Top tips for a meaningful charity strategy

Donald Ritchie

Donald Ritchie, led NCVO’s work on strategy and planning and ran our Meaningful Strategy course. He has been involved in the voluntary sector for over 20 years, including working as a Director at Friends of the Earth.

As a process freak I find it gratifying that more and more people who come on my training courses want to find out exactly how a meaningful strategy is made.

Process is 50% of good strategy in my view – if organisations don’t get it right then the strategy itself may not be worth the paper that it’s written on. What’s more, creating a charity strategy can be quite different from how it’s done in other sectors.

For process freaks like me, here are five top tips…

1. Look at strategy as an investment

Truth be told, quite a lot of organisations look at making strategy as a bit of a pain, something to get done rather than do well. But it’s actually an investment in your future. Put the right amount of time and effort into creating a strategy and you should get a handsome return on your investment over the next few years. That can be the difference between success and underachievement.

2. Plan what you’re going to do

Planning and design of the strategy process is a big job, yet the temptation is to just jump in. The thing is that poor design often creates more work in the long run, as you attempt to retro-fix flaws in the process. And worse, it can also be destabilising – as the goalposts shift, typical responses are to see secret agendas that don’t exist or think ‘they’re making it up as they’re going along’.

3. Participation rules

People are probably our greatest asset in the voluntary sector, so do involve them throughout your strategy process. Staff, volunteers and beneficiaries can inform your decisions based on their experience at the coalface. And if you want people to wholeheartedly deliver the strategy, then they’ll need to understand and accept the sometimes difficult choices that it makes.

4. Groupthink sucks

As far as possible, base your decisions on evidence rather than supposition. If you don’t have key information then do try to get it. No matter how well you know your sector there’s the risk that your analysis is plain wrong…and like JFK and M&S before you, that can lead to catastrophic errors of judgement (Google it if you’re interested).

5. Horse before cart

Good strategy is about future direction, how your organisation can make the most difference over the next few years. So in making strategy it’s best to nail what that future difference is first, and then think backwards from there to decide the best way of achieving it. Thinking forwards from what you do today often means more-of-the same, it’s far less likely to result in the most effective strategy.

If you want to learn more about meaningful strategy then do check out NCVO’s two-day training ‘Meaningful Strategy’ – the next course is at the end of March.

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