Prioritising: why it’s important and how to get started
20 March 2023 5 minute read
This is the third blog in a series on updating your charity strategy. Read part two by Liz Gadd here.
For most social purpose organisations, there will always be more to do than time and money available. This brings a strategic risk of being spread too thinly and not making progress on the things that matter most. It also brings operational risks around staff feeling overwhelmed and burning out. It is difficult and often emotive to not only prioritise, but also deprioritise—i.e., agree what you won’t be focusing on. At NPC’s Strategy Peer Network, prioritising is always high on the agenda, and we’ve learned so much from the conversations. Here are some key takeaways.
Why is prioritising important?
Without a method for prioritising where to focus you risk being spread too thinly. Our peer network members worry about:
Staff welfare: Socially motivated organisations and individuals always want to do the maximum to support people and make change. This can lead to unrealistic workloads. Leaders need to model prioritising, and guide staff in how to prioritise, to avoid staff feeling overwhelmed and burned out.
Robust decision-making: It’s important that leadership can assess different options, including the opportunity cost of prioritising one thing over another. If decisions about starting up new initiatives happen informally through personal passion, rather than organisational oversight weighting different options, leaders can’t channel energy and resources towards having the biggest and quickest impact for beneficiaries.
Strategic prioritisation: broad vs focused
Sometimes prioritisation discussions are about how focused you want to be. Most organisations have a broad, ambitious mission and vision—but how does that translate into action? Are you going to use targeted goals to make it clear what’s ‘in’ and what’s ‘out’? Or will you have broad goals, to allow flexibility? It’s important to weigh the pros and cons of these approaches when you’re setting a strategy and ensure that everyone has a clear understanding.
Targeted goals make it easier to see what’s aligned with the strategy and what isn’t. You can use ‘alignment with goals’ as a key criterion in discussions about what to prioritise. Using targeted goals to prioritise should lead to a more coherent, focused portfolio of work, making it easier to track progress.
However, many organisations decide that a broad strategy is fundamental to their identity. They may feel their most important role is to be a flexible and responsive resource for the communities they work in. Through Covid, and now with the cost-of-living crisis, we have seen the needs of communities shifting rapidly, and more organisations taking the decision to ‘get stuck in’ wherever needed.
The broad approach makes it harder for an organisation to prioritise based on ‘alignment with goals’. Instead, criteria such as ‘urgency of need’ should come to the fore.
In the broad vs focused debate, a key question to consider is whether it’s your ambition to develop a set of programmes and activities which have good alignment, and work towards specific goals. This approach may be suitable for organisations that want to achieve lasting social change. Alternatively, where your priority is to meet the urgent needs of a community (either geographical or a community of interest), programmes and activities may not need to have the same targeted coherence.
The risk of becoming spread too thin
Even with a focused strategy, teams risk taking on too much and becoming too busy—and this risk is exacerbated with a broad strategy. So you’ll need to look at the range of things you could do and decide what do first. Of course, prioritising is pointless if you don’t also de-prioritise, so you’ll also need to decide what you’re not going to tackle (or not yet).
You’re unlikely to find consensus on what to prioritise, so it can be more helpful to start with how to prioritise. If you want your strategy to be flexible, to accommodate new information and respond to shifts in the internal and external environment, you need an approach that is transparent and repeatable. That approach needs:
- A recurring process with a clear timeline – e.g., we reassess twice a year what can be prioritised based on updated knowledge of what’s needed; on progress in existing priorities; and on new ideas arising.
- A clear set of criteria to assess priorities against – above we talked about ‘alignment with goals being a necessary critereon and ‘urgency of need’. ‘Alignment with your values’ is another important one, as well as ‘organisational expertise or capabilities’. But the list of criteria, and the weighting between criteria, will look different for each organisation.
Agreeing criteria is often not straightforward, but the process of debating and discussing can be valuable in creating a shared understanding, making for a much smoother process when you navigate contentious decisions. There’s more about what the criteria setting process can look like in this blog we previously wrote with Amnesty International.
Practical reflections from NPC’s Strategy Peer Network
Our peer network colleagues have shared some of their approaches to prioritising. Most agree that tactical prioritising is much easier than strategic prioritisation.
‘We always have a number of projects to support our 4 strategic objectives and in the spirit of an adaptive approach, we review these projects twice a year to prioritise and ensure that we don’t lose track of the important stuff or of ‘good ideas’. We allocate into four categories:
‘Do now: this year (already committed or mitigates major risk)
Do next: start this year
Do last: keep under review / take a staged approach / start small
Do never: to be continued or park for next year
‘So far we have found that the good ideas which do not enable us to meet our objectives soon fall by the wayside when we review priorities, also good ideas can still be captured in case they can turn into a meaningful project.
‘We keep a separate list of recurring tasks that are essential to the functioning of the organisation and which take up a significant chunk of time. This way we can review the available resources and prioritise them according to Business as usual activities or Transformational projects.’
Catherine Kevis, CEO, YSS
‘For organisational decisions we use an effort versus impact matrix: we take our options and assess them against a scale of high-to-low effort, and a scale of high-to-low impact. This helps us see how much of the high impact stuff we have capacity to take on. This is very useful, especially when working with trustee boards who can sometimes get excited about the ‘nice to do’ things, and it’s very helpful that we can keep bringing it back to the matrix.
‘For my personal workload I tend to take a MOSCOW approach: Must do, Should do, Could do. I also target the hard stuff for the start of the day to get it done while I’m fresh in my thinking and energy.’
Heather Osborne, Chief Executive, Age UK Shropshire Telford & Wrekin
Like many aspects of strategy, prioritising feels like a technical exercise. However, the way your prioritisation process is discussed, debated, agreed and applied facilitates the culture change which helps your strategy to become a lived reality. You need a golden thread that runs through high-level strategic decisions, down to individual objectives and workplans.
A clear shared strategic framework with an aligned process for prioritising will help your organisation to translate that strategy into meaningful and manageable workplans.
‘I don’t think prioritisation has a formula but it can be consistently framed and when done well the clarity it provides is one of the most important things that leaders can give to their teams and organisations.’
James Radford, Chief of Staff, St John Ambulance
Using values to guide decision making
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On 18 January 2023.
In an ever-changing context, knowing your values can help you make better decisions.
Updating your strategy? It’s time for a new approach
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Covid has changed how organisations in the social sector need to approach their strategies, NPC's Sally Bagwell explains how.