The unexpected challenges and benefits of building a business plan

28 Feb 2012 Voices

You think you know your strategy? Think again, says Andy Chaggar. It's not until you sit down to the task of developing a business plan that you truly learn your charity's priorities.

European Disaster Volunteers charity

You think you know your strategy? Think again, says Andy Chaggar. It's not until you sit down to the task of developing a business plan that you truly learn your charity's priorities.

In last month’s blog I wrote about my new focus on developing our charity’s organisational capacity and the varied work this is entailing. Since then, I’ve been working on the one thing that ties all of this wide-ranging work together: creating our business plan.

Although I was familiar with the term “business plan” before we started the process, this is the first time I’ve ever been involved in creating one.

The business plan encapsulates pretty much everything about our charity. From articulating what we do and how we manage ourselves, to describing how we plan to build upon identified opportunities and tackle weaknesses - the business plan covers it all.

When ready, our business plan will fulfil two key purposes. The first will be to to demonstrate to donors that we have clear objectives and a coherent plan on how to achieve them. As a result the completed document should be a key tool for accessing more significant funding.

Secondly, our business plan is also intended to act as an overarching, internal management tool. By clearly articulating our objectives, and the resources available to achieve them, the plan should help us avoid “mission drift”. Further, through analysing where we are, and where we want to be, the plan will provide a road-map of how we intend to grow as an organisation as well as describing how we’ll keep track of progress along the way.

In theory, this sounds fairly straight forward. In practice so far, developing the plan has proved a challenge.

'Various exercises sometimes felt a little far-fetched'

Even for a relatively small charity like us the business plan encompasses so much there is a vast amount of information that needs to be generated, analysed, condensed and presented. To help with this process there are many templates out there you can use to guide yourself through the process, but even the relatively simple template we’ve adopted has over 150 separate questions. Each of these must be considered separately before the task of editing the answers into a cohesive whole can even start.

This is a fairly daunting process to say the least and one of my fellow directors has had the unenviable task of driving this work forward over the past 10 weeks. This has included cajoling myself and others into undertaking various exercises that sometimes felt a little far-fetched or redundant. For example were each asked to say which 3 public figures we’d like as new trustees. On another occasion we were asked to write down, blindly before showing each other, what it was our charity actually does.

While with hindsight I can see the value of these exercises, at the time it seemed like we were covering a lot of old ground, and all this brings me to the other main challenge I’ve faced with the business plan. While I understand the goals, a lot of the work we’ve been putting into creating the plan has seemed very intangible and round-about.

An engineer-turned-chief exec

My original training and qualifications are in engineering, a profession involving working towards fixed goals using linear processes. Once I moved into disaster response I spent the better part of two years as a construction project manager and it was a rare day that ended without me being able to physically see and touch the result of my efforts. Ultimately, I could look forward to the satisfaction of seeing a project finally finished.

The difference that I’ve had to understand and come to terms with in regards to a business plan, is that to be truly useful it will never be “finished” as such. While different versions will be completed, the main document will need continually reviewing and updating to reflect changing circumstances.

While at times I’ve found this a little disheartening and frustrating, I’ve also realised that the process of creating and updating the plan may prove more useful than the document itself. I’m being forced into thinking systematically and critically about our charity and as a result I’m already finding I have a better understanding of what’s working well, what needs improving and what our priorities need to be to make that happen.

For me personally then this may prove to be the most useful part of the current process. Through the previous 18 months working in Haiti I learnt how to more effectively manage operations. Through now developing our business plan I’m learning how to be a better chief executive.  


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