Building Strategy: Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust

In this series, we are taking a closer look at what role strategy plays in foundations’ work, and how they determine what it involves.

The first article in this series comes from Nick Perks, Trust Secretary, Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.

This series first appeared in September 2017’s Trust & Foundation News. Read the magazine here

I see strategy as the choices you make in how you will pursue your mission. It includes what you will do to get there, but also what you will rule out. If mission is the mountain top you are aiming for, strategy is the route you choose to get there.

Having a clear strategy is very important for social change organisations, and third sector organisations more generally, as there are so many different issues you can get pulled into. Making strategic decisions helps you see the boundaries of the contributions you want – and don’t want – to make. There are many interesting projects that might not suit the way an organisation works, or are not within its expertise.

Our last strategic review was in 2012/13, and the main outcome was a new way of grouping the areas that we want to fund in. It also served to help us articulate our model of working more clearly.

The review involved significant preparation, which included evaluation of some of our existing grant programmes. We also invited staff and trustees to write ‘think pieces’ to inform the strategic discussion. It was very helpful to give everyone in the organisation the opportunity to give input, both staff and trustees, so that it was an open process. Apart from the external evaluation of our programmes where the evaluators talked to grantees and others in the field, we didn’t overtly involve wider stakeholders.

The strategy itself came together over two board meetings. The main decisions were made in the first meeting, which was externally facilitated. It was useful to the quality of decision-making to focus on a small number of important questions, rather than having a very long list of things we could talk about. Having that high quality external facilitation was also very helpful in guiding a different conversation separate to routine matters. Staff then went away and worked on what those headline decisions might mean, which was then discussed and ratified at the second meeting.

The implementation process took a lot longer as there was a lot of detail to work through. As well as honouring existing grant commitments, we also offered additional transitional support to some groups.

In hindsight, I think the preparation was a slightly protracted process and if we were doing it again we would try to speed up that phase. It probably took around 18 months preparing and making decisions, and that in turn followed on from protracted discussions about the nature and shape of the review. Implementation took two to three years, and rightly so. If you have been working in a field for 20 years, you need to manage the transition and withdraw in a respectful and planned way.

In terms of costs, we didn’t allocate a specific budget but we do have an ongoing budget line for learning and probably in terms of trustee and staff time.

We will not undertake another strategic review for some time, as the effects of this last one are only now settling down. However, every 10 years we are obliged by our governing document to look at whether the trust should continue, and that is due in 2018. There may be things that we reflect on then, but the broad areas in which we work are set for a longer period. For a responsive funder working in a certain field or fields, it takes years if not decades to build up trust, reputation, relationships and expertise. There is also a big transaction cost going into or coming out of an area, both for us and for the organisations we fund.

That said, we are a responsive funder and nothing is set in stone – changing politics, technology and social issues still provide plenty for us to consider in terms of the detail of how we work, what is the most effective work at any particular time, and what the opportunities are to create change. Organisations that come to us for funding will also change their strategies to adapt to current realities, and that helps our work to remain fresh and relevant.

Nick Perks
Trust Secretary
Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust


Other articles in this series:

Building Strategy: City Bridge Trust 
Building Strategy: Andrews Charitable Trust
Building Strategy: John Lyon’s Charity
Building Strategy: Masonic Charitable Foundation 

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