One of the first things I did after taking on the role of Deputy Executive Director was to review the Centre’s progress against its first 5-year strategic framework that would end roughly two years later. We came to two major conclusions: firstly, we had more or less achieved our objectives, even though we still had 2 years left until the “deadline”. Secondly, we were already focusing on completely different challenges, and our working environment had changed significantly in a way no one had foreseen when writing the original strategic framework. For example, some of the activities we had started in the meantime, might not even fit with the original framework and would have to be stopped if we were to stick to our original plan seriously.
Our initial instinct was to write a paper for the Board about the successful implementation of our strategic objectives, and then spend the coming two years working on the next 5-year plan based on what we now knew. However, we decided to challenge ourselves. At this time we had already started working on the topic of disruptive change and its implications for the civil society sector. Thus, during a two-day intensive work retreat away from our office we took up the challenge to step outside of our normal routines that we had developed in our professional lives, to come up with alternatives to the usual planning cycle of civil society organisations. We focussed on how we could learn from our findings about disruption and our own experience with a strategic plan.
We asked our Board to work with us to develop a strategic direction that would guide our work, rather than dictate it with a 5-year plan. This strategic direction lays out the challenges for civil society organisations such as climate change, political disruptions and changing fundraising patterns as well as potential roles the Centre could and should play in fulfilling them. It has no defined end date, but we combine it with what we call a “rolling strategy”, where we review every 3-4 months how external factors have changed and whether, or how, we should react to those changes.
This set up challenges us to work towards a vision rather than traditionally measurable outputs and to constantly re-think our work. It also challenges us to continuously discuss and assess as a team how best to achieve that vision. Of course there are drawbacks. We don’t always manage to bring everyone along fully, and sometimes it’s tiresome to again change some of our work or restructure our team to fit our goals. There is not much routine or “set in stone” defined job profiles, and the annual plan and budget we agree every autumn is likely to be outdated three months later.
However, it gives us the framework and the obligation to stay on our toes all the time, closely watch how the world changes around us and come up with potential solutions to new challenges we spot. Without this approach we most likely would not have been able to develop the Civic Charter within just one year, or organise a meeting for innovators from different sectors a few months after a conversation with one of our partners. It also means, our owners and key partners, can use us as a laboratory to test projects, run experiments or explorations of new topics that they cannot set up as easily in their much larger structures and sometimes lengthy decision-making processes.
I don’t know exactly what I will be doing this time next year at the Centre and what our programme will look like. But I do know that the Centre has built the capacity and the team to take on pretty much any idea or project that hasn’t been thought of yet.