20 Keys to Building a Successful Social Organisation

Over the past few years I've looked at problems faced by a number of different social organisations, including new startups, developing organisations, and fully established ones. I typically see one common underlying factor; many of the issues stem from a failure to define some key points with the clarity and simplicity needed to make those definitions useful.

Before we continue, let me just say that this is not going to be one of those articles with 20 tenets or pieces of pithy advice. It is about 20 key things that you can and should work out for your social organisation.

At its core, everything I outline below can all be summarised into one overall key to success...


Until you define your key points of focus, your limited funds and resources are continually wasted on attempts to cover all bases and do too many things. You end up with a Brownian motion of people’s activities; lots of ad-hoc decisions made around on a host of assumptions. It all heads in one general social direction, but with a lot of wastage and pain along the way. Prioritising becomes impossible and core platforms of long term development get missed. Over time, this leads to many of the problems and fire-fighting that social organisations face.

Here’s my list of 20 key things all social organisations should have written down.

  1. Mission
    The real reason you set up.

  2. Goals
    What you want to achieve & How.

  3. Potential Revenue Streams
    Split into core, supplemental and potential revenue. Think business model innovation.
    • Strategy for long term Financial Sustainability.
    • Core revenue – Grants, donations, and products or services you charge for.
    • Supplemental revenue (opportunities for monetising your organisational brand, IP, audience and assets).

  4. Target Audience
    • Groups that you’re trying to impact.
       Primary, secondary and tertiary.
       Outline needs of each group.
    • Recruitment strategies.
    • Long term value for beneficiaries.

  5. Services & Offerings
    Make sure they are what your audience really needs, and not simply what you can or want to offer.
    • Core.
    • Peripheral.

  6. SWOT Outline
    i.e. A quadrant grid showing Strengths, weakness, opportunities and threats.

  7. Vision
    Where you plan to be in the Short, Medium and Long Term.
    • Realistic short-term (1yr).
    • Challenging medium-term (3yr).
    • Inspirational long-term (5-10yr).
    All your strategies must work towards this long-term vision. You must know how your org can best act as a springboard for long term value to the individual or community.

  8. Development Strategy /Roadmap Plans
    These need to be created specifically to achieve the vision – ideally for a 3yr timeframe. Include yearly changes for organisation size and structure, development focus, and revenue needed.

  9. Cost/Revenue models
    These must directly fit your roadmaps.
    • Detailed costs of services inclusive of all overheads.
    • Profit margins over and above cost. It is surprising how often organisations get profit assumptions completely wrong.
    • Cost / Revenue grouping for ongoing comparison.
    • Realistic funding needed and how it will be distributed.

  10. Risks and Mitigations
    Growth and Development challenges & how you’re going to address them.

  11. Plans for ensuring long term value to your end audience
    For example, alumni community platforms to enable interaction and ongoing engagement between beneficiaries.

  12. Competitors and Similar Organisations
    Regionally and globally (now that we’re all connected by the web, you are competing for recognition, funding and audience with organisations from all over the world). Knowing these can also help you build great collaborations and make a bigger difference (see 16).

  13. Unique Selling Points & Differentiators
    If you don’t have any, make sure you create them. Without these there is no good reason for funders to pick you over the myriad organisations out there.

  14. Potential Funders
    • Identify sectors and prioritise – typically
       Corporate CSR,
       Commercial Brands that want the association,
       Trusts,
       Government,
       Individuals,
       Community.
    • Identify specific targets.
    • Identify what value they would gain from being associated with your org (conversely rethink what you do to ensure that funders get clear value from their engagement with you).

  15. Framework for displaying Social Return on Investment (SROI)

  16. Support Networks
    Organisations that you could partner / affiliate with:
    • Social sector funders and developmental organisations
    • Charities and NGOs
    • Other organisations doing similar things – collaborating is a very fast way of scaling your outcomes and your reach.

  17. Targets & Performance Management
    Anything you’re trying to develop must involve something to aim for. Your vision roadmap should essentially define your targets for you.
    • Short term activity targets that roll up into long-term impacts.
    • Strategies or mechanisms for monitoring long-term impacts. In the long run this is going to be your best selling point for raising investment and support.

