Strategies can take many different forms, with varying amounts of detail. Some are relatively brief – one or two pages – but have associated plans and other documents associated with them. Whatever form they take, they are particularly valuable at times of change – both internally and in the external environment – in helping societies to:
- clarify the society’s purposes: what are we here for?
- set direction: where do we think we are heading, why, and how might we get there?
- identify and address key risks, issues and challenges, both in the internal and the external environments;
- provide a coherent statement and thus help to improve communications with staff, trustees, members and other stakeholders;
- develop commitment from staff, trustees and members in working towards shared goals;
- identify priorities and resources required (time, expertise and energy as well as money); and to plan for and allocate the resources identified.
You can find useful guidance on strategies and how to develop and implement them on the Knowhow Nonprofit website of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, and on the Planning Advisory Service website. There is also a wealth of advice on other websites, along with examples of plans from a wide range of organisations; and you may wish to draw on the case studies featured on this site and the society plans to which we provide links at in Determining the strategy.
- 2.1 Clarifying the society’s purposes
- 2.2 Setting direction: key aims and objectives
- 2.3 Identifying key issues and challenges
- 2.4 Improving communications with staff, trustees, members and other stakeholders
- 2.5 Generating commitment from staff, trustees and members
- 2.6 Identifying priorities and the resources required to achieve them
- 2.7 Innovations in operations and activities
- 2.8 Formats for strategies
For those societies that are charities, and still more for those that are chartered, the purposes of the organisation are set out in governing documents. In some cases, however, those objects and purposes may be defined in very general terms, or have been drafted many years ago. Hence they may need to be refined or updated to take account of more recent developments both within the society and its activities, and in the wider environment in which it operates. One chief executive suggested to us that as the external environment becomes more complex, societies that had given relatively low priority to strategic thinking and planning were now realising that strategy is central to their concerns and their well-being. Another suggested that a process of strategic thinking had given the society a
‘better understanding of the society as a charity, and therefore our mission’.
A third said that the strategy is liberating:
‘the strategic aims are now linked clearly to the objects set out in the charter, and can be clearly communicated to everyone involved in the society, or interested in its work’.
The strategy also enables the society to hold itself to account for the work it does and the public good it seeks to achieve.
Several chief executives, trustees and respondents to our survey indicated that developing a strategy had enabled the society to determine key aims and objectives for the next three to five years, and thus to focus its programmes of activity on strategic goals or objectives rather than responding ad hoc to new developments or suggested initiatives. Typical comments were
‘….it allowed us to take a step back and make sure that our activities met our goals’
‘it has given a focus to our work’
‘….. enabled us to frame our activities in a more coherent way and to confirm that activities and aims were relevant and worthy but in need of updating’
‘more focused….continuing what we were doing before but doing it better’
‘…served as a way to articulate many of the things we would have been doing. It shows our direction’
‘provides clarity over the services the society provides, and their relative importance’.
In this way, the strategies have also facilitated subsequent decision-making, about what to do, and also what not to do. Typical comments here were
‘programmes of activity are increasingly driven by long-term objectives rather than ad hoc short-term desires’
‘…important that everything is critically evaluated …. so that we are not just reactive to changing circumstances’
‘to say ‘No’ to requests to engage in activities that do not fall within the framework of the plan’.
And a particular value of strategies is to set priorities and provide a framework for the development of new activities. As one of our interviewees put it, the strategy
‘provides a yardstick against which to decide on new ideas’.
Many societies that publish scholarly journals have identified open access, and the policies to promote it, as key risks to their financial health and their ability to sustain their programmes of activity. But most of them see open access as a risk in the medium to long term. They see little impact on their journals at present, nor do they expect to see any significant impact in the short-to-medium term. Hence for the great majority of societies open access does not currently represent a ‘burning bridge’ and as yet it has featured relatively little in their discussions about strategy. Nevertheless,, it will be an important matter to be kept under review in future strategy exercises.
