Many chairs, chief executives and trustees reckon that ‘strategy’ has been taking a back seat in board meetings throughout the Covid 19 pandemic. 42% of the trustees we surveyed said Covid-19 had led to fewer discussions of long-term strategic issues at board meetings. On the other hand, around a third of trustees we surveyed (30%) reported an increased focus on long-term strategic issues throughout the pandemic.
Many of the issues raised by the pandemic are clearly strategic at heart. Some charities are already considering what future programme delivery, fundraising and the management of financial reserves should look like, as well as where there are opportunities for collaborations and even (partial) mergers. Shifting the focus from coping with the crisis to longer-term strategic thinking is going to become a key task for all charity boards.
Covid-19 has prompted some charity boards to become more heavily involved with day-to-day operational activities. Shifting the focus from the here-and-now to more medium- to long-term strategic issues will be essential if boards are to keep their charity on track.
We found that three main challenges are preventing many charity boards from returning to a position of strategic oversight:
1. Mission creep
Many boards have found themselves overwhelmed with urgent decisions to steer their charities through the here-and-now. Questions about Covid-19 can detract resources from unrelated aspects of charities’ missions and associated strategies.
There is a danger of mission creep. Because this is such a cataclysmic event, organisations think they need to speak about it all the time. That bears thinking about.
Many charities have postponed their annual strategy meetings because the starting point for strategic planning continues to change. However, delaying conversations on strategy may make decision-making less effective and more difficult, not easier.
Strategy based on the bigger purpose and vision of a charity can provide essential guard rails and boundaries for decision-making. These guard rails are invaluable in complex or chaotic decision-making environments.
It is hard to do strategy when you don’t know the launch point.
3. Meeting format
Many chairs and chief executives consider virtual meetings a barrier to effective strategy meetings. In many charities, mid- to long-term strategic planning takes place at away-days and in strategy marathons. While some leadership teams have organised virtual away-days, many chairs are unsure how to facilitate strategy-focussed events virtually.
Charity boards, and chairs in particular, need to have a view on where the charity is going. This requires boards to remain aware of what is happening in their charity’s wider environment, and to stay actively involved with the charity’s strategic objectives throughout the year. Strategy is not just for away-days.
NPC’s publication Strategy for impact shares how NPC approaches charity and funder strategy development, and uses its strategy triangle, which is specifically tailored to the charity sector.
1. Be explicit about your charity’s bigger vision and overarching goal
Many chairs and chief executives reported that they were now reaping the rewards of having already invested time discussing and fully understanding their charity’s mission. Most stressed the importance of strategic alignment between trustees and the executive team.
The experience of board development experts is that simply assuming alignment means that fundamental differences often remain undetected. Trustees tend to believe they know and agree on the vision of their charity and are surprised when they discover they disagree with the executive on fundamental aspects like the charity’s exact target group or its overarching goal for society.
Charities need to go through a full and frank review. Coming out of the crisis, ask yourself: what do we now look like as an organisation? Has the pandemic effected our whole model as a charity?
To stay agile, you need to be clear about the purpose and identity or your charity:
- What do you stand for, where are your red lines?
- How explicit can you be about your precise goals and any trade-offs between competing priorities?
If you need to pivot – for example on where to spend more money, or which services to de-prioritise – knowing your north star will help you make decisions in line with your charity’s identity and long-term strategic objectives. It pays to communicate the mission repeatedly (and powerfully) to maintain focus.
A minimum viable strategy is something that can help you to be more agile. This means clearly articulating a deeply understood mission, vision and priorities. The rest—intermediate outcomes and activities—should be flexible.
Make necessary adjustments to keep the show on the road but try to keep your core purpose in mind. Adjust for what Covid-19 may have done to that but try not to let it distract you from the aim of your charity.
2. Make strategy an ongoing activity
Many charities are regularly confronting decisions that are strategic at heart. Nevertheless, strategy development, approval and evaluation are often seen as the subject of rare strategy away-days that at best take place annually and often rarer than that.
We have become more short-term because the uncertainty of how long this will persist is hanging over us. We have to be quite light on our feet.
To develop a sense of ownership and buy-in into strategy that can spread throughout the charity as a whole, and to reduce your dependence on rare strategy away-days, consider:
- Starting with an internal review. Over the course of our interviews, several chairs and board development experts recommended re-focusing on strategy by reviewing the charity’s current strategic model in light of new realities. This can be a repeat activity where boards pause periodically to refocus on medium-term objectives: which of them still hold, and for those that do, are you on track? NPC’s approach to strategy development includes a review of previous strategy. It is likely to include successes you want to maintain, as well as elements that need to change. Reviewing what has gone before—both what is written and what happens in practice— helps to identify what should be stopped, continued, or scaled up. NPC often uses its What Makes A Good Charity framework for internal reviews as part of a strategy development.
- Using a strategic calendar that maps out your strategic priorities in greater detail for the short- to medium-term and in less detail the further ahead you look. Given the uncertainty created by recent crises, some charities have found it useful to shift from planning 2-3 years ahead to focussing on strategy over the next 6-12 months.
- Using a strategy traffic light system that reflects the level of attention the board need to pay to various strategic priorities. Using a red-amber-green rating system, trustees and staff can regularly update where discussions and decisions would be beneficial (amber) or are urgently necessary (red) to keep the charity on track to meet its strategic objectives. This can help chairs set relevant meeting agendas. It also keeps strategic objectives at the heart of board decision-making.
Ask yourselves: How can we achieve our vision when so much is changing? Boards that are able to hold space for the volatility, the difficult decisions, while keeping their eye on the mission of their organisation, and on the people linked to it – those are the boards that will be able to sustain their charities.
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