There’s rarely a convenient time to be able to take a step back and commit to working on a new strategy, but recently it's felt harder than ever.
We’re nearly two years into a pandemic that has kept everyone guessing and in firefighting mode - and with a new variant raising the stakes again, sadly there’s no let-up in sight. But with so many things having changed since the start of 2020, if you haven’t done a strategic refresh yet, now might be the time to take the plunge.
Creating a new strategy is a unique process for every organisation - you’ll be facing your own cocktail of opportunities, barriers, community needs and tricky decisions. However inconvenient, there’s no definitive list of topics and issues that everyone should work through.
That said, we're seeing a number of themes that keep coming up in our conversations with charities and social enterprises. So here are some key topics to have on your radar - you'll be able to decide how much each one applies to you…
1. Staff burnout
Your team may now have spent nearly two years battling through rising community need, pressure to stay financially afloat, and uncertainty around where and how they do their jobs, combined with personal concerns about health, job security and the impact of multiple lockdowns on mental health. Few people are feeling energetic or clear-headed, and the festive break (if we get a proper one) won’t be a complete reset.
Any strategy that doesn’t acknowledge or address this risks falling flat, no matter how good the rest of your decisions. Talk to your team about how they're genuinely feeling, and what they need to have in place to do their jobs to the best of their ability in 2022 - which could mean more support, flexibility or encouragement than they previously needed.
That might have an unexpected budget implication, but leaving people to just muddle on through could cost you more in the long run.
2. Hybrid delivery and digital exclusion
Should we go back to running meetings and services in person, or keep them online? This was already a dilemma, even before the Omicron curveball.
During the initial lockdowns, many organisations realised they could reach new people and deliver services more cheaply online. On paper, this seemed like a surprising positive from the pandemic, but there’s been rising concern about digital exclusion - who are we inadvertently leaving behind, and does digital delivery exacerbate inequalities?
And there’s the added complication of how - and whether - to cater for everyone when some people want to be in a room with you and others want to participate remotely.
These are key strategic challenges to wrestle with. Check out our original blog on digital exclusion from early 2021, our guide to running engaging and accessible strategy workshops online, and Zoe Amar’s excellent tips on making the right decisions about hybrid working.
3. Building long-term relationships with funders
For me, one highlight of the past two years has been seeing funders engage more meaningfully and collaboratively with charities. This started with the collective commitment to flexible funding and reporting early in the pandemic, but has continued as many funders have acknowledged that grassroots community organisations are best placed to be their eyes and ears on the ground in a rapidly-changing landscape.
But too many organisations are missing opportunities to build meaningful, mutually beneficial relationships with funders. Amid the pressure to bring in new grants and submit more applications, it’s too easy to neglect the positive impact of things like a well-written and honestly reflective grant report to an existing funder.
And if we only value conversations with funders that are about immediate financial impact rather than learning and collaboration, we risk prioritising short-term target-hitting over long-term growth.
While I get that organisations living hand-to-mouth will struggle to prioritise long-term relationship-building, if you have the breathing space to build this into your strategy, you'll soon see the benefits. Our recent blog on building relationships with invitation-only funders is a starter for ten here - we’ve had feedback from several funders that these are exactly the things they’re looking for.
4. Capitalising on that surge in public fundraising, donations and volunteering
While this felt particularly pressing back in spring/summer 2020, it’s not too late to bear in mind.
The amazing community response to Covid-19 saw many people get a new taste for donating, fundraising or volunteering. Crucially, many actions were all about grassroots humanity - helping your neighbour with their shopping, or donating to the local foodbank. While big charities have household name brands, finely-tuned structures and economies of scale, grassroots organisations could promise immediate impact and a direct connection to those in need.
Some charities have done an exceptional job of nurturing this - continuing to inspire, engage and connect new donors and volunteers through stories, events and further opportunities to make a difference. Treated right, these people have the potential to be their loyal regular givers, major donors and community fundraisers of the future.
Have you benefitted from a surge of grassroots support during the pandemic? What have you done to keep that passion and humanity burning? And what can you still do to nurture and replicate it in future?
5. The way that people come together (or don't) is changing
Beyond the physical lockdowns, the pandemic is having a long-term impact on how people behave, consume, congregate and interact. Offices have remained half-empty and high streets still feel eerily quiet. I was in central Bristol last Friday to buy my daughter’s first pair of shoes and most shops were deserted, two weeks before Christmas.
This has massive implications, particularly for fundraising. ‘Old ways’ of doing things no longer feel fit for purpose, maybe permanently. What does it mean for corporate fundraising if most employees are never in an office together? How will your previous major donor tactics work if you rarely get to ‘work the room’?
When we finally catch a longer break between variants, maybe some aspects of our pre-2020 life will gradually return. In the meantime, activity plans and budgets need to look very different. If you’re still spending more time designing printed materials than landing pages, or more money on branded stationery than search engine optimisation and social media advertising, you need to have a very good reason. Few of us can afford to wait until we can get people in a room together again before resuming our public fundraising.
6. The source of your donations is more important than ever
Nearly 18 months on from the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston - just two miles from my house - philanthropy and ethical fundraising remain hot topics. In the past few weeks, we’ve received more enquiries about ethical fundraising reviews than pretty much anything else.
Many organisations have woken up to the importance of understanding the source of their donations and grants. What created that wealth in the first place? Are people and companies using philanthropy to ‘buy a seat at the table’ and gain influence over things like equality, social mobility and climate change? If your organisation is complicit in that, is this an unfortunate necessity in a tough financial climate, or an unforgivable oversight?
These are difficult questions with no easy or short-term answers, but if you’re working on a new strategy then it might be time to put them on the table. We’ve shared a few ideas and potential solutions in various talks and blogs recently – this slightly provocative piece is probably the best starting point.
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