Charity Strategy: Whose job is it anyway?

We need vibrant and successful charities in our society.  Within this context the role of the charity trustee and their working relationship with the charity’s executive has never been more important.  When the relationship works, it’s great. When it doesn’t it can destroy the charity.

Our studies have identified a small number of pitfalls that charity trustees fall into which affect working relationships.  One of these is strategy. So what do we mean by strategy and whose job is it?

What is strategy?

If you visit the library of any business school you will find the section titled ‘strategy’ is one of the largest. There are literally hundreds of books written by esteemed authors, each offering guidance and case studies on how to ‘do strategy’. Each of these books offers fresh insight, most are a good read but the messages are often quite different. So how can they all be right?

We believe the challenge is less to do with what’s right or wrong and more to do with scope.  When we examine an organisation we find a cascade of operational and strategic objectives throughout. It follows that staff and volunteers at all organisational levels take both operational and strategic decisions, but they do so within different constraints. When addressing strategy it is first necessary understand the constraints within which the board and executive is working.

What’s the trustee’s role?

If you are a trustee of a small charity that doesn’t employ any staff then your role is all encompassing. You are responsible for the operations of the charity and also the longer term direction and priorities.  It’s your role to set the strategic direction for the charity.

Now imagine you’re the trustee of a large charity that employs an executive team and CEO.   Your role as a trustee has to be different. You will work within a different set of constraints precisely because you employ an executive team.  Within this context it is essential that trustees and the executive work collaboratively to set the future direction and priorities for the charity. Strategy is not the preserve of trustees.


We have often heard phrases such as ‘the trustees set strategy and the executive implement strategy’. We disagree. We believe strategic decisions are taken at every organisational level and as such trustees must fully engage and collaborate with the charity’s staff when discussing future strategic direction.

Blanket guidelines on strategy that claim to be relevant for all charity trustees are not helpful.  As a trustee you must make a judgement on the appropriate level of involvement that you have on strategic planning. There’s not a single right answer. What’s appropriate for a small charity is unlikely to be appropriate for a large charity.

The Trustee Fellowship support charities in clarifying, concisely, their strategic direction and priorities. If you would like to know more about our approach then do please get in touch.

Nigel Kippax