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Strategy blog 1: briefing on strategy and strategic planning

What is a strategic plan?

  • Maps out the key aims of an organisation and shows the overall direction the organisation wishes to take over a longer-term period (often 5 years, also 3 or 10).

  • Serves as a blueprint for staff to provide a broad framework and help make shorter-term decisions about projects, contracts or funding, and to help keep focus on your overall aims.

  • Communicates to partners, funders and donors why they should work with you.

  • A broad set of high-level goals you want to achieve for the beneficiaries of your charity. (E.g. a strategic goal is “To be the preferred supplier to the local community for service X by the end of 2021”, in contrast an operational goal would be “To have contacted 25 local authorities and delivered presentations to their senior management teams by March 31st, 2022”.)[1]

  • NCVO offer an example of a strategic plan framework[2]

Characteristics of a good strategic plan

  • Build in a degree of flexibility in your plans and consider creating contingency options

  • The far-reaching impact of the pandemic highlights the need for adaptive strategies that can support the recovery of the communities they work with and the causes they support, as well as helping to build resilience in the sector beyond the current crisis.[3]

  • For the strategic plan to be realistic and feasible, it needs to be integrated into other organisational functions, e.g. there should be underpinning delivery plans, such as a strategic finance/ fundraising plan to ensure that the strategy is resourced; strategy requirements should be reflected in Board and Committee Terms of Reference and the annual work plan, and the job descriptions and appraisal objectives for at least the senior team.[4]

  • The business plan, budget and risk plan should be clearly linked to the strategy – what needs to be achieved in the coming 12 months to keep the strategic plan (which is say over 3 years) on track to succeed.


How best to make one?

Much of the advice emphasise the importance of setting ground rules about the process, such as recognising that everyone cannot be involved in every step; the need to assign different groups, a project manager to keep to schedule and the need to build in contingency time.[5]

ACEVO used a three-stage development process for their new strategy:[6]

  1. Understanding where we are now

  2. Agreeing where we want to get to

  3. Working out how to get there

Types of analysis:

  • SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats): collect together all of your thinking from your external analysis of opportunities and threats and your internal analysis of strengths and weaknesses.

  • Be objective, collect and analyse data relating to beneficiaries, members etc.

  • External environmental analysis and scanning – e.g. PESTLE analysis – map external threats and opportunities that may impact organisation. Monitor key trends and possible issues, e.g. by using a news aggregator, engaging with trustees working in key sectors, consulting with external individuals, attending external conferences etc.

  • NCVO discuss numerous types of external and internal environment analysis[7]

Who is involved and how?

  • Involve staff and trustees in the strategic process from the outset and ensure people know they have a voice in decision making.

  • For the strategy to be informed by different stakeholders consider how best to engage with different audiences (e.g. workshops and/or away days for staff, volunteers and trustees), interviews or focus groups with external stakeholders

  • Consider involving external individuals with relevant expertise to sense check your plans, bring a different perspective and validate your work.


Review process

  • Once the plan is completed, have a formal and regular process of reviewing and validating your plan – ensure it is responsive.[8] E.g. consider reviewing and updating PESTLE, Stakeholder and SWOT analysis and then decide if any changes to the plan itself are needed before the annual planning cycle (business plan, budget, risk plan).[9]

  • Part of this process should be an evaluation of the existing plan to understand what worked well and what didn’t, so that this understanding can be used to improve planning going forward.

Communication and presentation

Consider how best to communicate the completed strategy to staff so that everyone understands what you are going to do, the part they will play in delivering it and the what the outcomes will be (that they value).

Content is vital but it is a missed opportunity once the content has been thought-through to not pay attention to the language used and how the ideas are presented.

  • The longest strategies we looked at tend to include a number of full-page photos whilst shorter strategies only incorporate photos alongside the text.

  • Several of the strategies we looked at (more to come of these later in 2023) include what NCVO terms a ‘strategy map’, that is, a single page visual representation of the strategy, showing how all elements fit together – a tool to help stakeholders visualise and get hooked into the strategy.[10]

  • Dates - interesting variation in how long the strategy is intended to cover – increasing number of 10+ year strategies? – whilst some are vague and don’t mention explicit dates at all.

Sarah Eberhardt and Joe Saxton

January 2023

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