A layman’s views on strategy
A couple of weeks ago I travelled to a meeting with a Trustee of a major grant giver. We have known each other for years and enjoy a good blether about the sector. I always find his observations extremely interesting and value our time together.
We talked a lot about charity’s strategic plans and two things he said struck me, but first the context. His grant making trust always requests a copy of an organisation’s strategy before making any commitment to funding. Consequently he has seen a lot of strategies – from very small local organisations right through to huge fundraising ‘machines’ – and, although he has been involved in grant giving for a very long time as a volunteer, before retiring he worked in ‘a profession’ (as my father would have said), so he does not consider himself ‘voluntary sector’.
So to his observations; firstly he stated that he and his fellow trustees find the majority of strategic documents woolly and unclear, full of their own jargon, be it social work or development, and that they are too formulaic. Although he does have considerable perspective on this subject matter, I was keen to dispute this, so I did some research. Sadly, he is right although in my trawl I was delighted to find a few fabulously clear, well written aspirational strategic plans.
Is it too obvious to state that more effort could go in to translating our public-facing document for that audience? Yes, we should use our language to educate but surely there are some words and expressions that we should consider ‘for internal use only’. As for the formulaic approach, I am not sure if the sector is quite ready to replicate Steve Jobs at Apple’s approach of ‘focus on making the best product and rewards will follow’, or their marketing strategy of ‘learn how Apple’s products market themselves’ or their retail strategy of ‘Apple is innovating… yet again’, but maybe we could be more innovative.
His second observation was a challenge to the sector and I am delighted that my research suggests that we are definitely doing better in this area. He told me that he and his fellow Trustees take their social responsibility very seriously and have made lots of changes to their working practices. He gave a range of examples including their new travel policy, a summer intern project and paper-free working practices. It took some of the Trustees a wee while to adjust to not receiving a paper pack of applications to be considered and working in the meetings with laptops. They are explicit about this in their work; I am not sure if they only accept electronic applications at the moment but it certainly sounded like that is coming.
His challenge was not about whether the sector has the same approach as he assumes we do, but instead he was interested in why we don’t shout louder about it in our strategic plans. His ideal is that we are more explicit about our commitment in our strategies. I know that his trust actively looks for this but from the sounds of things, in the future, they will make this ‘explicitness’ an essential criterion.