An article under this heading in a recent issue of Governance and Compliance, the official journal of the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators UK contained the statement that strategic planning in volunteer directed entities can prevent boards from driving the organisation forward. The authors maintain that even where there is no written version, maintaining the status quo is as much of a strategy as radical innovation, provided allowance is made for:
- Objective understanding of the current situation and the environment in which the organisation operates;
- Definition of its long term aims and vision normally over three to five years;
- A clear set of milestones and processes to enable it to realise its objectives.
It makes the point that a strategic plan that is produced purely for the purpose of seeking funding, is unlikely to be owned by the board and will therefore be of very limited use. To be effective it must regularly be referred to, periodically revised to changing circumstances and embody how the organisation intends to live its values.
Trustees of the New Zealand Association Resource Centre Trust engaged in an annual Planning Retreat facilitated by its Vice-Chair, Jeremy Tunks. They re-examined the aims and objects to determine how they can best carry out projects and assignments that are of direct benefit to their wider constituency of subscribers. This involved every member of the team and operates as two working groups charged with investigation and implementation in a planned manner.
Affiliated advisory trustees frequently come across situations where voluntary organisations have been professionally assisted in the formulation of a strategic plan on the understanding that it requires strict observance like being cast in stone until the next annual review comes around. Not unexpectedly such documents fail in their application as they don’t evolve and do not enable the organisation to react with alacrity to opportunities and threats that may not have been apparent when the original document was drawn up.
As the ICSA text explains external conditions can be subject to rapid change and the assumption that a strategic plan will inevitably be prescriptive or unresponsive will often deter some boards from developing one. Factors determining how the strategy of an association or charity is devised, include:
- The degree to which the expectations of members, funders and wider stakeholders are reflected in the organisation’s priorities;
- To what extent and in which areas staff, volunteers and users of services are consulted during the development of the strategy;
- The extent to which the board steers the process or lets the chief executive develop the strategy unaided.
This may involve the board in the following key stages:
- Before the planning process starts in order for it to be well designed and adequately resourced;
- Considering how it aligns with the vision, mission and values contained in the founding document be it a constitution or trust deed.
- Setting out a process for monitoring and reviewing progress against the strategic plan, including key performance indicators.
A constructive relationship between the Chair and the CEO is essential to ensure that the board receives diverse input to the strategy and is not totally reliant on the opinion of board members, who may not necessarily be business or professional practitioners with wide access to information. Typically, a focused three month process of conversation, research and analysis of options produces a plan to determine the direction, subject to corrections for the next three years.
Effective strategic plans are written to fit their individual organisations. Some elements are common to all, but this should not be seen as an easy option to copy and improvise, as there is no formula that fits all. Each organisation has its own character and special purpose that cannot be replicated strategically. The same can be said for engaging a consultant and relying on his/her skills as a documenter in the hope that the finished product will live up to expectations. The best strategic plans are concise and accessible and use language that vividly explain what is intended.
Many associations and trusts choose to develop their strategic plan unaided. Although this may appear to be a good cost saving choice, it does carry dangers in failing to constructively prescribe where the organisation wants to go and how to get there. Involving somebody with the expertise and industry or sector understanding required will go a long way to come up with the best results.