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IDEAL Community Action’s experience of strategic review

Nick Bentley, co-founder of IDEAL Community Action, shares his experience of bringing in IVAR to lead a ‘strategic review’. 

 

 

What does strategy mean to you?

 

Having a clear understanding of – who we are as an organisation; what we want the organisation to become; what it will deliver; and how we will make that happen.

 

 

Why did you decide to have a strategic review?

 

IDEAL is still run by the founders of the organisation, which, although small in relation to the number of staff (2), was delivering way beyond its size in relation to numbers and results. The organisation structure was reliant on excellent partnerships and a very dedicated team of volunteers who had come through IDEAL’s project – The Domino Effect. We understood that for long-term sustainability, the organisation needed to go through a transition in order to accommodate the growth that was occurring within IDEAL’s projects. If we did not, we were placing the organisation and its projects in danger. The timing was also important as we had several new Trustees join the board, so it was the right moment to start to really establish the long-term direction of the organisation.

 

 

To what extent did the initial interview with IVAR change your view of your organisation and the challenges it was facing at the time?

 

The initial interview highlighted the need for us as an organisation to clarify what we were and to develop a way to clearly communicate this to the world. It also demonstrated that the vision and overall plan rested mainly in the minds of the co founders, making it hard for a board to evaluate and assist them in the delivering of the vision.

 

 

What changed in your organisation as a result of the strategic review? Did it stick?

 

The review (which involved staff, trustees and volunteers) provided us with a shake up, an opportunity to evaluate where we were, which was great in regards to the organisation’s achievements but also highlighted the problems of long-term sustainability due to the manner in which the organisation was structured and run being too concentrated on the co-founders.

 

The review provided the starting point from which the relationship between the board and staff has grown and strengthened providing a solid foundation for the organisation to grow. It resulted in a 3 year plan, with a clear overarching vision for what the organisation is seeking to become, and which is still guiding us. We have since received funding that has enabled us to employ two FTE staff, and doubled the numbers engaging with our projects and increased what we offer. The review started a process, it was up to us to continue with it. By doing so, we are managing the transition to being a larger and more sustainable organisation.

 

 

What advice would you have for another voluntary sector leader about to embark on a strategic review?

 

It was a difficult process as there was a lot of emotional investment, which was greatly aided by trusting the facilitator and the process. Maintaining an open mind and allowing for conflicting views was tricky but essential. Ensuring that you choose a time when you can be fully focused on the review; it was very easy to be drawn into day-to-day operational matters.

Spotlight UK’s experience of strategic review

Michaela Riley, Founder, Chairman, CEO of Spotlight UK, shares her experience of bringing in IVAR to lead a ‘strategic review’. 

 

 

What does strategy mean to you? 

 

Taking a step back and looking at where you are really heading, then planning the steps you need to take to get there.


Why did you decide to have a strategic review? 

 

To ensure we were not just treading water and being reactive. We wanted to take a proper look at the work we wanted to be undertaking to ensure our team was set up correctly and aware of the way we had to go to achieve our goal.

 

 

What changed in your organisation as a result?

 

We restructured the management structure and shared out the workload slightly differently.

 

 

What advice would you have for another voluntary sector leader about to embark on a strategic review? 

 

It is an excellent idea, as it gives you confidence that you are heading in the right direction and set up correctly to achieve your goals.

 

Will this completely overwhelm my time?

We asked the leaders of three organisations that we have supported with merger to share their thoughts: 

 

Gillian Santi
Former Chair of the Independent Adoption Service (IAS)

 

‘Making the decision on merger as a sustainable way forwards for our adoption service was very time-consuming.

However, the Board engaged a facilitator to ensure that time would be effectively managed through a staged process, which meant that I, as a relatively inexperienced Chair, would not have an overwhelming time commitment.’

 

 

 

 

Laurie Rackind and Neil Taylor
Chief Executive and Trustee of Jami UK

 

‘Yes. It will overwhelm you and you will almost certainly underestimate the time and energy required to make it happen.’ 

 

 

 

Joanna Holmes
Chief Executive of Barton Hill Settlement

 

‘There is a lot to do but some of it is very administrative, especially the due diligence work, and HR focussed if you are transferring staff.

So it depends if you have someone to delegate the bulk of this work to. It is also important to follow a good process and it’s possible to bring in someone to help manage this as there are experienced consultants who do this. I think as CEO it’s important to keep a clear overview and to be very alive to relevant developments and this is harder if you are also doing the bulk of the detailed work. So the short answer is that it need not be overwhelming but it is an important piece of work and takes months not weeks.’

 

 

 

 

Forget about the strategy, business plan and theory of change: start with what you want to do and why

This is about the big decisions. The ones that keep you up at night but also get you out of bed each morning. The way these decisions are taken often feels out of control, inexplicable and the consequences frequently attributed to personalities, errors of judgement or lack of proper planning. So what needs to happen to take back control? And in a short, focused time frame?

 

First, be clear as to what you think these big issues are all about.

 

It needs a blank sheet approach, trying to sort out the day-to-day concerns from the fundamentals. Write them down. Go back to your organisation’s history and roots: see what the mission statement says or, if it’s unwritten, ask to what extent these are still underpinning everything you do. Equally important, does everyone in the organisation understand these organisational principles and buy into them? Because whatever you decide to do, it will be influenced by these values and assumptions, either explicitly or taken for granted.

