Every text book on the weighty subject of leadership or management will include reference to the importance of ‘strategic planning’. But what is it, and does it need to be done in the voluntary and community sector? After all, we’re not producing ‘widgets per hour’ so why bother?

Some academics have spent long careers trying to clarify what strategic planning is. And yet, there is no real consensus on the nuts and bolts. It’s rather like community spirit. People talk about it, we generally agree it’s important, but no one can define it, bottle it, or explain how we foster more of it.

Reading lots of text books doesn’t help. Each will make a compelling case for their version of strategic planning. And there’s a big difference between espoused theory and practical application. This is best summed up by Johnson and Scholes, who mapped out what they called the ‘Seven Stages of Strategic Planning’. Defining ‘strategy’ they claim it is sometimes seen as:

“…the direction and scope of an organisation over the long term which achieves advantage for the organisation through its configuration of resources within a changing environment and to fulfil stakeholder expectations.”

Heady stuff. But rather more tellingly, they admit later that strategy is:

“…a general purpose ‘filler’ word that can be applied to any document, plan or activity to give the impression that it needs to be taken slightly more seriously than it would otherwise warrant.”*

It isn’t just academics and management writers who have had a field day trying to make sense of strategy and strategic planning. Dwight D Eisenhower, the former US President, had an interesting take on the whole process when he said: “Plans are useless, but planning is essential.”

If we take that as read, there are a few observations we can make about the nature of strategic planning in the voluntary and community sector:

  • Some organisations have no discernible strategy or planning process – they rely instead on improvisation, ideology or luck.
  • It’s got to be about longer-term ambitions and aspirations, not short-term, quick fixes. The latter is management, not planning.
  • It requires decisions to be made in the face of uncertainty or ambiguity, particularly where funding is concerned.
  • It’s likely to demand an integrated collaborative approach – multi-perspective, multi-agency and multi-interest.
  • It requires us to think carefully about the nature of internal and external working relationships. Strategies in the sector are rarely about organisations ‘going it alone’.

With those guiding principles, any strategic plan should be:

  • Clear about goals and relative priorities – there has to be some focus on what really matters and the actions that are likely to deliver what is envisaged.
  • Underpinned by a good understanding of the world in which we are operating, i.e. social trends, political/policy change, economic realities, opportunities, risks and possible futures.
  • Based on a realistic understanding of what is possible, i.e. not just a strategy that works well on paper.
  • Developed with – and communicated to – all those with a stake in the implementation and the success of what is planned.
  • Creative – designed around fresh possibilities, new ways of working and innovative thinking.

Which still makes all of this sound a bit too academic. So, if you want a single sentence which best describes the challenge of strategic planning, try the following:

“…the ability to hold an understanding of the complexity and ambiguity of the real world in one hand, while developing a framework for making rational decisions in the other…”

Strategic planning is as essential for the voluntary and community sector as it is for any other sector of the economy. But it need not be daunting – just remember:

  • The process does not have to be complex, time-consuming or costly.
  • The first step should be a comprehensive analysis of the external environment in which we operate.
  • It is best done with a variety of interested parties who have a genuine stake in the future.
  • The process of ‘planning’ is more important than the production of ‘a plan’.

Convinced? Then get it done, and keep it real! As Benjamin Franklin, the American statesman, inventor and diplomat, concluded: “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”

*Exploring Corporate Strategy, Johnson, G and Scholes, K., Financial Times/Prentice Hall (various editions).