Many societies that have developed strategies have found that the process has been almost as valuable as the strategy itself. The processes, like the strategies, vary according to the nature and size of the society, so there is no template to suit all circumstances. But there are some common features which may help societies when thinking about how best to proceed.
The triggers that lead societies to think about starting to develop a strategy may vary, and may depend in particular on whether the society is seeking to renew an existing strategy or to develop one for the first time.
Sometimes it is the election of a new President, or the appointment of a new member of staff (particularly a CEO), with an interest in strategic planning, and the drive to pursue it. In other cases it is simply a recognition that an existing strategy has run its course and needs to be revisited and renewed, or a response to demands from members for new activities. But some societies have decided on the need for a strategy in response to a crisis, which may be financial, or administrative and operational (when, for example staff are overwhelmed, or a key activity fails to meet expectations), or when there is a significant fall in membership, or a merger. Yet other strategic exercises have been stimulated when a group of members have raised concerns about the direction of a society, and those concerns have resonated sufficiently with the membership at large for key people to be elected to positions of power within the society.
Different triggers of this kind may have an influence on the way in which the exercise is undertaken: who leads it, how long it takes, and who is actively involved or consulted. But in nearly all cases, the process has been initiated by discussions at a special meeting of the Council or Board, sometimes at an awayday, focused on possible strategic directions for the society and leading to a decision on how the process should be run.
For many small societies, the special meeting of the Council or Board may be the key event, with follow-up largely undertaken in the normal business of meetings and consultations with members. But for other societies, a more extended process will be appropriate, with the appointment of individuals and groups to take the lead.
Who leads: officers, staff and working groups
In some cases lead responsibility will rest with the President or Chair of the Board, or another senior officer; in other cases the process will be driven by the Director, CEO or other senior member of staff. But typically, it will involve the appointment of, as one society puts it
‘a small committee of the committed, the great and the good’, or
‘working groups for each key area, chaired by a trustee and supported by a senior member of staff’
If the process does involve different working groups, the senior officer or member of staff will have to take responsibility for driving the process as a whole, and for ensuring that what emerges from them is stitched together coherently before the strategy is finalised for approval by the governing Council or Board.
External facilitators or advisers
Facilitators and /or expert advisors external to the society have sometimes been used, and can prove valuable, particularly if they have experience of other learned societies or similar organisations. Opinions vary, but some societies that have not sought external input in the past now think that it might be useful to do so in the future, perhaps on specific issues such as governance or resource allocation. But it is also important that externals should not play too prominent or decisive a role, since the strategy needs to be owned by the society itself.
Consultation with members, staff and trustees
Societies that have recently developed strategies all stress the importance of wide consultation with members, staff, and all trustees, and therefore discussions with key committees or special interest groups. Longer processes may involve successive stages of engagement with members, sections, key stakeholders and so on. But even in shorter processes, widespread consultation will be important. Societies almost invariably say that in the future they will seek further consultation and engagement as a key part of the process.
‘the membership must be brought closer into the process of constructing the strategy’
‘involve as many people and stakeholders as possible from the beginning[and} ensure staff have real engagement with the process, as they will need to carry out most of the work’
‘make sure you take everyone with you by including all staff, trustees, and members in the process by as many appropriate mechanisms that you need: workshops, online surveys, targeted emails and so on’
‘providing opportunities for others to have their say and recognizing those voices along the way will mean your plans are better informed, understood, accepted and appreciated’
Consultation does not mean, of course, that everyone’s wants can be met. Decisions do have to be made about the society’s direction and focus, and about priorities. More than one society has learned the hard way that generating a strategy that is highly-inclusive, but amount to a wish-list with aims and objectives so numerous and ambitious that they cannot be met, means that the exercise has produced no useful result. On the other hand, thinking hard about different views and interests, and how to be as inclusive as possible, generates buy-in and shared ownership.
‘be prepared for lots of discussion and make sure that it’s properly managed, focused, and channelled towards a conclusion’
‘it’s hard work trying to incorporate many different views, but the end result is worth it’
Length of the process
How much of all this can be done depends on the time and other resources available to support the exercise. Many societies stress the importance of not rushing, and some say that they would extend the process next time if possible. Of the larger societies we spoke to, many suggested that they had taken about a year on their most recent exercise. But other smaller societies stress the need for realism about what can be achieved within the time and other resources available, while one society suggest as a key lesson
‘not to spend too much time doing it and not to get too caught up in formal strategic planning processes
Up next: Determining the strategy