  18. Brand Strategy
    Brand associations drive both individual and corporate engagement.
    • What image and personality you want to project
    • Core themes and messaging

  19. Marketing & PR Strategy
    • Channels you’re going to focus on
    • Messaging
    • How you plan to involve/engage press media (online and offline)

  20. Community & Social Media Strategies
    The web is now ubiquitous and a global connector for communities. It can also drive funding and support from sources you never dreamed you could access. Social media refers to the free and open platforms that already have huge connected audiences, like Facebook, Twitter, Ning and Youtube. All you have to do is surf the wave.
    • Plans for building global and regional support communities using the web
    • Social media strategy
       Social media platforms and goals for each
       Codes of engagement and responsible resource

Once understood and defined, many of these points of focus roll into one another and can be prioritised, developed and managed with very little effort. You don’t have to be gung-ho and try and get everything achieved in one massive effort. Social issues are typically long term and have few quick fixes. As a social organisation you should be planning to be around for a long time so continual small steps in a clear direction are often all you need to be successful in the long run.

For each key driver, the trick is to avoid lots of words or huge business plan style documents that cannot be easily read or updated. Instead aim to have single PowerPoint slides or 1 pagers with short descriptions or a list of bullets that clarifies the essence of what you’re trying to achieve. Do NOT waste time debating semantics or making it perfect. Just brainstorm what you know, identify the gaps and dedicate some time to defining the answers. All you need is enough to provide clear direction and some decent guidelines for ongoing decision making.

Always think practical and focus on communicating simply and effectively. Check the following:
  1. Can the definitions be used by people within your organisation?
  2. Can they be reviewed and updated easily?
If the answer is no, make them simpler. Here are some 1 page outputs that you can easily pass around, stick up on walls, and review on a running basis...

  • Mission, Strategy, Tactics Pyramid.
  • 3 year Vision and Strategy Roadmap.
  • SWOT grid
  • High Level Stakeholder Analysis (covers audience, funders, support networks).
  • Summarised Cost vs Revenue Charts.
  • USPs.
Create a review point every 6 months, plan in the resource and effort to make sure it happens, and away you go!

If you want help with any of this drop me a line and I’ll talk you through it.

3 Types of Partnership For the Social Sector

In my previous post on whether Partnerships and Collaboration might save the third sector, I suggested that one reason why small charities are failing is the nucleation of the sector caused by self interest in raising funding. However, beyond a point they all have the same collective goal, which is to effect positive social change. Unlike businesses which are just out for themselves, this commonality of higher purpose means that charities and social enterprises are perfectly placed to cooperate and collaborate to survive.

I see 3 forms of partnership that are immediately viable for most small social organisations, none of which are being fully explored

  1. Sharing operational costs and services
  2. Collaborating with competitors to develop better and larger scale joint-propositions
  3. Developing complementary partnerships with non-competitors to reach new audiences

Type 1: Shared Services

One of the biggest problems that small organisations have, especially when transitioning into the mid-sized space, is covering the cost of operational overheads
  • Physical space
  • Human Resources and Payroll
  • Finance and Accounting
  • Marketing & PR
You've got 3 options here.
  1. Outsource all these activities, but not to multiple consultancies or commercial companies like some charities do, but to some kind of Shared-Service Centre dedicated to centralising and performing activities that don't really need much flexibility in decision making - like for example Payroll, Production of marketing materials, Execution of marketing campaigns, Street Fundraising, and Raising awareness through Social Media.

    A few years ago when I was consulting to Public Sector, there was a huge drive to get local governments to band together and exploit shared service centres for exactly these reasons. Improved efficiency and effectiveness.

    However, unless I'm missing something, I don't think anything like this exists for the social sector, which means that right now there's a gap in the market. I suspect that the reason for this is not that there isn't a viable business model here, but that no-one's really invested time in taking the idea to execution. I'm sure this service could be set up as a Charity so that fees do not become prohibitive, and I don't imagine it would be too hard to raise government funding to set it up either.

