The Covid-19 crisis has tested the charity sector beyond our imagination. But we have proved to ourselves that when we need to, we can adapt quickly. Why not make this the new normal?
Charities and philanthropists have always had to be responsive and adapt to changing need. However, traditional strategy approaches have seen charities set detailed objectives, make extensive plans, and even restructure their entire organisation based on fixed term strategies. Then life happens, and the unexpected forces our plans to change. Have you noticed how ‘pivot’ has become everyone’s favourite word?
Change is the only constant charities can count on. Whether it’s Brexit, the climate emergency, or the poverty and a mental health onslaught likely to come from what could be an economic fallout worse than the Great Depression. Yet in our latest State of the Sector research, to be published next week, we found that whilst charities were able to change when forced (by austerity for example) very few were adapting in anticipation of future change (such as preparing for Brexit).
At NPC we have long argued that a strategy designed for impact must be lived; not neglected on a shelf to gather dust. Good strategy shouldn’t just set the direction of travel but be regularly reviewed based on what you’re learning. In our ‘new normal’ of persistent change, strategy development and implementation must be woven into our day-to-day work. In doing so, our strategies become more adaptive, relevant, and impactful.
So, what does adaptive strategy development look like?
1. Impact focussed
Our sector achieves great things; impressively so in times of crisis and change. When driven by a focus on impact we deliver what’s needed for our communities, our health, and our planet. Our greatest achievements are made when we respond quickly. This is made easier if we set up our strategies, our organisations and our funding mechanisms to be change ready and impact focussed at every level.
Our strategies should be built on a clear theory of change, with an impact focus embedded into all day-to-day decision making. A clear understanding of how change happens and our everyday role in it will enable us to remain proactive and strategic, not merely reactive.
2. User led
In our State of the Sector research we found that most charities had great things to say about user involvement when prompted, but when unprompted few listed it among their top priorities. There are a myriad of reasons, but a big one is our strategy development and implementation practice.
Genuinely involving others in our responses means we need to be open to where the discussions will take us without having a fixed agenda at the outset. We need to truly embrace meaningful involvement of those we support at every stage of our work, from identifying issues, to design and delivery decision making, and evaluation and governance. Involvement must be meaningful, diverse and representative.
Hammersmith and Fulham Council have an exciting new role of ‘Strategic Co-production Lead’ in its first year of implementation. Tara Flood, who job-shares this role, recognises that they are on the beginning of a culture and practice change journey that takes time and resources. To those who say they don’t have either, Tara says, they ‘are demonstration that it can work, it can be done’.
As Mike Adamson, CEO of the British Red Cross, said at our Ignites Conference late last year, charities must collaborate or fail. Charities have massive potential to change the world if they can work together. Evolving interest in place-based approaches and systems change testify to this realisation, and the suddenly escalated pressure to do more with less further emphasises the importance of collective efficiency in pursuit of impact.
Greater collaboration and transparency produce more data and information on which to base good decisions, and therefore adapt better. The future will hopefully see us move to greater shared measurement and even collaborative strategy, for which working together to use theory of change for systems change is just the beginning.
4. Minimum viable strategy
Good strategy should not be verbose; it needs to be clear. A ‘minimum viable strategy’ concept should become the norm. This means clearly articulating a deeply understood vision, mission, values and priorities. The rest should be flexible and adaptable.
Notwithstanding that ‘user experience’, quality and regulatory requirements will always be critical, the implementation mechanism is less important than the result. Activities should therefore be indicative, especially as the co-design process will reshape thinking.
This is a massive change for a sector often instinctively compelled to represent every programme and project in a strategy document so the respective teams feel valued. Contribution matters more than attribution.
5. Scenario planning
In an ever-changing world, scenario planning becomes ever more critical for mitigating risk and maximising opportunity. To avoid being buffeted by the waves of every crisis, we must go beyond being responsive and anticipate the tides that lie ahead.
We can borrow from McKinsey’s work on responding to uncertainty, be that a clear enough future, alternate futures, a range of futures, or true ambiguity. For each, think about whether your role is in shaping, adapting or ‘reserving the right to play’ in light of potential change.
Bain offer a useful ‘signposts’ concept to signal important changes and trigger a set of actions already foreseen during the scenario-planning process. Such approaches to change do not require us to hold a crystal ball, but to begin thinking about how our minimum viable strategy might play out in a range of situations and what budget we’d need for each scenario.
6. Iterative learning
Iterative learning is a given in an adaptive strategy approach. We need to shorten our planning cycles by removing resource-intensive elements that drain our inspiration and resources. In its place, let’s embed real time learning that energises us and ensures we remain relevant and impactful.
7. Evolve charity-funder relationships
Adaptive strategy has significant implications for funders. In fact, I would go so far as to say that success or failure hinges on a trusting two-way partnership between charities and funders.
Funders will need to address power dynamics and champion the growing body of funder best practice. Unrestricted funding and trust empower charities to change quickly, with freedom to adapt to an unexpected external event.
For more adaptable ways of working, funders need to be comfortable with the monitoring and resourcing implications of co-design processes, as co-production funder trailblazers like the National Lottery Community Fund are aware.
Last but by no means least, we need to collectively address the sense of competition that lurks beneath our current funding mechanisms, in favour of greater transparency and collaboration between charities. This includes recognition that relationship building is time well invested that requires funding in its own right.
As we begin our new normal, now is the perfect time to clarify your minimum viable strategy and contemplate how your organisations will contribute to new and improved ways of working as we rebuild. For more tips, read our blog on recovering in a post-covid world.
We’re keen to hear what you think of these reflections, drop us a line at info@thinkNPC.org. At NPC we are keen to support charities and funders, especially from the social and environmental sectors, to take their next steps in their strategy journeys, please get in touch if you’d like to discuss options further or sign up to join us at our Leading Impact seminar on this topic on 15 June.
Virtual event – Leading with an agile strategy: How to keep a strategy relevant in a changing environment
This seminar will outline methods for developing more agile strategies for programmes and organisations.
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