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Since 2006, IVAR has worked with five funders to offer strategic reviews to their grantees. The content of this page is drawn from these programmes and the extensive experience of our team and associates:

  • The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation
  • Lankelly Chase Foundation
  • Locality
  • Travellers Aid Trust
  • The Tudor Trust
  • Anchors Programme (2010 – 2012)




A strategic review helps organisations to take stock and work through change by focusing on the big external and internal challenges. There is an explicit focus upon the whole organisation and its wider context, rather than pressing day-to-day operational issues.

Reviews support organisations to look to the future, assess changes in the external environment and find their own responses to problems and opportunities. They are a chance to step back and to reflect upon a series of fundamental questions about the organisation’s purpose and values.


Drawn from our experience of strategic reviews with many small organisations, directly and through our work with funders.

A strategic review is a way of identifying big problems as opposed to day-to-day operational ones, and dealing with them using the experience and skills of people within the organisation.


What do organisations get out of a strategic review?

In our experience, organisations see substantial and tangible benefits from this process. These might include new mission statements and organisational objectives; support going through change processes; more effective leadership; more cohesive staff and trustees; and greater clarity about what the organisation stands for. Overall, our experience is that organisations experience a sense of renewed purpose and focus as a result of the process.


When is the best time to have a strategic review?

There is no perfect time. However, it is important to make sure that there is sufficient energy and time for the process, and that trustees and senior staff are committed to it. Times of crisis can prompt discussions about strategic reviews; our experience suggests that they can usefully follow on from a difficult period, but that immediate crises need to be addressed first.


What are the challenges?

Strategic reviews can be complex, and often difficult, processes. Our experience suggests that even carefully managed strategic reviews can be challenging for organisations and individuals. Making sure that staff and trustees support the process and have enough time and capacity to engage certainly helps reviews run smoothly and work effectively.


However, even the best run process can at times feel overwhelming to staff. Common challenges thrown up during strategic reviews include concerns about how to resource new approaches; how to continue to make time for strategy when delivering services is so pressing; and how the outcome fits into operational and business planning. It can also be difficult to discuss change and improvement without staff feeling understandably defensive.

Strategic Review 1


Strategic review - what to think about
before you start


  • What question is the review trying to answer?

  • Who is going to be involved in the review?

  • How is the review going to be managed?

  • Is the review going to be facilitated?

Strategic Review 1


What question is the review trying to answer?


We have found that it is useful for organisations to ask a broad and far-reaching starting question for the review. This is a reminder that this is more than a strategic planning process; it involves revisiting and renewing your mission and how it is put into practice.

Strategic Review 1


Who is going to be involved
in the review?


Involving all staff on an equal footing helps to ensure buy-in to the process. Depending on the size and make up of the board, you may want to involve trustees in a similar way, or choose to work with a smaller group that reports back to the full board. Other groups (such as volunteers, service users, funders and partners) should also be involved.

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How is the review going to be managed?


Both the Chair and the CEO need to be closely involved in the process - working alongside, or with the full support of trustees.

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Is the review going to be facilitated?


A strategic review can bring up issues that are organisationally challenging, as well as personally complex for people taking part. This can be sensitive, and many organisations find that they benefit from external facilitation from someone who understands the voluntary sector.

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Common challenges to
address in strategic review


IVAR's work suggests that small to medium-sized voluntary sector organisations face eight specific challenges that can be usefully addressed through strategic reviews.

Strategic Review 2


Organisational values


Values are central to small voluntary organisations, but can be difficult to retain during periods of rapid growth or change. We have found that values need regular review, exploration and clarification in order to play an explicit and visible role in planning and decision making.

Strategic Review 2


Governance & leadership


We have found that many organisations struggle to develop strong and effective leadership. Trustees may be overly involved in operational issues and lack time, energy and capacity to pay strategic attention to the long-term future.

Strategic Review 2


Founders & thinking about succession


Small voluntary organisations are often characterised by the involvement of hard-working, driven and totally committed people. While their drive, energy and sense of purpose are crucial in getting an organisation up and running, they may not have the right mix of skills to run an organisation in the next phase of its development.

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Strategic development


Strategies for long-term planning are often under-developed: lack of time, resources, skills and a natural preoccupation with the immediate business of delivering services can all contribute.

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Responding to changing needs


Having to make unplanned changes as a result of increased demand in need due to spending cuts places huge pressure on small organisations. This can lead to very over-stretched staff, and further reductions in the time available for strategic work.

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Funding & stability 


It can be challenging to understand and set priorities for organisational direction and fundraising priorities at a time of funding cuts, commissioning and increased user need. Many organisations struggle to develop a clear, concise organisational narrative that describes and markets its values, aims and activities.

Strategic Review 2


Understanding & assessing impact


Many organisations are under pressure to identify and measure the difference they make, but also to understand how to communicate this usefully.

Strategic Review 2


Partnerships & external relationships


The need to build relationships and partnerships is recognised, but the people we have worked with are understandably concerned about the amount of time and commitment involved.

Every organisation is unique –
timing, content & approach varies considerably.


The IVAR review process – 5 key stages


Agreeing the purpose & terms of reference for the review

The review process typically starts with a face-to-face meeting with an IVAR facilitator to explore:


  • The organisation’s history and roots

  • Main strategic challenges

  • Main organisational concerns

  • Scope and process of the review

  • Issues to be covered

  • The expectations on both sides


How long a review takes and how much time people need to commit varies between organisations. Stage one is an opportunity to discuss and agree process and time commitment. By the end of stage one there will be:


  • An overall aim for the review

  • An agreed process and timescale

  • Arrangements for coordination and decision making

Clarifying organisational mandates

The main task for stage two is to search internal documents to clarify and establish what the organisation is legally and formally allowed and expected to do in relation to possible change.


This process helps identify:


  • The organisation’s current mission

  • The organisation’s core services and how they are carried out

  • The implicit principles which man be driving or shaping the organisation’s core business

  • The constraints or boundaries for change

Identifying & defining core values & aspirations

During stage three we hold meetings and focus groups to discuss a series of key questions. Questions might include:


  • What is it that brought you here to be part of this organisation?

  • What are the central distinctive features of this organisation? What is its ethos?

  • What the key challenges in your external environment?

  • What would help your organisation move forward to the next phase of development?


By the end of stage three, organisations have a defined and agreed set of principles on which to base the next stage of work and thinking.

Identifying the way ahead

During this stage, IVAR helps organisations to think about how to move ahead and make their vision a reality. This involves looking at how services might be developed, how internal challenges can be dealt with and what activities might need to stop or change.

By the end of stage four, organisations will have a set of options for the future that reflect areas of consensus.

To agree future options & explore the implications of change

During this stage, the Board and senior staff work together to identify changes that need to take place, supported by IVAR’s facilitators. We have found that it is helpful to address three key areas:


  • Agreeing the organisational principles

  • Agreeing strategic objectives

  • Identifying what changes are needed


By the end of the process, organisations will typically have:


  • Widespread support for, and ownership of, the necessary changes

  • A new statement of organisational principles

  • A new set of strategic objectives

  • An agreed plan to manage the change

Learn more about IVAR