Saturday, May 21, 2011

Action planning

Strategic planning skills are what we use in our own lives only we tend not to write action plans. For example if we were organising a dinner party (our project) we would need to

  1. Agree with those that we live with that we will do this and perhaps agree who will do what;
  2. Agree on guests and date;
  3. Invite our guests;
  4. Understand, perhaps we will need to ask, what their food requirements and preferences are;
  5. Ask if there are any other issues – will they be brining children, pets or a friend who might be staying with them;
  6. Confirm you guests attendance and needs (3-6 may all be done in one phone call);
  7. Make a menu from recipes (old and new) – perhaps we will do this within an agreed budget or try to use many ingredients that we have already or perhaps finance is not an issue;
  8. Ask ourselves – do we have enough plates, cutlery, napkins, candles and do we want say fresh flowers on the table;
  9. Buy food, drink and perhaps other items as identified above;
  10. Plan the cooking of the food;
  11. Clean the house and lay the table;
  12. Cook the food;
  13. Serve the food.

And this all needs to be done by the appointed time and date.

There are clearly stages which may be linked – so you wouldn’t buy the food without knowing that your guests had accepted the invitation or what they liked to eat/were allergic to.

There are milestones – guests accepting; menu decided; shopping done; food cooked. By setting times and dates for these there is a sense of the project building towards its completion. Depending on your skills and the time available you will probably decide when things need doing e.g. if they are coming on Friday night and you work full time and are out on Thursday night you will probably think, ‘I need to shop on Wednesday evening’ – unless you can shop during your lunch hour.

There are different types of activity which include
  • Decision making;
  • Allocating jobs;
  • Setting a budget;
  • Buying the resources;
  • Planning how the work will be done; and
  • Carrying out the work.

And there are risks – you cannot get a certain ingredient, you forget to take your shopping list, your car breaks down and you can’t do the shopping or you forget to chill the wine! So what actions might we take to mitigate against those risks – many of us already do this – we write lists, we change our recipes slightly or we ask our neighbours, we get our food delivered or sometimes we start planning earlier so that we have time to say go to another shop for an ingredient.

This is the sort of thinking that we do all the time – from our social lives to our work lives to our family lives and to our spiritual lives. When we are doing this planning with others and when it involves significant resources, time and money then we need to write things down and agree to the plan.

The simplest action plan is


By whom

By when

Resources required

How we will know it’s been done

What is to be done

Person’s name


Often this is about money but may be about time.

Evidence of action

More complicated action plans will have milestones – such and such has to be done by a certain time. They may also have categories of actions – say inviting the guest, the food, the drink, the house – and then within that you have a range of actions. We may also add a risk analysis – we would certainly need to do this for a large project.

The thing to remember is that we all have the skills and the knowledge. When working together we need to formalise these things and make sure that we have agreed things and that everyone knows what is expected of them and by when. When you achieve results through good planning it is a real boost and I find that time invested in good planning is repaid several times over.

Risk Management ... looking at strategic direction

Here is an example from the Charity Commission's document 'Charity's and Risk Management' It is such a good publication that I will be taking a lot of information from it and talking to the examples.

This first example has identified a potential risk as: the charity lacks direction, strategy and forward planning

With the potential impact as

  • The charity drifts with no clear objectives, priorities or plans;
  • Issues are addressed piecemeal with no strategic reference;
  • Needs of beneficiaries not fully addressed;
  • Financial management difficulties; and
  • Loss of reputation.

And the steps to mitigate this risk identified as

  • Create a strategic plan which sets out the key aims, objectives and policies;
  • Create financial plans and budgets;
  • Use job plans and targets;
  • Monitor financial and operational performance
  • Get feedback from beneficiaries and funders
Whilst I think that these are good steps to take, in reality they are probably not the first. And they are certainly anxiety-provoking for smaller organisations such as our congregations, fellowships and societies that do not have staff with responsibilities to undertake these tasks.

So how do we start thinking about this thing called strategic direction and how do we enthuse all trustees (committee members) to commit to doing something about it when life is full enough just keeping the show on the road?

If you your organisation has staff, in particular a chief officer, the board/trustees can work with the chief officer to produce a strategic plan with a clear strategic direction. This then informs the work of all the staff and as the Charity Commission example shows it can be translated into job plans and targets.

