I sometimes worry about the word ‘strategy’

Srabani Sen OBE, an NCVO consultant specialising in strategy, governance and leadership, explains how strategy can give energy and life to an organisation and motivate staff and trustees. Srabani, who has worked for 30 years in the voluntary sector, ten of these as a chief executive, will be leading NCVO’s two-day course, Meaningful Strategy, on 30 June and 1 July 2015. 

It’s always a bit nerve-wracking – that moment when you are chairing a session at a conference and you are just about to introduce two speakers whom you met barely minutes before. If they are good speakers, you breathe a sigh of relief within seconds of them opening their mouths. If they are dull, time slows to an agonising crawl while, as chair, your mind races with thoughts of ‘how the heck do I liven this up?’

Chairing The New Funding Landscape session at NCVO’s annual conference, Evolve, earlier this month, I needn’t have worried. Our speakers David Floyd of Social Spider and Peter Baeck of Nesta provided us with a fascinating, sometimes humorous, and endlessly eye-opening insight into the opaque worlds of social investment and crowdfunding. Both speakers were so engaging that I couldn’t tell where the time went.

And what brought delegates to the session? Before we got going, I asked for a show of hands, which established that well over two-thirds of the crammed room were made up of voluntary sector chief executives. Many of them were grappling with the same strategic question, ‘how do I refocus my organisation to enable it to survive in a financially volatile world?’

This is just one of the ‘head scratcher’ questions that bring delegates to NCVO’s Meaningful Strategy course.

I sometimes worry about the word ‘strategy’. Some people think of strategy as a highfaluting thing which bears no relation to the day to day work of an organisation. A dusty document sitting on the corner of a shelf, or hiding in the depths of your electronic filing system, which gets pulled out once a year when you are writing your annual report and need to remind yourself of what your goals are supposed to be. Or even worse, a document that is looked at once every few years when you think you might need to refresh your strategy a bit because its end date has passed.

Yet if done right, your organisation’s strategy should give you the practical tools to help you run your organisation in the most efficient way possible and make a real difference to your beneficiaries, whatever the world throws at you. It should give energy and life to your organisation and motivation to your staff and trustees.

Take for example being able to define your impact. If you can’t explain simply and clearly the difference you are making to your beneficiaries, your chance of getting a piece of the behemoth that crowdfunding has become diminishes hugely. Last year (2014) according to Understanding Alternative Finance, a report by Nesta and the University of Cambridge, the crowdfunding market was set to grow to £1.74 bn. Yes, that’s £1.74 bn. If that isn’t an incentive to get your strategy right, I don’t know what is.

NCVO’s Meaningful Strategy course takes you step by step through writing your vision, mission and values and defining your impact. It gives you a structured way to analyse the environment you work in so you can identify how to steer your organisation through the changes you face, and it also enables you to systematically assess the strengths and weaknesses of your organisation so that you can plan how to address them. The course guides you on how to support your trustees to make the key decisions they need to make, and how to bring your staff with you so that they drive your organisation forward to success.

Sessions like Evolve’s New funding Landscape are like injections of rocket fuel to the brains of senior staff and trustees if they act upon the knowledge they glean. Good strategy is what enables you to use that knowledge in the best possible way.

So here’s to more all-absorbing sessions at conferences that make your brain fizz. And here’s to speakers that make life easy for us chairs.


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