Strategy is about power: how will you use it?

On all accounts, we are living through extraordinarily uncertain times. Even discounting the many political crises of late, most charities do not operate in the way they did 15 years ago: funding models have shifted, technology has transformed practices and charities must fight for the public’s trust.

From our 2018 annual survey, we know that our members need support to plan for the future and develop a coherent strategy. A strategy is not just the plan on paper: it is the process by which an organisation reaches agreement about its direction, priorities and resources.

In our experience, senior staff and trustees know and can use the tools for future planning. Rather than focus on the activities – such as those in our flagship publication: Tools for Tomorrowwe’re focusing our support on the process for strategy development. Taking stakeholders on a journey is a lot more complex than a SWOT analysis.

Earlier this year, we launched a new training course on strategic planning – with our next training taking place next month. Our course is centred around four essential components of a strategy process:

Power – A strategy process is fundamentally an exercise in power: how the process will work, who gets to be involved and make decisions, and where resources will be allocated. At best, a strategy process can be an empowering process for creativity, energy and participation. However, this is not always the case. Whether you want to share power or not, you need to be honest from the start. A strategy is one of the biggest expressions of power for an organisation and in an age of #newpower, getting this wrong can have major consequences.

Purpose – Any future plan needs to be rooted in the change you want to see in the world. We use theory of change as a way of articulating the way you see change unfolding for your beneficiaries over time. But this isn’t a Disney film: just because you have your theory on paper, doesn’t mean it will happen. Through your strategy process, you need to make real decisions on resources and priorities given your organisational capacity, funding and the wider internal and external environment.

Participation – This is an opportunity to meaningfully and usefully engage those that will be crucial to the success of your strategy. But involving everyone is not necessarily the answer. Ask yourself: are you willing to cede some control – even if things may be unexpected or even worse – to other people? If you’re in charge of the strategy development, you’re in control of who is involved, how and when that involvement will happen and the level of power they have. Get this wrong and your strategy will likely fail – in the process and delivery.

Process – Whether it is an away day, a big community day or the CEO in her office, you need to design a process that is right for your organisation. Your process is likely to reflect the previous three points: how much power will you distribute, how open you are to new potential ideas and solutions to your cause and how inclusive you want to be. Choosing the right process is crucial and will depend on the time you have to dedicate, the trust you have in others and your willingness to do things differently.

On these four areas, what’s your plan? Will you give up power? Are you clear on your purpose? Do you have the legitimacy to involve others? Does your process match your principles?

In rapidly changing times, it’s easy to think that future planning is futile. We see this as a false logic. Just because it is hard to plan, doesn’t mean it isn’t useful. Strategy fails when it is either too certain on what the future holds or when it doesn’t even try.

We think it is better to try: for the sustainability of your organisation – and crucially, for those that depend on the work you do.


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Alex joined NCVO in March 2017 as one of our lead consultants and is now head of networks and influencing. Alex has worked extensively in the youth sector, particularly within international development, and worked with UNICEF, Youth Policy Labs, the National Youth Agency and the British Youth Council. Alex was previously a trustee at Girlguiding UK, The Diana Award and a member of an advisory committee at the CIVICUS World Alliance for Citizen Participation. Alex founded an LBGTQ+ organisation supporting youth activists around the world.

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