Strategy is not about what you do but about what you are for
For many charities there’s long been a clear disconnect between strategic vision and everyday operations. There are good reasons for this, but they don’t make it any less problematic, and now is the time to renew that connection.
Most charities’ visions relate to the world at large: aspiring to a society that provides equity or equality, of outcome or opportunity; tolerance or inclusion; accessibility or adaptation; justice, fairness or kindness and so forth. And for some, their operations focus on education, training, influencing legislation or campaigning, to try and bring those visions about.
Others focus on funding or leading innovation or development; or on providing support, services, interventions – essential aid or a “leg up” for those who need it, recognising the vision is not yet reality, and in the meantime people need help right now, to overcome those systemically reinforced challenges.
Some organisations perform several of those roles, but few do them all, and even fewer do them all well, because the remit is so broad and so complex. Hence the gap between the vision of the world we want to see – our ultimate purpose; and the role our organisation currently plays in realising that vision. The only way the latter can bring about the former is with a broader coalition of other organisations playing other roles, the aggregated efforts of whom will, at some point, collectively bring that societal vision about.
At least, that’s how it should be. But for many charities it’s not, for two reasons.
The first reason is that, for many of us, that broader coalition doesn’t exist. We might collaborate with some like-minded organisations on a few services, policies or campaigns. But do we explicitly share the same vision with the much wider swathe of actors we would need onside? Do we take aim at those goals together, do we put aside differences and consistently work in a concerted and integrated way, from top to bottom, to bring that vision about?
The second reason often flows from pragmatism following years of the first. We narrow our sights to our current role, to our historical footprint in the wider, changing landscape. Our vision becomes an aspiration, and our entire strategy reframes around getting better at that role; our goals defined more by what we’ve historically done, than by the change we want to see. And thus, our highest strategic aims become: to improve quality, strengthen voice, live our values, and increase our reach from 5% to 6% of the population in need.
This is where we lose sight of our vision, and the cost is more than the realisation of our higher purpose, it’s also the realisation of our true potential. Many of the charities I speak to are trapped within a cage of their own making as their income erodes and their business models become increasingly challenged, not just by the pandemic, but by longer term trends that the current situation has only accelerated, albeit in some cases, dramatically.
This pandemic gives us a unique opportunity to rethink these fundamental questions; to redefine our potential to create positive impact; to reach back to that core purpose, that aspirational vision; and to look not at what we do, but at what we are for. To recognise that the operating model we have honed and refined over the years, is just a temporary vehicle for our impact; that the collaborations we’ve developed are just the tip of a potential iceberg in bringing about wider, more systemic change – they are both merely yesterday’s way of fulfilling a higher purpose.
If the escalating response to systemic racial discrimination burning its way through our front pages every day, shows us anything, it’s that yesterday’s solutions will not deliver the scale of change we need to see. If they could have, they would have, and they haven’t. We all need to start thinking differently if we want to see real, tangible, societal change.
And so, as you start to reappraise your strategies and plans in light of the impact of coronavirus, remember that those things that we happened to do before March 2020, are nothing more than the material history of our journey to this point in time. They have got us here, but to assume they are the best way to get us to the next staging-post on the way to our vision, merely cages our potential.
And more than that, it all but guarantees our visions will forever remain thwarted and frustrated aspirations.