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Strategy: The Importance of Thinking About What You Want to Achieve

By: Laura Edgar, Institute on Governance

Mandate is a key driver for all public purpose organizations, and the boards who govern them. Public purpose organizations are required to operate within their mandate, normally defined in an organization’s letters, patent or articles of incorporation. Mandate drives mission, vision and strategy. Boards are responsible for setting the mission, vision and values of the organization, and for approving the strategies that support the achievement of mission and vision.

It is the board that needs to decide the parameters around the strategy process and the role it wants to play. Some organizations and boards can feel a little intimidated by strategic planning and the work it could entail, imagining the need to create a thick, professionally produced document that can be used for both internal and external communication purposes. While a nice glossy document is great, the reality is that for many small organizations, strategic planning should, first and foremost, be about coming to agreement about what you want to achieve over the next period of time (generally three to five years) and how you intend to get there. Then, put it on paper so you have it as a guide for your work going forward. After that, if appropriate, consider creating a one-page summary to share with key stakeholders.

Different organizations involve board and staff in different ways. Some boards, typically those that have a smaller staff or limited staff leadership capacity, will be actively engaged in developing strategies as well as approving them. In contrast, organizations that have a strong staff complement will generally have Boards of Directors that respond and add value to draft strategic priorities put forward by the Executive Director and senior management team. In some cases, the board may work collaboratively with the senior management team to define priorities, an approach which is becoming increasingly common. In any case, as both staff and director input are critical to setting and implementing a successful strategy, clarity on roles and responsibilities in the strategic planning process is key.

So, how do you build a strategic plan? A typical strategic planning process will include the following components:

  • An environmental scan, so you know what is happening, including any trends in the environment in which you operate. You may wish to look at your partners and competitors to see what they are doing, what is happening with governments or others that fund your work, etc.
  • A review of the mandate, mission, vision and values. These may or may not change as the result of a review, but since mandate and mission should drive strategy, it is always a good place to start.
  • A SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) Analysis. This is your chance to look at your organization’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as the opportunities and threats your organization faces. Keep in mind that every opportunity comes with risks, and some threats can become opportunities with the right response!
  • The identification (a long list) of possible longer-term priorities (i.e. to be achieved over the three-to-five-year period) and the subsequent refinement of the long list into a short list of for the coming years. Once that priorities list has been agreed upon, key objectives for each priority are developed, and key initiatives to support achievement of the priorities may be identified.

So, once you have set your priorities, how will you know that you are making progress? A good planning process identifies measures, targets and milestones up-front. The Board needs to be able to monitor progress and make adjustments if needed. For that reason, monitoring should emphasize outcomes, but can also include interim measures such as project milestones, resources and outputs for longer-term objectives. Reporting requirements for staff should be specified and risks and mitigation strategies also need to be considered.

Finally, be sure you make the links! The strategic plan should be the key driver of your annual operational plan, annual budget, your board’s dashboard as well as the annual objectives of your Executive Director. 

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