Think it's only for the big beasts in the jungle? Prepare to think again.
A lot of Chief Execs and Trustees of small to medium sized charities think that strategic plans don’t matter. “We’ve managed perfectly well without one to date … can’t really see the need … bit of a digression from the vital task at hand …” The reality couldn’t be more different, the task not that complicated and the outcome invariably positive. A strategic plan it is a vital tool when communicating with your stakeholders: funders, trustees (actual and potential) volunteers (likewise), partners (an increasing phenomenon in the sector) and your service users.
If one stops and thinks, it’s hard to communicate clearly with all these stakeholders unless the charity has a carefully thought out and easily articulated strategy detailing what it wants to achieve and how it plans to get there. In a crowded marketplace the charity that is going to be around in five years’ time is the one that has a single coherent strategy that can be articulated to any and all of the key stakeholders.
As a potential trustee, would you be more likely to join a charity with a plan or one without?
How can a charity attract the right mix of trustees with good strategic skills without articulating a strategic vision? It’s relatively easy to attract trustees with little or no relevance to the task at hand, but the key to an effective board of trustees (apart from a highly focussed and committed chairman) is the range and mix of skills and experience of individual trustees. As trustees retire, so opportunities arise to refresh the board and its thinking. Much easier, and much more efficient, if this process can be undertaken within the context of a plan.
The role of Chairman in all of this is critical. One essential part of a Chairman’s job, often overlooked, is to create a succession plan with a view to ensuring the right mix of skills for the strategic task at hand. Ensuring that there is someone waiting in the wings to take over the role of Chairman is also critical to the future wellbeing of the charity.
Would you rather volunteer for a charity that can tell you where it’s going or one that can’t?
How do you attract volunteers to your charity as opposed to a similar one down the road? Volunteers have choices in a way that paid employees don’t. “Come and join us and do good” doesn’t strike me as a powerful hook. Social media is fast becoming the route to market for many volunteers. Again, any strategy for recruitment and retention of volunteers will require a sustained focus on social media. Much easier in the context of a strategic plan. Imagine you are a funder or donor - would you be more likely to support a charity with a plan or one without? In a society where people are increasingly looking for value for money, “send money now” is a plea that will increasingly fall on deaf ears, unless supported by a serious marketing campaign . Viewed in that context, a strategic plan becomes a necessity as opposed to an add-on.
We live in a world which is changing at a faster rate than at any time in living memory. Change affects not only the behaviour of central and local government but also behaviour at an individual level. Central and local government funding in the UK is under pressure as never before – a trend that is likely to continue for several years to come. Charities bidding for central or local government contracts face the additional hazard of payment by results which can lead to serious cash flow difficulties. Any strategy needs to have the words “continuing uncertainty” in its first paragraph, but now that the shape of the new government has become clear there can be no doubt that austerity is here to stay in the form of a further series sustained cuts in the welfare budget. There seems little doubt that the voluntary sector will be needed more than ever to fill the gaps left behind by a retreating state. How charities respond to these changes and whether the cuts represent a threat to be contained or an opportunity to be grasped will be one of the defining characteristic of the sector over the next few years.
Reduced income, coupled with greater need for the services of the voluntary sector, is likely to lead to two significant strategic shifts over the coming years. One is that marginal players will be squeezed out and the other is that mergers will increasingly become the norm as efficiency gains have to be achieved. To that end, charities will need to learn some of the tricks of the trade which have so long formed an integral of normal private sector behaviour if they are to survive. Voluntary sector organisations have shown themselves to be reluctant to merge so far, the sector being full of fiercely independent charities, often with Trustees who have no intention of going down that route or who lack the strategic vision to recognise its necessity. The lesson from outside the sector is clear – the longer you leave it, the harder (and more painful) it gets. Remember, independence isn’t necessarily a goal in itself – sustainability coupled with an unremitting focus on a voluntary organisation’s charitable purpose clearly is.
Easy to achieve without a strategic plan? I don’t think so.
Richard Lassen - Trustee Cranfield Trust
Richard has had a finance career in major UK corporates. He is an active volunteer for the Trust and his voluntary work has spanned the Charities Aid Foundation, the NHS, Further Education, mentoring accounting students and working for the Princes Trust.