Tips from Chairs: Getting strategy right in your small charity

Illustration of three people with connecting circles above their heads

In our second Beacon Programme module – Strengthening your Organisation – we have been talking about finance, risk and strategy. These three areas are at the heart of good governance. We have now delivered this workshop in nine locations across England and via three webinars.

Again, and again, strategy came up as a big issue for many of the smaller charity Chairs. For example, 54% of Chairs on our webinars said that strategy development was their key concern.

Strategy as a collective responsibility

The Charity Governance Code makes it clear that the board has a collective responsibility ‘for ensuring the charity has a clear and relevant set of aims and an appropriate strategy for achieving them’ (p10.)

In the sessions we focused on helping Chairs of smaller charities to reflect on the nature of their board’s role in this process. Depending on an organisation’s size and structure, trustees need to strike the right balance in terms of their involvement in the strategy development process. An over-involved board can leave staff and / or operational volunteers feeling side-lined or undermined. An un-involved or too distant board will not be fulfilling its legal responsibilities and can leave staff and / or volunteers feeling unclear about the organisation’s priorities and direction of travel.

Common issues around strategy development

Discussions raised a number of common issues which Chairs said they were facing. Some referred to skills gaps within the team, others were based on writing the strategy itself. For example, in the webinars, the following concerns were raised:

  • How do we get our trustees who are more comfortable focusing on operational matters, to focus on strategic issues?
  • Our external environment is rapidly changing. How can we develop a strategy which will usefully drive our work?
  • How can we recruit trustees with the right skills and knowledge to make strategic decisions?
  • How are we going to know whether we are achieving our strategic objectives?
  • Who should lead on the process? Me as Chair or the Chief Executive?

Do these concerns sound familiar to you?

Tips on managing the development process

During the webinars, delegates shared tools and tips from their own experience of chairing an organisation through a period of strategic review.

Some delegates said that they had organised board meetings just looking at strategy, that trying to do it during a meeting with other business was distracting. Many reported that they had used an external facilitator to lead creative thinking sessions, away days or workshops. They said that it helped if the agenda for these sessions was carefully planned.

Some said that they had found strategic planning tools such as PEST analysis and Three Circles Analysis useful to help make sure the conversation was strategic not operational.

Some Chairs said that had set up separate working groups to do specific research or tasks and report back to the board. They said that working groups operated well when they drew on the knowledge and experience of individual trustees. Where gaps in knowledge and experience were identified, some Chairs had brought in outside expertise. NB If you are thinking of doing this, remember to check your constitution to make sure working groups can include non-trustees.

One said: “be clear about who you are going to involve in the process and how.” Check out Beacon’s strategic planning grid (available in our library of module 2 resources) to help with this.

Some Chairs mentioned that in order to monitor progress they had operationalised their strategic objectives. Having a simple red, amber, green traffic light system had helped trustees monitor performance effectively.

Tips on creating a strategy

Some of our Chairs stressed that it was important to recognise that strategy development is a dynamic process and that the strategy you produce should be flexible to deal with unexpected challenges and opportunities.

Others said that the strategy process had been used to remind the board of the charitable objectives and it had forced them to check whether the objectives were still fit for purpose. “Given the national political context within which we are working, do we need to broaden or reduce the parameters within which we are working?”

One highlighted the importance of seeing the process of developing the organisation’s strategy as an opportunity rather than a challenge.

Useful resources

We have lots of resources in our Beacon Programme to support you and your board in getting your strategy right. Log in (or join the programme for free if you haven't already) to access the module 2 resources. For example:

  • the module 2 workbook has lots of resources about the board’s role in strategy development
  • planning an away day? Our 'Planning an away day’ tool will help you get started.

There is still time to book for our next module 2 webinar.

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