I’ve written, implemented and monitored a fair few strategies in my time. Like most of us I started off designing fairly rigid strategies focused on goals that appeared to be informed by the evidence on the ground. Realistic goals supported by loads of indicators and targets that cascaded through the organisation and on paper showed that everyone knew their role in the organisation.
Inevitably things don’t go according to plan. A rigid strategy focused on predetermined goals often meant that changes were hard to implement without oversight from the trustees, which just encouraged them to meddle operationally in the organisation. After all, the executive had said that X would be delivered after 12 months, and that wasn’t happening, so they felt justified to meddle. A rigid strategy also meant that unforeseen opportunities were more likely to be missed as the strategy couldn’t accommodate them.
The other problem with annual goals that were supposed to progress the organisation towards its mission and vision was that after two or three years, trustees and donors started wondering aloud why the vision and mission had not yet been met.
The problem is of course that donors and funders ask for clear cut goals and targets so that they can measure how effective their funding has been and report back to the supporters and tax-payers that provide the cash for the funding. So organisations get trapped into rigid strategy setting in an ever upward spiral of accountability or risk losing their funding.
But there is another way of doing things. Organisations that have core funding (or unrestricted funding) have greater opportunity to be flexible, responding to need that they see on the ground and planning activity based on what they need to do, rather than what the donor wants to see being done.
Yes I can hear some of you screaming at the screen that core funding is almost impossible to get hold of. But you don’t have to wait until you get unrestricted funding before you start flexible planning. Plan activities no more than 12 months in advance and plan based on what you actually achieved in quantitative terms last year. Collect as much qualitative and quantitative data from your beneficiaries as often as possible so that you can ask whatever research and development questions as you like. Finally, hold fast to your long term objective (I’d be happy to get rid of the word “strategy” altogether) and do not chase funding opportunities that don’t match with your long term objective and aims. You are more likely to be successful and more likely to have good impact stories to tell donors, who in turn will want to work with you, because you are successful.
What are your experiences of strategy setting? Which approach do you prefer?