Strategic Realism

There are many small non-profits which have no staff, or only part-time office support. These associations, clubs, and charities are almost entirely dependent on their volunteer workforce, both for governance, and for program and service delivery. Often, the same people who already give hours each week to their involvement with the organisation, not only approve the strategy, but are expected to achieve the targeted outcomes.

In working with some of these smaller organisations, I have sometimes found that while board members recognise their strategy is something important to have, it is not something they pay much attention to outside of an annual or triennial planning exercise. Once that exercise was completed, the strategy stayed ‘on the shelf‘, and was rarely (if ever) addressed at board meetings or in committees and working groups.

Not surprisingly, boards which did not ‘operationalise’ their strategy, usually found that goals set in the previous plan had not been progressed or achieved.

Reviewing the factors underlying such strategy ‘failure‘ or ‘slippage‘, certain common elements can be identified (amongst others). Before adopting your strategy, considering these suggestions (the 5A’s of strategy execution) may help you to avoid these pitfalls:


  • too many goals
  • overly ambitious goals


  • your organisation’s capacity to achieve the goal
    – How many hours of work might be involved in achieving each goal in the strategy, and does the organisation have sufficient volunteers willing to contribute this time? (See chart below)
    – Are the volunteers equipped to do the work required to achieve the goal, or might they need training, guidance, or other resources?
    – What funding and technological support might be required to facilitate goal achievement?
    – Is external support required (e.g. advocacy, legal, technical), and is this available within your network or will it require third party engagements?
  • the likelihood and severity of risks associated with the activities required to achieve the goal, then develop and apply risk controls (e.g. policies, procedures, authority limits, supervision, guidelines, etc.)
  • progress towards goal achievement at intervals throughout the year (or plan period)
  • the need for goal or execution plan adjustments in the light of further insights or changed circumstances


  • responsibility for execution of the action (steps) required to achieve the goal
  • a director with responsibility for acting as goal sponsor (mentor), liaising between the board and those executing action on behalf of the board
  • milestones (progress goals) and timelines for the action plan


  • priority ranking to goals, so that where a new or emerging priority requires escalation, or resource scarcity becomes a problem, the strategy can be adjusted accordingly
  • sufficient resources to support the volunteer/s expected to achieve the goal
  • time on your board meeting agenda for goal progress reports from the responsible person or group (say once or twice during the year)


  • escalation triggers requiring that a matter be brought back for Board advice or decision
  • what outcomes and impact the achievement of the goal will provide, and who the intended beneficiaries are (consider a Theory of Change or logic model for major projects).

See also:

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