 

Once you’re clear about what you consider the main issues to be and how the organisational principles might interact with them, check with other people as to whether they share your perspective.

 

The way others perceive problems may surprise you. You need to talk with staff, trustees, volunteers, users and anyone else identified as a key stakeholder. You are trying to elicit the values and goals of the team which are inherent in how they see the issues of concern. Find a system that works for recording all of this: something like ‘cognitive maps’ for each group which can be merged and clustered. Then feed it back and check it out with the participants, either individually or via larger meetings.

 

Throughout this process, be aware of the different agendas in your organisation.

 

There may be various interests at stake, challenges to established ways of doing things, hidden resistances. Getting as many of these as possible out into the open might be painful but is usually worth the effort. They are often a means of expressing how much people value and feel passion for the work of the organisation, rather than being about individual gain. Always recognise the strengths of the organisation and build upon these.

 

Inevitably, by this stage, you will not only have identified two or three major issues but also gathered some first ideas for their resolution.

 

Now move into this action phase. It should remain highly collaborative, with all the participants involved and engaged. The areas commonly identified for change are set out and tackled. You should invite ideas, suggestions and proposals for action, building up detailed plans and timescales. This might be achieved in small, cross-organisation groups or large half-day workshops.

 

Finally, you need to ensure that a final report is prepared, drawing together all of the strands that have come to light.

 

Individuals or a forum are assigned responsibilities for taking the actions forward and monitoring progress. Remain fully focused. Remember that strategy-making, for that’s what this process is all about, is a flexible, responsive process and nothing is set in stone. Keep everything under review, build in new external factors and always try to keep what it is you want to do, those organisational principles, in the foreground.

 

We think that there is a clear benefit to this process in having an external facilitator involved. Such a person not only takes responsibility for guiding and structuring the process but brings a different way of looking at issues, an ability to draw out strengths and find potential answers and is someone who can support and encourage change.
 
 

Strategies for survival

At a recent Roundtable discussion for CEOs of voluntary organisations, Arvinda Gohil, CEO of Community Links, discussed her organisation’s recent partnership with Catch22.


Context

 

 
Those present shared the challenges at the forefront of their minds:
 
  • Pressure/squeeze on time, space for planning and asking big questions about the organisation’s future. For example, when and whether to look at merger; and ‘lack of opportunities to have open discussions about challenges’
  • Lack of long-term funding; constant pressure to diversify/reinvent. Basically ‘having to find different ways of meeting the same objectives’, but paucity of alternative funding sources: ‘a drying up of funds; very difficult to find the equivalent elsewhere’
  • Competitive funding environment makes it difficult to judge what/when to share with others
  • Many organisations have no idea what their true financial situation is’
  • ‘The pace and scale of change makes it so difficult to plan or predict when everything is so uncertain’
 
Attendees acknowledged that it is difficult to find people who will tell you what to avoid, and very unusual to have ‘this kind of forum’ for discussion. They hoped to have an open conversation about the above challenges.
 

 

Key messages for organisations who find themselves in crisis

 

 

  • ‘Bumping along from crisis to crisis isn’t sustainable long-term’
  • ‘Comprehensive reviews of your organisation have to start with the finances: is there enough transparency, depth and credibility?’
  • ‘You need cash to downsize and then more cash to re-size’
  • ‘What should matter most is the preservation of the work, not saving the organisation. And if the work is still needed, your job is to find a way of delivering it. But there is no room for sentiment – with the organisation or with people.’
  • ‘In looking for a partner [as a means of keeping the work going], the key question is: what do we each bring and what can we each get out of it?’
  • ‘A crisis can be an opportunity: to focus your mind on what really matters [the work, not the organisation]; and to focus funders’ minds on what their priorities are’
  • ‘Questions about merger or other partnerships should be asked routinely: what is the most appropriate and stable vehicle for delivering our charitable objects and delivering our work – that is what should matter most’
  • ‘If you enter into a formal partnership with another organisation, you need to understand that it’s never going to be the same again. Change is unavoidable.’
  • You can cut things here and there – salami slicing – but at some point, you have to re-structure the organisation that sits at the centre
  • Advice when looking for a partner to work with:
    • Ask for serious technical advice from people who are experienced
    • Get to know the organisation informally – CEO to CEO and Chair to Chair
    • Sit down with the head of the organisation you are looking to work with and consider what the future could look like with that person
    • Carry out due diligence in both directions
    • Shop around
 

 

Messages for Funders

 

 

  1. Rethink Diversification: routine exhortations to diversify income and be ‘more sustainable’ are at odds with realities of the funding environment: competitive; limited opportunities; tendency towards short-term, non-renewable.
  2. Rethink Continuation: ‘if you still get value from your investment, why end it?’
  3. Invest in New Partnership Models: ‘fund a trial of shared services across a group of organisations in the same field/geography; share and promote the lessons to reassure and inspire others’
  4. Supporting Peer Exchange: create space for leaders to think and reflect together, and look at different options and approaches for keeping their work going; as part of that, being proactive about creating linkages between grantees.