But other external challenges may include
- relationships with and competition from other societies or associations in related areas;
- relationships with key funders or funding sources;
- developments in the knowledge economy;
- changes in the demographic profile of the scholarly community; and risks faced by the seed-corn of the profession in the form of early-career researchers.
But internal challenges may be equally if not more important, including
- falling or static membership, or concerns about the profile of the membership;
- lack of capacity to take on new roles and activities;
- activities that have become loss-making;
- concerns about the adequacy of governance structures; and
- resistance to change among the membership.
Identifying a major challenge of this kind –particularly if it is seen as an imminent risk to the society – is sometimes the trigger for a society deciding to undertake a strategic review. But even if that is not the case, it can be very useful to take the time to articulate such challenges, the risks they pose to the society and to its discipline or subject area, and the actions that could or should be taken to mitigate such risks. One society sees its most recent strategic review as having had a profound effect in changing it from an inward-looking and elitist body to one which is much more open to all who have an interest in the discipline.
A clear and well-articulated strategy provides a powerful mechanism for communicating with members (actual and potential), staff, trustees and other stakeholders. It enables them to understand what the society is about, and what it is seeking to achieve. Once it is in place, it helps internal audiences to understand why certain decisions are being taken, in terms of new activities, or the cessation of existing ones.
A clear strategy can also help, as one society put it, ‘to improve the image of the [society]’ even while acknowledging that it can still be improved. The society is thus better able to attract new members and retain existing ones; and to attract and retain external funders and supporters. Another society thus talked of the importance of being able to take the strategy to funders and say ‘this is what we do and how we intend to do it’.
Yet other societies mentioned the enhanced credibility that a clear strategy generates for their advocacy and lobbying activities, which they feel are more likely to receive a positive response when they can point to a clear strategy document. For all these reasons, one society decided as part of its strategy, to remodel all its communications, and to establish a new website, while another says that it is now more responsive and outward-facing, making use of social media and ‘ready to put its head above the parapet’. Perhaps even more radically, another decided to produce podcasts from presentations at conferences and seminars, and from lectures aimed at sixth form students, so that they could reach audiences far beyond those who could attend physically.
A strategy can also provide clarity of purpose for all those involved in a society and its work, enhancing understanding between members, staff and trustees, and thus serve as a powerful motivating force. Typical comments include
‘time spent on this is not wasted – it builds a much greater sense of common purpose between governing bodies and staff’
‘it is motivating for staff and trustees, who are driven by the achievement of goals’
‘the governing body has a much better idea of what the staff do and how much work can reasonably be undertaken; they also have gained a better idea of how the society’s resources (both human and financial) can be utilised’
‘it has enabled the whole staff to ” think big ideas”. They had never done that before and that was certainly worth it in terms of staff engagement and contribution’
‘it has helped staff see how what they are doing contributes directly to the strategic ambition of the society’
‘helped the senior management team engage more meaningfully with the Board in strategic considerations rather than operational ones’
Such positive outcomes depend, of course, on the procedures leading to the formulation of the strategy being seen as properly consultative and inclusive. Otherwise there is the risk of dissent and lack of commitment. In one or two cases we have heard of concerns that activities and priorities to which senior trustees were much attached have been excluded when strategic plans have been drawn up. We consider ways to avoid such problems in Section 4.2.
No organisation can do everything that it would ideally like to do, and deciding on priorities is a key part of determining a strategy. Such thinking must take account in at least general terms of the resources of expertise, time and energy as well as cash available in attempting to achieve strategic priorities; but more detailed work to allocate the resources may be needed once the strategy has been agreed.
The key benefit is that the allocation of resources is indeed linked to the strategic objectives. This may involve shifting resources from one activity to another, and this in turn may require a different skill-set among staff and possibly trustees.
In some cases this has led societies to a complete restructuring of their activities – and the staff, committees and members of the Board responsible for them – around each of the strategic goals.
