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Strategy blog 6: the common flaws of charity strategies

I have read over 120 charity strategies now and here are some of the most common flaws I have found in them (these are my personal views of course – others may disagree with my assessment). In my next blog I will look at some examples of good practice and great ideas in writing strategies.

Mistaking woolly objectives or aspirations for a strategy

A chair said to me recently that ‘we have a strategy; we just don’t have a strategic plan.’ Looking on their website I couldn’t find a strategy. I realised afterwards what the chair meant was their charity has a number of over-arching goals, and this is what they defined as a strategy. There are lots of definitions of strategy, but having a number of goals is not a strategy on its own – it’s a bit like say you have a car, when all your have is four wheels. A strategy is having goals, being clear about how you will reach those goals and measuring progress in reaching them.

Thinking a strategy is just about services

Yes, charities are about delivering their mission, but a strategy is not just about how services will be delivered. It’s about everything that the organisation needs to do to meet the goals it sets. As an example, one £200 million overseas development charity just publishes a strategy about its programmes. It is a very good programmes strategy: just with no mention of non-programme issues. Perhaps there is a non-programme strategy but I couldn’t find it.

Forgetting about people

It is said that one of the reasons that Nelson won the battle of Trafalgar is that he had spent a decade feeding, training, and inspiring his men better than any other Navy. The best charities are the same – they know they will achieve results by having a fantastic workforce, inspired, and trained. So it’s surprising to find charity strategies that make no mention of their people – staff, volunteers, or trustees – and particularly strange in an era of an increasing focused on EDI ( equality, diversity, and inclusion). The workforce really should be a part of any charity strategy. In one veterans’ charity strategy’s staff hardly get a mention - ‘Engage our committed and dedicated employees in developing a sustainable and high performing workforce’ How will anybody know whether that is achieved?

Forgetting about income generation

This flaw in charity strategies is the same type as with people. Income is forgotten about and not included in the charity strategy. I fully accept that some charities need to worry more about the money than others, but I think some idea of where they money will come from is important. As an example a Christian charity has a 21-page strategy document in which income generation gets a 2-sentence mention one of which is ‘We [will] have sufficient income of the appropriate form to achieve our priorities’ That’s that sorted then – though perhaps not as well as hoped, given the charity’s income has shrunk by 40% in the last 5 years.

Looking backwards not forwards

The strategy is essentially a forward-looking document – albeit built on what has come before. So the bulk of a strategy, in my view, needs to look forward: not wax lyrical about past glories or history of the organisation or generally say how wonderful the organisation is. There is a place for talking about the great work that an organisation has done in a strategy, but it’s a minor part.

One social welfare charity falls victim to this flaw – it has 5 pages on its past successes. Another disability charity is full of sentences like ‘our successes here have become successes in every corner of the globe’ Nice to see humility in a strategy.

Not having SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-related) objectives

Almost every strategy has some kind of objective, but many of them are quite vague. A strategy needs to be specific enough for the organisation to be clear when the objective has been reached, and whether it is making progress on the way. Its fine to have some broad aspirations (eg we will become a more diverse organisation) but they are better in the form of a SMART objective (eg 20% of our workforce will ethnically diverse by 2025).

As an example of this is a £300 million charity that has lots of goals and aspirations in its strategy, but only one SMART objective and that is for the carbon usage of its headquarters!

Not being clear on HOW an objective will be reached

Setting objectives is very common in strategies. But it’s amazing how many strategies neglect to tell the reader how that objective will be reached. ‘We will reach for the stars’ – it’s just not clear how we’re going to get there, or when.

Part of the reason the how is so important is that it gives an indication whether an objective is possible. It helps people know that an objective isn’t just plucked out of thin air, but has been thought through. One environment charity wants more of our land to be protected – but I can’t see any detailed mention of how they will do that. The blurb has only this word salad ‘Working with partners and influencing others, from farmers and fishers to businesses and politicians, we will restore natural processes and reconnect wilder land and seascapes to bring our wildlife back at scale, and create places where people and nature can thrive together.’ Not really very clear from this on how their goals will be reached.

Using an un-readable format

It’s amazing how many strategies are in an unreadable format. Being specific any pdf (which is the format for most strategies) that isn’t in portrait A4 format is a lot harder to read online or print out. In particular landscape A4 with a fold (ie two landscape A4 pages side by side) is a nightmare to read. You have to scroll left to right, then up and down, and it’s very easy to miss pages. Trying reading almost any environmental charity online and you will see what I mean.

Not having a published strategy

There are still many charities which don’t have a published strategy available online. They may have a strategy but not publish it, but that is poor accountability to donors or transparency to other stakeholders. For example I can’t find a strategy online for an animal welfare charity despite its £100 million income. Its annual report says there is a strategy – but I can’t find it searching through google or on the website search function

Too many stock photos, smiling CEOs and glossy production

There is no difference between the quality of those strategies with lots of corporate photos and those with none. One medical research charity has a 20-page strategy has 6 or 7 pages of photos and beautiful empty space. As a general rule of thumb keep your graphic design team away from the strategy document, as it allows a strategy being made to look good, to mask whether the strategy itself is any good.

If this blog has left you depressed my next blog will look at the best charity strategies of the ones I have read. And just to be clear, my comments about a specific aspect of strategy are no commentary on the quality of work of an organisation.



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