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Strategic planning: steadying the ship

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Strategic planning in challenging times, with a focus on the role of the chief executive.

Challenging times, tough strategic decisions

For many organisations in the third sector it has been a period of crisis management. Millions have been lost in Icelandic banks, and billions wiped off the stock market, threatening other investments.

Demand for our services is soaring with 72 per cent of ACEVO members already reporting a rise. But conditions for the perfect storm are in place with income, especially philanthropic income hit by the recession.

Thirty per cent of our members have already seen donations fall and 88 per cent expect their incomes to shrink over the next year.

Number one priority for CEOs must of course be to steady the ship. Tough decisions will be needed to ensure the organisation can survive through these rough seas. It is only natural to focus on the detail and forget the big picture. 

Focus on strategy

However at times like this it is more important than ever to stand back and look at the strategy for the organisation as a whole. When those tough decisions need to be made it is vital that chief executives, and their boards, have a very clear view of where the organisation is headed and what its beneficiaries need from it. A robust vision and mission statement must guide chief executives through troubled times.

Strategies created when the goal was growth may of course not be appropriate when the challenge is survival. But key decisions must be made within a tight framework and this is the perfect time for chief executives to be reviewing their plans to ensure that they are still appropriate for the changing environment.

Research into how we set strategy

Cass Centre for Charity Effectiveness (CCE) has commissioned some work to look at how chief executives go about setting strategy.

There is no shortage of toolkits and models for what an end product should look like, but there has been until now very little support to guide chief executives through the leadership qualities needed to set a successful plan. Which stakeholders should we engage in the process? How should I work with my chairman? Whose plan is it, mine or the boards?

Through the input of dozens of chief executives we have begun to answer these questions and will make the report available here when it's published.

A well-formed strategy plan

The onus of strategic planning must lie at the top levels of the organisation – the chief executive and trustees – who are able to generate a holistic vision of the organisation and evaluate its place within the marketplace.

Typically a framework such as SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) or PEST (political, economic, social, technological) analysis is used to kick-off the process of generating a strategic plan. These tools are important as they help to organise, key in and prioritise ideas around the organisation; without them it is difficult to create a succinct and well ordered plan.

Find out more about SWOT analysis

Find out more about PEST analysis

A well-formed strategic plan should have the following benefits:

  • clarifies the organisation’s purpose
  • sets direction and objectives
  • helps to identify and address key issues
  • develops commitment to the organisation’s objectives
  • motivates staff and volunteers
  • helps allocate resources

Critical stages in developing a strategy plan

As can be seen, taking time to create a solid plan reaps important rewards later over the implementation phase. From a CEO’s perspective, there are three critical stages.

1. Find ways to collate views on strategy 

Firstly is to identify the most effective method of collating views on where the organisation should be at the end of the plan. This could be through many methods such as consultation with the trustees; engaging with different stakeholders; piloting a survey to the public; or benchmarking against similar organisations.

2. Collate views on strategy coherently

Secondly is to actually collate the information in a coherent manner.

3. Generate the strategy plan

This last one is often the most challenging as it means sets of stakeholders will be prioritised over another. This can create elements of conflict, but engaging the different stakeholders at all stages of the process should help to alleviate this issue. Given this premise, it is vital for CEOs to keep in close contact with the trustees over this process; the skills which trustees provide can help to generate a much more focused plan. Trustees can also offer skills and perspectives to the process which may complement the chief executive, for example a user-centric focus or commercial experience.

Strategy in action

Having a robust strategy is crucial for good governance, not only setting direction but also giving accountability through allowing a review process against the plan. Ideally a strategic plan should be looking at the mid-term direction (c. five years) of the organisation which can help achieve its mission statement and charitable objectives.

Overall, the crucial role of a strategic plan must be recognised within each organisation and not to let it just gather dust on a shelf. The process itself should be instructive and inclusive, and the final plan should be implementable and realistic. This will afford the best opportunity to get the most out of the organisation and be able to safely navigate the rough seas ahead.

Now is not the time to allow organisations to drift. In the current climate it is necessary to be disciplined and focused; the strategic plan should be one of the first tools used to achieve this.

Page last edited Jul 02, 2014
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