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How to make a strategy for impact

Strategy is not what you write down, it’s what you do and deliver.

Tom Loosemore, NPC Ignites 2016

We’ve updated our free guide to developing your charity’s strategy 

It’s been over three years since we first published our thoughts on how charities can develop a strategy to help them make an impact. In that time we’ve worked with loads of charities, either one to one or through training, helping them reflect on their future direction.

We still firmly believe the old saying: ‘A vision without a plan is just a dream. A plan without a vision is just drudgery. But a vision with a plan can change the world.’ Developing and following a strategy results in clear purpose, effective decisions, better implementation and ultimately greater impact.

NPC's strategy triangle image

At its heart, our approach is about finding the sweet spot between your core purpose, the needs and circumstances in your external environment, and your own strengths and internal resources (we’ve called this our ‘strategy triangle’).

But we’ve got a bit more realistic about how this is all likely to happen—its a rare and fortunate organisation that can go through each corner of the triangle in full. We’ve also got a lot more tricks up our sleeves to identify what a charity’s most pressing strategy challenges are, and to pick the right tool to tackle them.

Our newly Strategy for impact guide walks you through our approach to charity strategy that builds on insights we’ve learned along the way.

Here are three principles we think are important (but often get neglected)

As I’ve been reflecting on our work, I’m struck by a couple of areas that are crucial to get right if you want your strategy to stick. They may not be more important than other principles, but perhaps they are more often neglected.

1. Strategy appears to be about process, but it’s actually about people.

The most robust strategy will be ignored if the people undertaking it disagree, and a strategy cannot be robust if it neglects key perspectives. Internal stakeholders—staff and trustees—as well as users and even funders have vital insight into each corner of the strategy triangle. They also have a right to be kept involved in changes likely to affect them. It always seems twee to say that ‘communication is key’, but talking to and listening to people is one of the most powerful ways to ensure the strategy you develop actually gets implemented.

2. You’ll need to have a detailed understanding of your external environment

The ‘external environment’ bit of the strategy triangle is often the place people feel most comfortable. It’s the world people are working in day-to-day so it seems like a low priority, beyond a cursory refresh of a PESTLE. But with the current pace of change in policy and funding it is increasingly risky to neglect this. We’ve been talking to charities recently about more sophisticated needs analysis. For example looking at the likely impact on need if the organisation shifts focus upstream into preventative work. Or getting savvy about how shifts in the scale and focus of partner or competitor organisations might have implications for your own.

3. And you’ll need to be ready to move from analysis to action.

Strategy decisions are often fraught and high-stakes, so they need to be robust. But while information is the basis of good decisions, no amount of research can replace decision-making. We’ve been thinking a lot about how to move from analysis to action through setting clear criteria for decisions, and being creative about different roles a charity can play to be effective in different circumstances.

A good strategy needs clarity of purpose and direction that will remain relevant, but enough flexibility to adapt tactics to changing circumstances. There’s no formula for getting it right, but we’re learning more and more about what kind of approach will get you there.

If you’re keen to learn more, you can:

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