David Saint

Mar 21, 2018, 10:41 AM

Where are the Visionaries?

I run a lot of Board awaydays, very often as part of the strategic planning process. And a recurring theme is just how hard it is to take the long term view, and imagine what we would like the world (or even just our organisation!) to be like in say five years’ time.

We can generally come up with changes that we’d like to bring about next week or next month and occasionally even next year. But to be able to dream dreams about what things might be like in say 2025 seems really, really difficult.

Some might say that’s because of the rate of change in society, or technology, or uncertainties in the funding climate. I would argue it’s because our natural planning horizon is very limited. Most of us have to plan the next 24 hours in some detail (especially if children are involved!) and we will probably have a pretty good idea what we are going to do in the next few weeks – at work and at home. If we want to take a holiday, or have an extension built on our home, we can take it in our stride (although if you think about it that requires a bit of vision as well). But how many of us have a five year plan for our career, our home, our family? And how often do the day to day pressures of work allow us the luxury of imagining the future?

Trustees can make all the difference!

In theory, one of the most valuable things that a board of trustees can bring to a charity is perspective. Although usually made up of people with incredibly busy ‘day jobs’, charity boards mostly don’t include people working at the coal face of that charity (unless it’s a small organisation with no staff, where the trustees have to do all the work as well as ‘govern’!)

Some staff can be quite dismissive of trustees because “they simply don’t know what goes on in the organisation”, and to an extent that is inevitably true. But this ‘weakness’ is also a great strength, because it gives them an objectivity and perspective that should enable them to take the long term view. Although they might have in the back of their minds the unanswered emails on their day-job computer, when they meet as trustees of your charity they should be able to leave the detail behind them, and look at the bigger picture.

And yet – our experience of very many trustee boards is that they do get bogged down in the weeds. They study endless reports about very operational matters – indeed they often ask for those reports. Why? Frankly because it’s easier to look at what has happened, than it is to look forward to what might happen.

What can’t you achieve, if you give yourself long enough?

Very few people are truly ‘visionary’. And those that are visionary are often scorned – at first at least. “Let’s make poverty history”. “Let’s build a tunnel under the Channel.” “Let’s make it possible for women to vote”. “Let’s launch a Tesler sports car into space.” If you are a trustee of a charity that’s the sort of bold, visionary thinking you should be engaging in – not all the time, and not to the exclusion of safeguarding and GDPR and investment management and and and…. But at least some of the time. And if you are responsible for the Board agenda and papers, are you making sure there is space and time for the equivalent of putting your feet on the desk and gazing out of the window?

The ideal opportunity is the Board awayday. Yet it never ceases to amaze me how many trustees say “Gosh! That’s the first time we have ever had an opportunity to have a meaningful discussion about the really big issues”. The other worrying feedback I often get is “Yes, we have had awaydays before, which are often very energising, but nothing seems to happen afterwards, as a result.”

We do live in fast changing times, with funding uncertainties. But as Peter Drucker and others have said “The best way to predict the future is to invent it”. What future would you invent for your beneficiaries, and/or your organisation? What dreams might you dream? And what might you achieve if you did?

If you would like to know more about how Action Planning can help your Trustees be more visionary – and then harness that vision to practical action – contact David Saint.

David Saint

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