“Things are changing so fast, an organization needs to be nimble and pick up on opportunities. A strategy can stifle innovation.”
“We’re a small organization. We rely on a couple of key funders. We’re very focused on what we do and what we provide. We have limited resources and we’d rather use them to deliver what we need to deliver rather than unrealistic “blue sky” strategic thinking. We know what works.”
“We took weeks to put together our strategy. We involved all our stakeholders, looked at the options, fleshed out a direction of travel and had just finished putting the finishing touches to a business plan that looked at focus, funding and resource use for the next 3-years when we heard that our lease wasn’t going to be renewed, our chair had a heart attack and our biggest funder was going to reduce spend with us by over 50% in the coming contract. So our strategy became irrelevant.”
At Charity Mentors we know that many organizations don’t devote the necessary time to strategic thinking, and we think this is partly because they think the time spent is of limited relevance compared to the day-to-day challenge of keeping the show on the road. Or to put it another way, the effort required to keep the show on the road means strategic thinking tends to get squeezed out!
Whilst the quotes above seem to mitigate against the idea of spending time on strategy, this article shows why, in each case, strategy is still relevant, no matter how fast moving the circumstances or how small the organization.
The real value of strategy is in the thinking and discussions it necessitates and the people it brings together. It starts with the “why?” (“Why do we exist as an organization?” For instance, we’re not here to “run a community hall”, we’re here to “bring the local community together so we can help each other, especially the more vulnerable members of our neighbourhood”). And moves to the question of “where do we want to be in 2-4 years’ time?” If the “why” is compelling, the answer won’t be “the same place as now”, however big or small the organization! It might not be about being “bigger,” it could be about being better or doing things differently: ensuring focus whilst grasping an opportunity and/or navigating some major challenges.
A good strategy goes on to identify the various options and the two or three most important challenge(s) that an organization faces [and a challenge can be an opportunity or a threat!] and provides an approach to overcoming/exploiting them. Strategy involves focus and therefore choice. There will be options but it’s as much about what we are not going to do as what we are going to do.
This means that a long list of “things to do” is not a strategy. Often when a group of stakeholders get together, they all suggest things they would like to see accomplished. Rather than focus on a few important items that would address the challenges that have been identified, the group sweeps all the different suggestions into a strategic plan. But this is a “wish list” not a strategy.
There is no substitute for a good strategy. Developed and “owned” collectively by trustees and managers, and reviewed regularly, it provides an agreed pathway that guides board thinking and decisions. Equally important, it provides clarity, direction of travel and (critically) job content for the CEO, whose day-to-day role is thus aligned to the purpose and direction of the organization.
Small organizations need to think about their purpose, direction and future challenges that will require focus and resources, just as much as larger organizations. If the chair has a heart attack or the lease doesn’t get renewed (as in the earlier quotation), this doesn’t necessarily mean a strategy has become irrelevant. The “why?” and where you want to be in 2-4 years’ time probably won’t have changed. It might mean changing day-to-day priorities but the purpose and direction of travel remains focused as it is on delivering a service that meets the needs of the people whose lives we are helping.
Having an outsider to help structure the thinking, challenge ideas and, where necessary, to help channel behaviours in a productive way is often a very good idea. Feel free to contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to discuss using a mentor in this way.