In order to empower civil society organizations to become better advocates, the School focuses on developing their advocacy, communications, base building and strategic planning capacities through personal consultation and group discussions.
The School of Public Life offers help in strategic planning to organizations and groups fighting for the interests and rights of socially disadvantaged groups that function according to our most important values such as democratic engagement, social justice, participation and solidarity.
While it is very important that strategic planning processes are tailored to the needs of each organization, the School of Public Life has certain priorities that we support in all the organizations that we work with. In every cooperation we seek to strengthen democratic operation, the voice and participation of individuals and groups directly affected by the social issues at hand, an active relationship between the organization and those it represents as well as social embeddedness and base building.
We offer help in two main strategic processes: operational and professional. Organizational development focusing on the improvement of the personal and professional relations of staff members and the resolution of internal conflicts are not part of our professional focus.
Creating a strategy does not man the simple wording of an already set practice. Rather, it is a process of intensive collective thinking and planning: it implies many changes and requires serious commitment. Strategic planning cannot take place on a single occasion, but has to be a long and conscious process of planning and development. Ideally, an organization holds a 2-3 day retreat every year when all members, volunteers and staff travel together away from their daily routines to evaluate the activities and results they have accomplished and make plans for next year’s goals and activities. It is at these retreats that long-term goals can also be revisited, which is usually necessary only every third or fourth year.
The most important purpose of strategic development is for the organization to define its long-term, mid-term and short-term goals and develop corresponding activities to achieve them. In this process, it is very important to break free from everyday routines and standard practices. Our goal is to make sure that organizations choose the tools that are appropriate for their specific goals and not the most comfortable or usual ones. In developing a long-term strategy, it is very important to set apart goals and tools. For example, to prepare a video is never the goal; it is only one of many possible tools to reach a very specific goal. Having a well-prepared strategy helps your organization embed its everyday routines into a larger context, which also ensures that everyday routines really work towards the goals you have collectively defined. A strategy also helps people in your organization maintain their motivation even as they engage in small-scale or more difficult tasks.
In strategic planning, we use a deductive methodology: first identify the social issues the organization wishes to tackle, then we define the mission of the organization (3 to 5 simple sentences about what kind of a society the organization would like to see and in what ways the it wishes to contribute to it), and then we identify long-term goals. Corresponding to the long-term goals we often also identify the points of intervention where the organization will be active. Depending on needs of the organization, we can also establish short and med-term goals. Specific criteria of success are key to defining appropriate short-term goals so that we can assess our development in the next phase of strategic planning. The next step is to establish the annual work plan, which includes the actual steps the organization has to take to achieve the goals it has defined.
It is recommended to establish priorities among short and med-term goals to help participants organize their daily routines and understand where time and energy must be focused when there is a shortage of both. We normally define three levels of priority: 1 = without these the mission cannot be completed, 2 = important but negotiable, 3 = nice to have, but can be skipped if we are overwhelmed. To identify these priorities, the main criterion is not how much effort is necessary to accomplish each goal, but which one is the most important to realize the mission.
In the second cycle of strategic planning, we work with our previously elaborated strategy and we evaluate the work accomplished. We review how much of the plans have been realized or not, what else we have done and why and whether these have helped accomplish our goals. Then we go on to assess whether and how much closer we got to our goals and how and where further progress can be made. The professional quality, content and execution of any activity can also be assessed, if necessary. It is often here that we identify some errors in the logic or structure of the strategy, so it is worth dedicating some time to correct these in order to have an even more useful document in the future.
In our experience, for the strategy to become an organic part of the organization and not just a piece of paper, at least two cycles of strategic planning and evaluation are needed, which is a total of about two years. In organizations where more than one program or task force operates it is recommended to have a strategy for the whole organization as well as separate strategies or yearly plans for each unit.
While most organizations are in great need of a comprehensive strategy, some organizations prefer to engage in an “acupuncture-type” development process where we focus on certain pressing decisions or essential questions instead of creating an overall framework for the organization. The list of such questions is created collectively and is processed according to the topics and needs of the organization.
When a strategy regarding the mission of the organization is completed, it is useful to prepare an operational strategy, too. Such an operational strategy addresses the structure of the organization, levels of decision-making and responsibility, workshare, financial issues and communications. The definition of an operational strategy should always be a separate process and a separate document from the mission-focused strategy.
Photo: István Várady