Focus on the system

System - sChanging population outcomes…

Over the last few years, I suspect an increasing number of charities have prefaced their strategy conversations with the kind of insights that were shared at a Board retreat I facilitated a few weeks ago.

Insights that, in a nutshell, illustrate how growth in need is outpacing the ability of the charity to meet it, and that even with most optimistic forecasts for fundraising, that gap will likely continue to expand.

The drivers of this dynamic are frequently illustrated by research bodies, documented in reports, and highlighted in the third sector’s press; drivers like the cost of giving and decline of volunteering; high inflation and the legacies of austerity; government policies, international conflicts, ageing populations; the list goes on.

The traditional response for most charities has been to hunker down and try to do more, to look for ways to diversify income and increase appeal, to reach and help an aspirational percentage more, and to provide a slightly bigger sticking-plaster over a continually expanding wound.

And, to the degree we can justify the expense, we might add the work of campaigning for change and collaborating with like-minded others – though often as the peripheral pieces most vulnerable to the budgetary knife.

But this Board retreat was never going to produce those traditional outcomes, for two reasons.

The first was that the executive team had been grappling with these realisations for quite some time, which is why I’d been asked to come in and to help them to think differently, including about their fundamental approach to strategy.

We entertained the heresy of shifting their starting point away from existing services and service users towards population-level aspirations and needs, and to put options for how they might deliver wider outcomes in partnership and collaboration, through radical innovation, or through collective and concerted systems change efforts, at the very centre rather than the edges of their thinking.

The second reason the sessions were different was, like many I’ve recently spoken with, their trustees were keen to be given space not to simply absorb and rubber-stamp executive thinking, but to understand and fully explore the topics for themselves.

Their willingness to take a couple of days out of their diaries to do this was invaluable.

I’ve often observed how, if I give a case study to a group and ask their recommendations, I will get a single clear response. But if I split them into several groups, they will each give different replies that collectively offer a much richer and more comprehensive solution.

This type of parallel thinking creates an opportunity not just for Boards and Executives to align, but to test and refine each other’s thinking, build the depth of shared understanding, and most importantly the commitment, to see this type of strategy through, recognising that it doesn’t tick the traditional boxes, that it brings with it its own risks, and that the team doesn’t, can’t, and may never have all the answers as it learns its way into a new way of operating.

When I wrote an initial white paper on bringing systems thinking into strategy almost 4 years ago, it was hard to find many examples of established charities paying more than passing reference to any of these concepts, but it’s something that I’m now delighted to be seeing more frequently.

Not three miles from where we held that retreat is the HQ of one such organisation, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which exemplified a systemic approach in their recent strategic framework comprising three themes: policy direction, system change, and building infrastructure for change.

For most large charities there is still a long way to go in learning how to develop and pursue strategies that go beyond treating symptoms, and instead, powerfully mobilise communities and organisations towards developing systemic solutions.

There’s a lot of old thinking to unpick around strategy as an exercise in competition, just as there is around the expectations of stakeholders, the ego of leadership, and the preciousness of individual organisations, all of which we will need to collectively work through.

But if we want to address the widening gap between the needs we see in society around us, and the capacity of charitable organisations to meet them, those are the challenges I’d suggest we need to start prioritising, both as a sector and as leaders within it.

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