If there are no staff then you need to start small and look at those things which vex your community - it may be the building, it may be how information is produced and delivered, it may be financial or it may be about young people. People need to think about what they need or want to work on. Then you need to dream and ask what would you like to achieve in one, three and five years' time? Be mindful of the pace of change over the past few years and don't under-commit or over-commit to change. As ever when following a plan, keep managing the process and change the goals if need be.

Then commit what you have agreed on paper - an action plan, which I did promise to write about, so this will be my next post. Ensure that everyone has a copy of the plan and keep people updated. Make much of how helpful it is in driving action and when the time allows look to other areas and plan for the future there.

When doing anything with organisations there's the best practice and there's the pragmatic approach of doing what is achievable. My view is that as long as you are committed to change and development; are committed to working together; and are committed to working with the highest integrity then you will make good decisions.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Chair's role

In the last Inquirer there were reports from the trustee sessions run at the Annual Meetings in Swansea. I have written a letter to the Inquirer in response to the one about Chairs. Whilst it is important that those who chair meetings get the best that they can from the meeting this is not the primary role of a chair. Indeed I have been an observer on a board where the Chair of the organisation did not chair the board meetings.

So here is my letter and at the bottom some references providing more information about the role of the board chair.

"Whilst the chairing of meetings is important it is by no means the primary role of the Chair of any trustee board. The Chair’s role is about leading the trustees/board/committee and being the visible representative of the organisation. Some of the things that this covers are
  • Leading the trustees in the development of strategic plans;
  • Ensuring that the charity is run in accordance with the decisions of the trustees, the charity’s governing document, and appropriate legislation;
  • Ensuring trustee decisions are acted upon;
  • Acting between meetings of the board in making decisions usually within our congregations and fellowships in conjunction with the other officers; and
  • Representing the charity at functions, meetings and in the media.
"Whilst the word ‘vision’ is seen by some to be tainted with cliché, it is important for Chairs to have a vision for their organisations. In our local congregations and fellowships this means ensuring that not only do trustees carry out their roles with regard to supporting the spiritual leadership, managing finances, ensuring good communications and maintaining the building but that they also aspire to be ‘more than’.

"I don’t believe that Chair’s can, or even should, be neutral. They must be respectful of all views but only accept those that are congruent with the organisation’s object, its values and its strategic objectives. Chairs must be very clear about those values and the goals that the organisation is working towards. This does not mean that Chairs always get their own way but it does mean that they are clear about the processes for decision making and clear about the consequences of each course of action.

"A good chair is inspiring, providing other trustees with confidence in their abilities to both manage the present and to achieve more in the future."

Additional information

Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators: Model Role Description for Chair

The Trustee Network: Chair E-newsletter

National council for Voluntary Organisations: Chair's Role

Risk management ... now let's begin

The Charity Commission produces an excellent guide to risk management which can be found here. Indeed they take risk management very seriously and registered charities should report in their annual return what they have done about managing risk.

The Charity Commission document says that risks can be associated with
  • Governance;
  • Operations - this includes the use of our buildings;
  • Finance;
  • External factors; and
  • Legal and regulatory compliance.
It also provides a risk management model which has four stages
  • Identifying risks;
  • Assessing risks ;
  • Evaluating what action needs to be taken on risks; and
  • Periodic monitoring and assessment.
This seems like a straightforward model but is often not the approach that organisations take.

For example a few years ago I was discussing in an internet forum about whether an organisation that I belonged to should incorporate. This was a small organisation with maybe 200 members across the country, with no staff, no building and no contracts or other non-charitable legal obligations. One person kept saying that we should incorporate to reduce risk and I kept asking him what risks he was trying to reduce by incorporating.

When we covered all the issues it appeared that incorporation was not the answer. The answer was in having clear policies and procedures, direct lines of accountability and a shared understanding of who was responsible for what. Good practice is always the most effective way to manage risk. This is not to say that you don't buy any insurances, because in many instances this is best practice, but it does mean that you do the thinking before you buy the insurance. We do this ourselves in our own lives - think about the insurances that you can buy when you buy a washing machine - some of us reckon that we are better off without it and some decide the opposite. We do an assessment about our individual needs - which are not just about the washing machine but may be about our finances or our need for peace of mind. Then we decide what works best for us - as far as we can predict.

