The Backbone of Strategy


Strategy lies at the heart of an organization’s sense of identity, purpose, and direction. A good strategic plan doesn’t need to follow a formula or template, but instead must clearly articulate what an organization does, where it is going, and how it is going to get there.

Here we lay out a simple set of five questions that provide the backbone of any strategy or strategic plan. If an organization can answer these five questions clearly, it has a sound underlying strategy, even if it is not written down anywhere.

1. Why does your organization exist?

This is the ‘mission’ question, and is about an organization’s basic identity and purpose.

Another useful way of considering this question is: what problem are you trying to solve? Nearly all social development, advocacy or environmental organizations exist to make the world a better place at some scale, which means they are about solving, overcoming or addressing some problem or set of problems.

It’s also useful to identify the values you deliver through your work (which may be by solving the problem you’ve identified). This can be articulated as an organization’s ‘value proposition.’

2. What are the causes of the problem you are trying to overcome?

Once you’re clear about what your organization’s basic purpose or mission is, you then need to identify the underlying causes of the problem you are trying to address. What prevents the desired state of affairs from becoming reality?

Answering this question requires getting to the root causes of the problems, trying to understand the human behavioral, economic, and institutional forces that create them.

3. What does your organization do?

The answer to this question explains how you address the problem that you exist to solve, and is the heart of an organization’s impact model. It explains how you achieve change in the world, targeting the underlying causes of the problem as identified above.

What’s critical is to articulate how you achieve results and impact in delivering on your mission, and to unpack your work. It is useful to think of your work as a recipe or a methodology, comprised of different key steps or ingredients.

A ‘theory of change’ is one way to explain how you generate results and outcomes. A ‘theory of change’ sounds complicated but it is really just an articulation of how an organization brings about change though a cause-and-effect process that starts with its interventions and ends with specific outcomes (‘if we do ‘A’, it will result in ‘B’, and ‘B’ will lead to ‘C,’ and so forth).

4. What do you want to achieve?

This question is about setting the goals that will determine an organization’s direction, and thus dictate how it invests its resources, builds partnerships with others, builds its own team, and measures success.

Depending on the stage an organization is at in its own evolution, goals may involve testing or improving an initial impact model (e.g. prototyping) or taking a proven model to scale. You should try and set specific and ideally measurable goals and targets to guide your ambitions, investments, and priorities.

Ask yourself: What does success look like? How will we know when we have achieved it?

5. What organization do you need to build in order to execute?

Strategy is only useful if it provides a pathway for its own implementation. Ambitions and goals are only useful if they lead to concrete questions about what is required in order to achieve them. And this leads most critically to the issue of organizational structure, resourcing, and capacity.

In the conservation and development field, these organizational dimensions to strategic planning tend to be glossed over or ignored completely. But it does little good for an organization to set its programmatic direction, goals, and ambitions without clearly establishing what it needs to do internally in relation to its own resources and capacity, in order to execute on its strategic plan. And of course, this is often why organizations fail to achieve their goals- because they do not have the right internal capacity and resources to execute successfully.

Achieving change in the world inevitably requires building a high-performing organization that can drive towards results – so put this at the center of your strategy.

The answers to these questions will guide everything an organization does, how it invests its resources, and how it presents itself to the world. Although these questions are simple, answering them is by no means easy, and indeed often will take years of trail and error to clearly formulate. And, those answers are never ‘final’, as an organization’s work, and its ways of solving problems and generating impact, are always likely to change and evolve over time.

Download a printer-friendly version of these five questions.

StrategyJessie Davie