Good planning involves knowing ‘your current strengths and capabilities, and what you might need to work on to achieve your long-term goal’ says Steph Taylor from the Charities Aid Foundation.
My first job in the charity sector was as a Careers Adviser, where I supported young people to make plans for their future. Setting a goal, working out how to achieve it and then carrying out the right activity to do so, is a fundamental life skill – but is rarely taught with any conscious reference to its relevance in later life. So most of these 14-18 year olds had no idea how to start, let alone how to monitor whether they were taking the right steps, adjust what they were doing, and evaluate whether their initial outcomes had been achieved. Helping them learn to plan, regardless of whether it led directly to their dream next step, always felt like a really important part of the process.
Somewhere along the way to adulthood, we all pick up planning skills and use them at home and in work to a greater or lesser extent. It’s certainly true that all charity leaders need to be masters of planning in a range of contexts and timeframes; planning being absolutely essential to making best use of the usually limited, and always valuable, resources we have at our disposal to create social change.
What does good planning look like? Well, you need to know your starting point and where you’re trying to get to. As a Careers Adviser, I was astounded by how many interviews began with a student wanting to start a college course for which 3 C grades were needed, but when asked what they were going to get, the answer came back “I don’t know”. The lesson here is to know your current strengths and capabilities, and what you might need to work on to achieve your long-term goal.
In the case of a charity of course, this means knowing your mission and what resources you have to meet it. Having a clear view on the skills and talents of your board, management and staff is important, as is a strong sense of your financial and non-financial assets and liabilities. You need to know your income streams and their time frames / restrictions, your current contracts and what impact you’re having, as far as it can be defined.
In terms of where you’re trying to get to, this can be a more challenging ask – but one which I believe, if you keep mission central - should be easy to define. The activity you’re going to undertake to get there and making a plan of action that reflects this is the hard bit - and one where drawing on planning tools, seeking expert advice on how the external environment might change and monitoring progress, is key. However, as John Lennon said “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”, so you also need to ensure that you build in review and reflection points and allow for creativity and flexibility, as plans can and do need to change, especially if a better idea comes along half way through that planning year.
I decided to leave my work as a Careers Adviser to use what I’d learnt to design and plan new charity services for young people. When I did, a student gave me a gift of a ping pong ball on which he’d drawn a smiley face on one side, and a sad face on the other. He said I’d taught him that some days he’d feel great, and some days he’d feel awful, but that if he had a dream and a plan, he could get through. The best charities are full of people with that exact same spirit.
Steph Taylor is senior advisory manager at Charities Aid Foundation.
Civil Society wishes to thank Charities Aid Foundation for its support with this article.