You must always start with the risks and get a feel for how likely they are and what affects they would have. You then need to identify whether you can predict some risks and what you can do to minimise the chance of them happening and minimise their impact. Then you need to take action - or if you decide against action (as in the above example if you decided not to buy insurance) then as an organisation it is worth minuting at a meeting why you have decided on that course of action.

More in the next few postings about the sorts of risks that we might face.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The risks of being a trustee

Have found this article which is very useful at laying out the risks of being a trustee.

I will discuss some of the ways of reducing risk in the next few weeks.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Getting on with things

It is my strongly held view that trustees, individually and as a board, together with any chief officer or senior staff must set the strategic aims and objectives for their organisation. They are the ones who sit above the organisation and see the context that it operates within, they see the pressure points, they see how bits of the organisation work together and how bits don't. They see the external landscape and the internal one. They should be able to take an objective view of the whole organisation and should have gathered enough evidence in their relationship within the organisation to know what the issues are.

The one thing that I would caution is that it is often worth finding out what the people who receive services think rather than just asking those who are providing them or who are the most vocal. But this can be a priority and should not hold up the development of an action plan.

The board and chief officer have the overview - to ask those with the underview what the priorities should be and to be content with that is not leading but following. If a board is not prepared to lead then, unless there is a chief officer with the authority and the ability to lead, the organisation will be in trouble.

If this were just my view then OK it's just my view. But what we fail to do most times within our Unitarian community is look to best practice elsewhere. There is loads out there. This reminds me of the time that the EC discussed the name 'convenor'. A small group of people discussed this and reported back saying this was a chair's role and then the EC decided not to change the title. For me this suggests a fear of either being like everyone else and/or a fear of having authority. Whatever it is we have to move on. Let us see leadership as a priority not just at local level but also at national level.

I am very concerned that as we move ever closer to another restructure we will face another year of internal change with little achieved to further our priorities. Do we really have this luxury of time?

Reaction to Derek McAuley's blog about GA priorities

You know that there are times when you feel uneasy and can't quite put your finger on it. Then you discuss things with people and then do a bit more thinking and then a bit of writing. I have been reflecting on the GA's new priorities and the proposed restructure.

The EC is not good at accepting criticism and seems to have the view that if you aren't for us then you are against us. So my dilemma becomes how do I do something that makes me feel like I have done what I can, using the skills that I have been gifted with and developed over the years around strategic development, to make a difference to my beloved Unitarian community without sending my thoughts into the abyss that opens for criticism of the EC to be buried in. I have posted the following on Derek's blog.

The more that I think about this the more uncomfortable I become. Set aside my unease at calling anything 'difficult choices' when it should have been/was about making choices about our future - which should be exciting or engaging or thought-provoking - but not difficult.

We have priorities without, as far as I can see, defining what is meant by a priority. For example is this all that will be focused on? Or are these the things that will get more financial and time support whilst recognising that other things need doing? Or is this just about development rather than maintaining other things.

Clearly the GA has other priorities such as managing its finances effectively and something about youth activity. Youth activity presumably is included in services to the movement - but is not prioritised. Unless there is to be a prioritising within the priorities. There is also the issue of social action which has been added into raising visibility - but clearly we don't take action to raise our visibility: we take social action to do some good - whether people know we have done it or not.

A concern of mine is developing leadership nationally (and at district level) - it is interesting to note that we are thought to need our leadership developing locally but not nationally. As long as we think that the only thing that the GA does is support local efforts and become visible nationally then we are missing a few tricks.

But if you ask people at the local level what the national level priorities should be you are likely to get this result. The EC with a national perspective needs to have led the creation of priorities. This is part of what I mean by developing national leadership.

Then there is plan to restructure our commissions and panels because we have this set of priorities - why? The EC knows by now that people are frustrated at the rate of change and yet here we go again on the restructuring merry-go-round. Two things - first what isn't currently working with the structure? And second why not start by giving the current structure the priorities and ask them to develop work plans to make these priorities real. If this doesn't work then that may be the time to reconsider.