Many other societies identify the benefits that have arisen from new strategic approaches.
‘it has enabled us to allocate resources to ensure that the focus is on achieving the strategic objectives, rather than just to what has been funded in the past’
‘we’ve identified areas of activity that could be better resourced and areas or groups / people that could be more usefully worked with’.
‘a means of focusing resources on core aims and a small number of achievable objectives’
In some cases this may mean restricting or narrowing down activities.
‘the approach is that the society should be doing more only if there is a clear advantage to the society and to beneficiaries … the strategic plan and the budget are now aligned.’
‘the catalyst for us to take a couple of big decisions such as stopping activities which were done for historic reasons and not helping us reach our goals’
‘the need to focus on valued services for members and not ‘changing the world’.
As a result, some societies have been able to become ‘more sustainable’ and in at least one case a new strategy is said to have ‘contributed to a move towards financial viability’. It is important, however, that strategies should achieve an appropriate balance between ambition and ‘blue skies’ thinking on the one hand, and feasibility and sustainability on the other. One society found that its strategy was
‘too large, too idealistic, not enough based on what is feasible’
But from the other extreme, another found its current strategy
‘focused on income, costs and service delivery – it does not have a blue skies element, nor foresight’.
Getting the balance right can be tricky, and we offer some guidance on this in Section 4.2
Several societies point to ways in which a new strategy has brought with it major developments in activities and operations. A common theme across a number of medium to large-scale societies has been to re-organise their governance structures so that they fit better with current circumstances. In some cases this has taken the form of structuring the governance explicitly around the core goals or aims set out in the strategy (for example by assigning to each Vice President responsibility for one of those goals or aims). But in other cases, the re-organisation has been simply to reform a structure that had become outdated and/or ineffective.
In similar vein, other societies have taken the opportunity to revise the structures and processes surrounding their special interest groups (SIGs) so that they can operate more effectively (and freely) within the frameworks set by the society’s overall strategy.
Innovations in activities have included
- the initiation of new grant schemes, or the enhancement of existing ones, typically by re-allocation of resources from other areas of activity
- using new technologies to expand the reach of existing activities by, for example, making conference, seminar and workshop presentations accessible online, or by live streaming from events, with facilities for submitting questions and comments online
- generating and circulating – with varying levels and different kinds of specialist help – expert briefing material on specialist topics, and also using such materials as the basis for enhancing contacts with mainstream and specialist media outlets, so that material is to hand when need or opportunity arises.
- merging with or absorbing related societies and organisations (which may be a trigger for initiating a strategy exercise; while in other cases the existence of the strategy has facilitated a merger).
- establishing a capacity for research and policy analysis in areas of interest to the society.
A common thread running through such innovations has been to shift the focus of the society and its activities so that it has become more outward-facing.
Read through the case studies for examples of this.
The formats and length of strategies and plans vary hugely, depending on the nature of the society, and also on the audience to which such documents are directed. What is appropriate for one society or for one kind of audience may not be at all appropriate for another. Some strategies amount to a few bullet points identifying aims, objectives and perhaps priorities on a single sheet of paper; others are significantly longer. But it’s important to stress that a strategy is much more than a mission statement. It must at the very least set out some clear goals or aims, and what will be done in order to meet them.
Some strategies are explicitly addressed to internal audiences, while others have a stronger external focus. Related to the question of audience, some strategies include specific quantified targets; while others leave quantified objectives and targets to the separate but related exercise of developing and agreeing annual operational plans and objectives for staff .Indeed, some societies suggest that a key benefit of their strategies has been to enable them
‘to develop far more relevant operational and work plans that tie directly to strategic objectives’
Different versions of a strategy may thus need to be developed for different audiences.
We provide links to examples of society’s strategies and plans at Determining the strategy, so that you may see the many different forms they take.
Up next: Formulating a strategy: key questions