list in notebook

How to prioritise and make strategic decisions

By Michelle Man and Ché Ramsden 24 March 2021 4 minute read

All charities and funders need to be able to prioritise. Prioritisation is essential for making decisions on a day to day basis, and it is the cornerstone of any coherent strategy. Yet prioritisation is difficult, and many organisations could benefit from improving how they prioritise and make strategic decisions.

This is particularly pertinent when there is uncertainty around your work, or you’re responding to a crisis like a global pandemic. Uncertainty and instability require you to be agile and responsive. In order to be able to move quickly while maintaining focus on your mission, you need to be clear about what you will prioritise, how you will deliver your work, and why you have made these decisions.

How to prioritise more effectively: Insights from Amnesty International UK

NPC has been working with Amnesty International UK to develop a new theory of change and strategy. Prioritisation has been an important part of this because of the nature of Amnesty International UK’s work, which focuses on human rights across the UK and around the world, and is therefore complex and full of uncertainty.

Amnesty International UK needed to decide which areas of work to prioritise in their new strategy and how they would manage competing priorities. Being clear about these decisions would also help the organisation to be more responsive to the changing environment.

To bring structure, consistency, clarity and focus to their decision-making, we developed a prioritisation tool that outlined criteria for assessing whether potential areas of work should take precedence over other areas of work. The development of the tool involved collectively interrogating and clarifying priorities—and this process was equally as important as the tool itself.

1) Identifying possible criteria for prioritisation

The first step towards prioritising more effectively was to develop a longlist of criteria that could be used to assess potential areas of work. We held workshops with staff to explore these, using exercises such as asking staff to score and rank options. This often felt uncomfortable as it involved oversimplifying and forcing a structure onto issues that are nuanced and complex. However, the exercise facilitated a deeper exploration of different areas of work and helped us to identify areas of agreement and disagreement, as well as differences in interpretation.

We found it useful to organise the criteria into different categories. For example, there were qualifying criteria that ensured alignment with their core mission. Some criteria related to ‘Should we do this?’, in terms of impact for people and communities, while another category was ‘Should we do this?’, in terms of impact for Amnesty International UK. A final category related to feasibility: ‘Could we do this?’.

2) Developing and refining the prioritisation tool

By this stage, we were reasonably clear on where there was agreement on criteria and where differences lay, as well as the main drivers behind those differences.

To refine the criteria, we continued to hold workshops to bring in new ideas and to test existing ones by applying them to hypothetical areas of work. To move forward on areas of disagreement, we worked through an exercise that aimed to make people’s assumptions explicit. For example, we discussed a possible tension between breadth and depth of impact. Differing hypotheses here included: ‘We need to be visible across all human rights issues to be credible and maintain our reputation’; and ‘Our mission and reputation compel us to work on things that others can’t—for example, the more entrenched issues and the greatest disadvantage.’

Unpicking areas of disagreement in this way highlighted that some hypotheses were not in tension with each other but instead required clarification on when a specific approach would apply and why. The most difficult discussions arose when there were genuine tensions between competing approaches. Making decisions on these required a sharp focus on Amnesty International UK’s theory of change and distinct role in the sector.

3) The prioritisation tool

The current tool looks very different to the initial draft. It is shorter and simpler, consisting of three categories:

The prioritisation tool set out as a table. It shows the topic area and the corresponding criteria. Topic: Scale of the issue, Criteria: What is the severity of the issue (in terms of impact on human rights)? If we did not work on this, could the desired change still be achieved given other actors in the space? What would be the impact on Amnesty International UK if we did not work on the issue? Topic: Contribution to our theory of change, Criteria: Does it clearly contribute to our theory of change? To what extent does it contribute? Would/could our work focus on addressing the root causes? Topic: Building a movement around the issue, Criteria: Do rightsholders want us to work on this? Do they see us leading or supporting this work? Does this enable us to grow the movement? Does this strengthen our work in the devolved nations and at a local level?

The evolution of the prioritisation tool highlights two important points. The first is that the iterative process of developing and refining the tool facilitated debate, enabled us to work through knotty issues and build a shared understanding. The second is that strategic decision-making will never be static. It will evolve as you learn, and as the environment shifts and priorities change. As such, any approach to prioritisation should be continually updated and refined.

Reflections from Amnesty International UK

‘Prioritisation is an inherently difficult task for an organisation like Amnesty International UK. We work on a wide range of human rights issues which are urgent and pressured in different ways, and we are also relied on to be responsive in times of crisis. We are therefore susceptible to saying yes to everything we can, instead of thinking through priorities as objectively as possible. Our work with NPC enabled us to take stock of what we do, unpick perceived conflicts, and take a nuanced approach to prioritisation.

At times during the process, it felt like we weren’t making decisions that were bold enough. But having uncomfortable conversations early on in our process, and becoming comfortable with how we manage and make decisions through discomfort, made us increasingly nimble as we went through our strategy development. Sometimes areas of tension and disagreement were based on assumptions and reasoning, which would not have been teased out were it not for clear, directed conversations about them. These were spelled out and developed into criteria to help us prioritise, which enables decentralisation and distributed decision-making, which will ultimately make us more responsive and agile.’

Tips for prioritisation

For all organisations seeking to improve how they prioritise, whether you use a prioritisation tool or not, our work with Amnesty International UK highlighted principles that would apply to any efforts to prioritise more effectively:

  • Clarity is fundamental. A key aim of this type of work should be to build a shared understanding of how decisions are made so they can be made more effectively and efficiently. During the process itself, it is important to identify and unpick areas of confusion or ambiguity—such as those relating to the nature of your work, how language is used, and the prioritisation process itself.
  • Involve the right people. This process should bring in as many views as possible, to capture a breadth of experience. Ideally, it would involve partners, beneficiaries, and other stakeholders. The process also needs to include people who have the authority to make important strategic decisions.
  • The process requires careful and thorough direction and facilitation. At the start, outline clear objectives for the process, the rationale for doing this work and roles and responsibilities. Manage expectations by explaining that the process will be iterative and involve bringing in a wide range of perspectives before focusing in on agreed priorities. Be transparent throughout.
  • Treat your approach to prioritisation as a live process. This will evolve as you learn and as the environment changes, and your priorities along with it. Any approach to prioritisation should be continually updated and refined.
  • Remember that, by its nature, strategic decision-making is hard! It won’t be feasible or effective to try to please everyone. Fight the urge to introduce nuance and flexibility when initially exploring your ideas—while acknowledging that this will inevitably happen when it comes to delivering your work. To guide you through difficult strategic decisions, focus on your theory of change and your distinct role compared with others in the system.
Looking for tips on prioritisation? With the help of Amnesty International UK's recent work as an example, this blog details how to prioritise and make strategic decisions Click To Tweet