Sep 14, 2023, 9:00 AM

The key to harmonious strategy development

By Tim Jeffery

Healthy, effective organisations have one vital thing in common: clarity of direction. Whilst the word ‘strategy’ gets used in different ways, the fundamental role of strategy is to set a clear direction, allowing decisions to be made about what to do and, crucially, what not to do.

Every governance framework you’ll ever see makes it very clear that setting strategy is a key role of the Board. The Board is there to make sure that the organisation has a clear direction congruent with its Objects and expressed through vision, mission, purpose statements, plans, goals etc.

So, here’s the rub. Our wonderful system of charity governance, using committed volunteers, means that those ultimately responsible for the organisation often have a very limited and infrequent engagement with it.

Avoid tension

In larger charities with staff teams, there may be a competent CEO and leadership team who live and breathe the work of the organisation and the environment in which it operates. Surely, they should be the ones responsible for deciding on the best strategy for the organisation?

Finding a way of squaring this circle can bring real tension into the relationship between a Board and their senior staff. If the CEO and senior staff are too dominant, they can bulldoze their way forward with ineffective governance oversight and little Board ownership of a new strategy. If the Board assert their right to be the ones setting the direction, they can alienate the very people who are supposed to be delivering on it. Either route can lead to the sort of debilitating disagreements, resentments and departures that too often stunt the good work of many worthy organisations.

This is a conundrum that I have faced as a three-time CEO, as a Board chair, in my consultancy practice and as a coach to charity CEOs. There is, of course, no one right answer; the dynamics, personalities and relationships in every organisation are different. But before you decide you’ve just wasted your time reading this far, I do have one piece of advice that I have found highly effective in avoiding these difficulties arising in the first place.

Establish agreement

As ever, it’s not rocket science. At the outset of a strategy development exercise – agree a process. And, in fact, even before that, discuss and agree between Chair and CEO who will be responsible for designing a process. If Board Chair and CEO can agree a process that clarifies the roles of staff and trustees, then together they can present this to the Board for approval.

Typically, trustees want to have an input on strategy formation but don’t want to spend hours researching or thrashing through the minutiae of countless different options. They want to know that the development process is appropriately rigorous, have an influence over its scope, be kept informed along the way and know that they will have the final say.

In my experience, it is the CEO who should lead the process of strategy development with agreed touchpoints and milestones to report to the Board and regular briefings for the Chair. I have seen a Board suddenly faced with a completed new strategy to sign off that they have had little or no input on. That’s lighting the blue touch paper! Instead, get the Board’s agreement to their involvement at key points in the process so that they feel appropriately involved and have a sense of comfort and clarity about the process, because ultimately they need to believe in it and sign it off.


Tim Jeffery

Tim Jeffery has worked in the voluntary sector for 35 years. Starting in international development, he began to see the vital part that good strategy and organisational health play in delivering good outcomes. A series of moves with increasing responsibility led him to take on his first CEO role at Spurgeon’s Children’s Charity in 2005. After nine years there, Tim has had a successful decade as a consultant, coach and interim CEO to a wide variety of charities. He now specialises in helping charities and their leaders struggling through significant change.

Fundraising strategy and review

Whatever the size of your organisation, and whatever stage it is at in its ‘life cycle’, our multi-disciplinary team can provide the sector-specific experience you need to understand the market, pinpoint the right opportunities, and develop a cost-effective course of action for maximum return – in the short, medium and long term.

Get in touch

Do you want to hear more about our Fundraising Strategy and Review services? Leave your details below and we'll be in touch.