Strategic planning: Look at the view, but zero in on detail

I went gliding for the first time last week and had the wonderful experience of flying low over the city of York and the surrounding countryside.

The view reminded me of Google Earth, which allows you to whizz around the planet and then zero in to as much detail as the US Department of Defense makes available.

This delight in seeing the big picture, then drilling down to desired detail is often used by software companies to sell their latest products.

Most finance directors would love to have one of these on their desk, but recognise that there are plenty of places in their own organisation that are fuzzy.

In practice, you can look at only one thing at once - perhaps the skill comes in knowing where to look when you need to - and my instructor kept up a steady stream of commands on what to look for next. I was allowed a momentary glance at the view, but spent more time looking at the nose, the wings and a little bit of string that showed whether we were straight or not.

What should a finance director be looking at? Sometimes the wider view is needed, so compare yourself with other charities. Are you moving up the ladder of the top 3,000 charities by income? What about future funding streams for the charity - some good fundraising trends reports are available and intelligence on statutory funding is improving.

All this is important when strategic planning is being done, but some funding streams can change very quickly, so if you do not have time to look, then make sure someone else has done so. Investment income can be a big issue for some, but less big for others.

What about the cost of getting where you want to go? Employment trends for your organisation are important and a monthly look at turnover and absence rates is a basic requirement. There should also be key performance indicators that show how much has been achieved with the money you spend.

These ought to be monthly, as should reports on budget performance.

Cash flow is a daily or weekly requirement, and this normally leads to the most detailed experience of financial transactions: saving up for the payroll, seeing fundraising income respond to an appeal, finally getting payment from a local authority. To return to my gliding analogy, this is when the aircraft is getting very close to the ground; there is little room for manoeuvre.

It is worth taking time to consider where your attention rests and whether it fits the course your charity wants to take. Happy flying.

• Chris Harris, finance director at Action for Blind People 


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