Martyn Drake: Developing strategies that go beyond treating symptoms

The traditional response of most charities has been to hunker down and try to do more

Over the past 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 such as the cost of giving and drop in volunteering; high inflation and the legacies of austerity; government policies, international conflicts, ageing populations – the list goes on.

The traditional response of 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; arguably, to provide a slightly bigger sticking-plaster over a continually expanding wound.

And, to the degree the expense can be justified, to add the work of campaigning for change and collaborating with like-minded others – although, sadly, these are often the peripheral pieces most vulnerable to the budgetary knife.

But this particular board retreat didn’t 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 allowed ourselves to entertain the heresy of shifting their starting point 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 a growing number of organisations, their trustees were keen to be given space not simply to 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 four years ago, it was hard to find many examples of established charities putting these concepts at the heart of their strategy, but it’s something I’m now seeing more frequently.

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

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

And to be fair, there’s a lot of inherited 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 need to be collectively worked 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.

Martyn Drake is founder of the management consultancy firm Binley Drake Consulting

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