Strategy: a small NGO perspective

Peter Chowla from the Bretton Woods Project shares some insights on strategy for small NGOs, taken from the BWP’s current round of strategic planning. You can hear his thoughts in this 10 minute interview:


We’ve also transcribed a few nuggets below:

Why do strategy?

Seven Years on [from our last strategic review], after a global financial and economic crisis, massive changes in international power relations between big countries and a change in government in the UK, I think we felt we needed to take a step back, look at the way we work with other groups and other organisations and look at the power dynamics of the situation we’re trying to change and have a more overarching view for how we can influence these institutions. Without taking a step back and looking at it from a broader perspective we were afraid that we were going to be going down trodden paths that lead to nowhere.

The challenges?

It’s taken a heavy amount of our time… but we also feel that if we do this decision right now it’ll be time really well invested for the next five, maybe ten, years

It’s slower than we hoped but I think that’s probably a product of the fact that we’re taking really important decisions… it takes time to come to consensus … [that] reflects the experience all of us have.

Resources – not just time but also money to put into having consultants help us…

It takes time to come to consensus. We’ve had some differences of opinion within the staff here, we’ve had to work through those and come to compromises…reflecting the experiences all of us have.

Advice for other NGOs?

it really pays to do your homework in advance. That means don’t just organise an away day and think you’ll go and sort everything out. You need to have thought through the options, done some research, plan ahead. We find it helps to write things down so everyone’s on the same page 


Strategy – a walk in the park?

Wednesday saw me facilitating strategy in the park for the good folk of the Bretton Woods Project. BWP scrutinises the work of international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and provides up to date information to campaigners and campaigning organisations.

The park in question was Waterlow Park in London. And it’s worth a quick diversion to mention that the Waterlow Park Centre was a great venue for small or medium-sized groups. I’m told it’s hire rates are also very reasonable. It helps that it’s in a park and the sun was shining, but a good venue nevertheless….

BWP have undertaken a strategy process that’s impressive for an organisation of their size, and much of the agenda preparation was already done for me. I hope to bring you more on that soon in the form of an interview with a member of the BWP team.

Even so the tensions between time and achieving depth of thought and quality of decision-making were inevitably apparent in the one day I spent with them. My brief had been mainly to help them implement the thinking that they’d already agreed on. It became obvious quite quickly that there was less agreement than was perhaps assumed, and we had to take a step back. Rule number one of any process – clarity on assumptions: are they shared, are they accurate? I’ve been heard to say on many occasions that what’s obvious to me may well differ from what’s obvious to you. It was a useful reminder of this in practice.

The evaluation of the day was generally very positive. Here are some snippets:

The facilitation was focused and task orientated. We moved forward and made progress… The structure of the day was well thought out…We were flexible, which is important in strategic planning

There was, of course, room for improvement:

The introduction was too long – we’ve had similar facilitation in the past, so it was unnecessary…We spent too much time re-defining the process part way through the day

We spent too much time defining the process part way through the day

We had covered some of this ground before

BWP didn’t convey lack of agreement on some of the questions to Matthew which led to more discussion of process

BWP staff had differing understanding of some of the roles. It would have been useful to have clarified these in advance

“stupidly overambitious” agenda – maybe we could have done some of the thinking in advance and come with proposals?

The introduction was too long – we’ve had similar facilitation in the past, so it was unnecessary