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Strategy blog 10. Five challenges and five shortcuts to creating a strategy for your charity

This strategy blog, no 10, looks at some of the practical challenges that come out of

making a strategy, and some of the shortcuts, or hacks, that can make creating a

strategy easier. It comes partly out of a workshop with the Appearance Collective

which is funded by the VTCT Foundation.


The challenges of creating a strategy

1. A strategy is often only implicit, when it needs to be explicit

Charities often already ‘have’ a strategy: a collectively held set of assumptions about

the priorities and challenges for an organisation over the coming years. The problem

about this implicit strategy approach is that the opportunities for confusion are

obvious. ‘Many a slip twixt the cup and the lip’ as the old proverb says – if something is

not written down its all too easy for people to remember things differently. The

implicit strategy approach is a road to disaster. So in my view any strategy needs to be

written down, to be explicit, to be of any value.


2. A strategy is important but rarely urgent

A real challenge is that strategies fall in the important category on a list of jobs, but

rarely into the urgent category. There are no great deadlines, like a grant application

has, or a pressing need like recruiting a staff member. Organisations can go on for

years without a strategy, ambling along, and there will always be things to do, urgent

things to do. Charities need to avoid the trap of putting off the creation of a strategy till

tomorrow. A clear and agreed strategy make an organisation more effective, more

accountable, and more focused.


3. Should you be led by your strategy or by your funders

A real challenge for the strategy of any charity, but particularly smaller charities is

when a funder wants one thing, and the organisation’s strategy (and leadership) wants

something different. The conundrum is whether to get critical funds for an

organisation’s work, but which take the organisation in a different direction from the

strategy. There is no easy answer to this, and organisations tackle it in different ways.

Does the project get funded, or do organisations pretend the funded approach always

was the new strategy, or stick to their strategy guns. There is no easy answer.


4. Creating a strategy often comes in addition to the day job

Almost nobody sits around with a spare day a week in their diary to waiting to use it,

when they have to do the strategy. However the reality is a good strategy is time-

consuming to do – not necessarily to draft the guts of one. That may only take a day or

two. But to do the drafts, get ownership from trustees, staff, and other stakeholders all

takes time: as does refining it, listening to feedback, and all that. The solution is to

carve out time by dropping some other tasks, or hiring a consultant to help, or working

some extra hours. None of these options are necessarily easy.


Implementing a strategy is harder than creating one

My final bit of bad news is that writing a strategy is the easy part, putting it into action

is much harder. The former takes month, the latter takes years. Having a good strategy

is the beginning of a journey, it is a journey to make sure that all the assets and

strengths that an organisation has, are melded together to deliver the most for an

organisation’s beneficiaries. So having a great strategy is a great start, but the real

benefit is in implementing it.


The shortcuts

If the previous points were the depressing part of creating a strategy, then there are

some pointers of ways to make life easier.


Not everything needs to be part of the strategy

A strategy is not like moving house. Not every single item has to move. There will

probably be parts of what an organisation does, that can continue to be business as

usual. The key thing, in my view, that a strategy needs to do is focus on areas that need

to change and how those become the organisation’s priorities. If an area of work is

already doing great it doesn’t need to be centre-stage. Above all, a strategy should

answer the question – how do we want our organisation and our cause to be different

in three or five years’ time.


Beg, steal, and borrow good ideas from others

There are lots of good charity strategies out there already. There are lots of good

strategy books and advice. There are people on LinkedIn and social media who may

quite happily offer advice about aspects of strategy (you can always email me on

joe@heyheyjoe.info). Little in a strategy needs to be invented from scratch. Its fine to

use the format and approach of other organisation’s strategies that you like. Always

credit other people’s work, but use it to make your task easier and simpler.


Start with the priorities on a side of A4

It’s easy to feel over-whelmed at the totality of creating a strategy. There is so much

that needs to be done (and so little spare time to do it in). My advice is to start with the

core stuff – what are your priorities, or questions that need addressing, for the new

strategy. How do you want the organisation to be different in 3 years’ time, or what are

the areas you are going to focus on changing? Those should be able to be put on a side

of A4. Once that is done get the key stakeholders to agree to those priorities and have

a discussion about what is missing, and add the rest of the strategy bit by bit – goals,

KPIs, external and internal factors and the like. Basically break the strategy down into

bite-size chunks.


Build from the bottom up and the top down

Having started with those big priorities a strategy can be built from the bottom up.

What is each dept or team going to do to help achieve those priorities? Get each

department to set their plans out so that each team has a mini-strategy that fits into

the whole. In other words delegate the strategy creation to different teams and people,

and build from the bottom up having set the overall priorities and the framework.


A strategy doesn’t need to be perfect – just effective

One of my favourite nuggets of wisdom is ‘perfection is the enemy of action.’ It’s much

better to have an imperfect strategy that is being put into action, than spend 3 years

creating a strategy (and I have worked with an organisation that spent 3 years creating

a strategy). One of the reasons to get on with a strategy is that by implementing it, the

organisation and the team will learn things. The priorities that looked difficult, might

be able to be delivered in a different way. A strategy is not a fixed immutable tablet of

stone, but a living breathing approach to priorities that organisations should refine,

improve, and develop. In the words of Nike – Just do it.

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