It’s about prioritising and so reframe the question to what you need to do to make the time you need. You could try using time on the train/tube or at the gym as strategic thinking time, or ring fencing time in your diary and making sure everyone knows you really need to work without being disturbed, or home working with your phone switched off.    

Iceberg, What Iceberg?

People are quite rightly passionate and focussed on their organisation, but you can’t control the outside world and that’s where the threats and opportunities come from – who’s on lookout duty?

Ensure that you have environmental scanning processes in place to monitor key trends and possible issues, for example:

·        Using a news aggregator set up to track these and flicking through articles when you might otherwise be doing not a lot – on the tube, at the station.

·        Which of your trustees works in a key sector? He/she could be very helpful in keeping you in the loop on developments.

·        Invite external individuals to your strategy away day or similar.

·        Make time for external conferences and meetings to keep up-to-date on issues.    

Elephant, What Elephant?

And when looking internally, being objective is essential, because creating a strategy based on something that isn’t true is usually a very bad idea. 

However, it can be difficult to have a conversation about weaknesses, or admit that what we really value as a strength, isn’t really a strength or isn’t that important to the people who are really important. On several occasions, I’ve been asked by staff why the executive team couldn’t see the elephant in the room. The answer is that we could, but we were all working incredibly hard not to. 

From experience, I can assure you that the person who points out the big grey thing with flappy ears in the corner is usually very unpopular. To make your strategy work, there may be things that people need to hear, but don’t necessarily want to.

If you’re very unlucky and work in an organisation with a blame culture, probably the only realistic way forward is to address this and that takes a lot of time and effort, and must come from the top. However, depersonalising the issues and looking forward can be helpful. If we want someone to do something, blaming them is a bad way to start, and the only value in revisiting what has happened is to learn and apply that learning to the future, because we can’t change the past. Consequently, frame the conversation around the issue, not the people, talk about what will be done going forward, not the past, and identify and sell the benefits to those involved.

The strategy module includes a diagnostic thought experiment to help people think through the various components of their organisation in a constructive and structured way.     

It’s Not About You, It’s About All Of Us.

The Strategic Plan may be largely developed by the CEO/senior team, but strategy isn’t a plan, it’s something that an organisation does.    

Involve staff and trustees in the strategic process from the outset and, if there isn’t time, circulate what’s been done and actively seek input. Make sure that people know they have a voice in decision making. They will have a different perspective and knowledge to your own, so this can also be very helpful in refining your work, as well as building engagement.   

Finished Yesterday, Out-of-date Today.

The outside world keeps changing and so does your organisation, so your plan begins to go out-of-date the minute you finish writing it.

Fortunately, changes big enough to impact your strategy substantively shouldn’t happen too often or too quickly and good environmental scanning will hopefully alert you. However, over time, your plan will begin to drift, so there should be a process to review and update it annually, before the annual planning cycle (business plan, budget, risk plan). A board away day once a year can work well. However, your update doesn’t need to be a complete re-write. Review and update the PEST, Stakeholder and SWOT, then decide what changes might need to be made to the plan itself. 

And Is It Working?

Part of this process should be an evaluation of the previous year’s plan to understand what worked well and what didn’t, so that this understanding can be used to improve the process going forward.

The Future Is Happening Now.

The business plan, budget and risk plan last for only a year, but if your strategic plan is over 3 years, that’s a third of it to deliver in the next 12 months. 

These should be clearly linked to your strategy – the objectives for next year are what needs to be achieved in the coming 12 months to keep the strategy on track to succeed.

And It Is Happening To The Whole Organisation.

Your organisation has an entire framework of policies and procedures to allocate priorities, tasks and resources and these need to reflect your strategic direction and priorities to ensure that everyone and everything is pointing in the same direction.

To effectively execute the Plan, it needs to be integrated into other organisational functions. For example:

·        There should be underpinning delivery plans, such as a strategic finance/fundraising plan to ensure that the strategy is resourced.

·        Strategy requirements should be reflected in Board and Committee Terms of Reference and the annual work plan.

·        And the job descriptions and appraisal objectives (and personal development plans) for at least the senior team. 

·        And the strategy needs to be clearly and positively communicated, so everyone understands what you are going to do, the part they will play in delivering it and the what the outcomes will be (that they value).

What’s Going To Actually Happen, Don’t Know, Sorry.

Ultimately, nobody really knows what is going to happen, so how are we supposed to plan for that?

You will get the best result by planning based on the best information you have available, which is why environmental scanning and analysis are important. As is building in a degree of flexibility in your plans and creating contingency options, if you feel you might need these. Working to diversify your income streams and making sure you don’t become overly reliant on a single contract will help to manage uncertainty and risk.

Reality Check.

Because the strategic future appears to be a long way off and is uncertain, and we’re passionate and positive about what we do, it’s understandable that we want the very best to happen for our beneficiaries, but that doesn’t mean it will. Equally, different departments can develop their plans in isolation, yet all use the same central services (finance, fundraising, communications), which may then be unable to deliver everything everyone wants, when they want it, unless this tasking is prioritised and managed.    

·        It’s always a good idea to ensure that individual departments coordinate with the individuals/departments they will need support from as part of the planning process.

·        Equally, what is to be delivered in the plan should be tested to ensure that you have the capacity, capability and resources to do so.  

o  Particular attention should be given to ensuring that income projections are prudent, not only in terms of amounts, but also the probability in securing the funding and the timescale it is likely to take to do so. 

·        It can also be helpful to ask external individuals (or Board members) with relevant expertise to sense check your plans to bring a different perspective to validate your work.  

The questions are phrased brilliantly - challenging how we prioritise our management time." Ecosystems Knowledge Network

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