Four top tips for developing your organisation’s strategy

A month ago I celebrated 11 years at NCVO. For seven of those years I developed NCVO’s Foresight programme, helping voluntary organisations to understand how the world was changing and how to make the right strategic decisions.

When I discovered we were about to develop a new strategy, I enthusiastically volunteered to help.

It’s been a massive project and now that we’ve launched our new five-year strategy, it feels like a good time to think about what I’ve learned.

Here are four of my top tips…

1. Mind the gap between trustees and staff

Our process began with our trustees. I sat in on a fascinating strategy development session with our board last June. Six months after the merger of NCVO and Volunteering England it was clear that the trustees were invigorated by the challenges and opportunities facing the new organisation. There was lively debate about how NCVO could support less formal forms of social action and connect with groups at the point at which people began to organise.

When the strategy process shifted back to the office it became clear to me that the trustees’ vision had not been heard by staff and did not yet resonate with them. We got there in the end, but it struck me that we need to work hard if the intent of a board is to be realised through a strategy largely developed by staff.

2. Ask the right questions

After the board meeting, we spent a month on what we called #steerncvo. We asked our members and other stakeholders about their concerns, wishes and priorities. Working out which questions to ask was quite a challenge!

We knew it was best practice to ask open questions, but we shied away from this approach. This was partly because we have asked these questions many times, for different purposes, and we knew we had all of the rich responses that we needed. We didn’t want to waste people’s time asking the same questions again. We also wanted to get to the heart of some of the dilemmas we faced in setting the right strategy and to ask the really important questions.

We asked a mixture of standard open questions and some specific questions. If we were doing this again we might use different questions, and I definitely think we’d explain some of them differently. That said, trying to ask the right questions in the right way is always worth doing.

3. Invest in staff engagement

After #steerncvo we started engaging with all our staff. Important strategic decisions are often made in the context of a merger or a restructure (or both). These can make it hard for staff to engage in a meaningful way. So, it was a relief to be able to involve everyone in developing our new strategy together. Fitting the work in around everyone’s very busy workloads wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.

Some of the best parts of the strategy came out of sessions that each of our directors led around the five aims. But after that phase was over we didn’t focus enough on keeping staff in touch with how the strategy continued to evolve. I regret this – I hope that our work running up to the launch has managed to enthuse my colleagues again.

4. Make sure you can communicate your strategy

All that work is for nothing if people don’t want to read it!
I have amazing colleagues who have done fantastic work helping us to explain our strategy in simple and engaging ways. We debated for hours about our vision and mission statement, wanting to write something that conveyed our passion for what we do without using terrible jargon. We worked with an illustrator to explain the strategy in pictures.

A strategy is not communicated in a day – we know that we need to keep our focus on explaining what we’re doing and why.

What’s next

I’m relieved that we’ve now launched our strategy and I’m excited about the projects I’ll be involved in to make our ambitions a reality. But I must admit that part of me is sad too. Developing strategies can be an invigorating process, full of debate and hope. I’m looking forward to the next time.

I know that we will be judged by what we do and not just what we say. I’m proud of our strategy but I also know that we have a lot to live up to.

So, we’re going to try and up our game in terms of setting targets and indicators for our outcomes and then monitoring them: not always easy, especially as so much of our success is intertwined with what our members achieve. It’s a bit of a cliché, but we really are on a journey with this. I’ll park up at regular intervals, open the bonnet and together we can have a look around inside.

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Megan Griffith Gray Megan is our head of planning, digital and communications. She leads NCVO's strategic planning and reporting as well as our digital and communications team.

2 Responses to Four top tips for developing your organisation’s strategy

  1. Brian Lowe says:

    I would have liked tips that would have been relevant to an organisation like ours that does not have trustees, nor staff and cannot afford professionals to help us.

    • Megan Griffith Gray Megan Griffith Gray says:

      Hi Brian,

      I wrote this post because I hoped that other organisations could learn from our experience. You’re right, the kind of organisation that NCVO is definitely shaped the challenges which we faced, and other organisations might not face those challenges.

      That said, I think that some of these ideas can easily be adapted to organisations of all sizes. Any community group which works with people will benefit from thinking about what they want to achieve, who can help them to do it and asking them the right questions. We know that people face particular challenges when they first form organisations and we want to do more to help. We’re working on that.

      You can find more tips on strategy for organisations of all sizes here
      http://www.ncvo.org.uk/practical-support/strategy
      http://knowhownonprofit.org/organisation/strategy

      I know that not everyone can afford an illustrator, but language is also really important. I’m a huge fan of the Plain English campaign. They have some great free guides that can help you to write in a clear and inclusive way be it in a flyer, poster, email or an organisational strategy:
      http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/free-guides.html