In the last few years a number of people in community service organisations have said things are changing so fast, what’s the point of having a strategic plan? We don’t know what might happen 12 months from now, so we definitely can’t plan five or ten years ahead.
It’s definitely true the community service sector in Western Australia has been undergoing radical change for at least the last five years. And it’s also true, in times of such change, it’s difficult or even foolhardy to pretend to predict the future with any degree of certainty.
And that’s why, at times like this, community NFPs need a strategic plan more than ever. Just as people can learn strategies and develop resilience to deal with difficult situations, so can community service organisations. When the future’s uncertain, a strategic plan helps the staff and Board identify and build the organisational characteristics they need to navigate through the turbulence. And, just like people, there’s no one set of ‘right’ traits or skills to deal with every situation.
Thinking about uncertainty, it’s easy to come up with a list of traits which might help an organisation become more resilient:
- Agile or flexible – being able to change direction quickly is always handy in times of change, but sometimes difficult to achieve
- Scale – being big can sometimes provide a buffer
- Diverse – organisations with lots of different programs and funding streams are at less risk if any one source of funding dries up
- Specialised – being the absolute best in any field often brings a certain level of success
- Independent – having independent sources of funding, which are not tied to any particular program or funder can give NFPs more freedom in the way they choose to pursue their mission and vision
- Cashed up – a strong asset base, especially a war chest of cash or other current assets, is always handy
- High profile – a strong supporter base of loyal and devoted fans can be helpful, although doesn’t necessarily protect when times are tough.
Of course this is just a short list. You might be able to think of other examples. It’s also fairly obvious organisations will struggle to achieve all these things at once. For example, it’s hard to be agile and big at the same time. It’s hard to be diverse and specialised at the same time. Not impossible, but difficult. This means the leadership team have to choose. Which is better: big or agile? Diverse or specialised?
There are plenty of strategic plans around containing all the items on the list above, along with maybe a few others, for good measure. Ask the leadership group in such an organisation how they’re going implementing such a plan, they’re likely to admit they’re running behind schedule. This is because the plan was never realistic in the first place. A good plan not only helps the leadership group decide what to do, but also what not to do.
And it’s easy to come up with a wish-list, but how does an organisation actually achieve any of these goals? This is what strategic planning is all about.
The strategic planning process typically has five phases:
- Initiation – setting up the strategic planning project for success, agreeing on a project plan, timelines, communication protocols, and suitable project sponsorship
- Discovery – gathering data to form the basis for an environmental scan – typically by looking closely at the organisation’s internal workings, such as financials, contracts, organisational structures, culture, as well as the external factors, such as political, economic, social, or technological trends. During this phase it’s important to gather the views of the organisation’s stakeholders, usually by conducting confidential one on one interviews or focus groups.
- Discussion paper – this is when a lot of the analysis happens – the project team develop a discussion paper for the leadership group, highlighting the key pieces of data and trends identified in the discovery phase and outlining the range of available options
- Decision making workshop – a structured workshop taking the leadership group through a process to arrive at some decisions
- Presentation and refinement of the draft strategic plan.
This whole process can take anything from four weeks to several months. The biggest impact on timing is usually scheduling meetings with all the necessary stakeholders and decision makers to gather the necessary data.
Once the plan is complete, it’s then up to the leadership group to implement the plan. Ideally, it will be obvious what needs to change to bring the plan into reality. And, as mentioned above, ideally the plan will be focused on just a few achievable goals, rather than a long, unrealistic wish-list.