    A point to note here is that one of the issues with outsourcing or sharing back office functions in the UK lies in tax (thanks Cliff for pointing this out). The Government actively encourages charities to collaborate to reduce cost, but the VAT system penalises those that do. If one charity supplies services to another it has to charge VAT on the supply, and the charity paying for the services cannot recover this. Apparently there is a lobby to get the Government to address this disincentive to efficiency but extending the Charity VAT exemption appears to be a no go zone for Treasury. All things considered however, I'd still suggest that even with the 15% VAT, charities could see benefits from sharing/outsourcing their operational costs.

  2. The other option is to set up a collective of local charities and social enterprises, and for the collective to either share resource, or co-fund and set up an equivalent shared service centre with dedicated teams that perform these functions. These organisations will gain from efficiencies in use of space, resource, and shared best practice and if they take a risk and trust each other the way they should, it will simultaneously create a space for cross-fertilisation of ideas.

  3. If you're starting up a social organisation, or are about to grow/scale yours, plan your restructure to split out your operational functions. Create a new revenue stream by using your team to offer these services to other smaller charitable and social organisations. It requires some strategic thinking and sensible management, but is neither as difficult or as complicated as it sounds. You may even be able to raise funding to offer this service.

Type 2: Joint Offerings with Competitors

Any social issue you're trying to address will have other organisations that do similar things to you. Typically you're going to compete with them for the pots of funding out there. However there really is little or no reason for this. If you're all working together to effect the same greater good, you've immediately got a clear commonality of purpose. If you collaborated and pooled your skills and resources you might be able to achieve much bigger things.

A collaborative network of organisations driving towards the same goal is significantly more powerful than a disparate group of small entities all pulling in different directions. Imagine how much more funding you would attract as an industry, rather than as single companies.

So instead of pumping money into Marketing and PR and networking to make your profile stand out from the competition, you should be putting your energies into building relationships and working protocols with other organisations like yourselves so you can set up joint propositions and pitch for bigger funding.

This is not a short-termist approach. It takes time and needs learning. Start by building relationships and connections with your 'competitors', and create forums or events where you talk and find out about each other. Focus on building trust. Find one other organisation that does what you do, and then pitch for larger projects and funding together. Evaluate and learn from your experiences, and then grow your network. At some point you will have created the basic framework that allows you to rapidly add new connections, and to help them slot in easily.

Be aware that there will be challenges you should expect to face, including

  • Trust
  • Personal and organisational egos
  • Contractual and legal definitions around distribution of finance and delivery of outputs
  • Programme management challenges across organisational boundaries
  • Quality control

Type 3: Complementary Partnerships

There are two sub-types here. One is complementary partnerships in a causal chain and the other involves partnerships to improve the impact and quality of services offered.

  1. Full Chain (End-to-End) Partnerships are particularly useful for organisations that offer niche services, or focus on a particular aspect of a bigger social problem. What typically happens, is that as niche organisations grow, they keep trying to add the offerings that are needed to create the broad impact they really want, instead of looking for ways to plug the gaps more efficiently.

    Taking the issue of youth social exclusion for example, the journey from exclusion to successful reintegration within the system involves transition through and from social care, into learning, and finally successful employment and stability. The learning bit alone involves literacy, numeracy, life skills, specialist skills, and entrepreneurial skills and ranges from drop-ins to accreditation. A plethora of organisations exist that support different bits of the chain, and yet they often work in isolation from each other, or try and grow to cover the entire spectrum.

    A better approach is to identify and build relationships with organisations that aren't your direct competitors. Similar logics and challenges apply as in the previous point, but this is easier because you don't have a history of direct competition. Plugging each other's gaps will help you create broader, more compelling services and pooling together will make you significantly more effective across the board.

  2. Gap Partnerships are ones where you look for ways to improve the quality and effectiveness of what you do by teaming up with organisations that have a complementary focus, products, services or skills that save you from having to employ or develop them yourselves. You can offer each other all sorts of value, from access to different audiences to new skills and capabilities and most crucially, credibility through association.

    This form of partnership is particularly applicable to connecting and working with commercial organisations that are interested in your target audience, or could gain brand kudos through their association with your social cause. Their involvement may include financial support, access to commercial networks and platforms, specialist skills, operational services or progression pathways.

    The trick for social organisations is to identify and develop their audiences, services and brand image in a way that makes them attractive to other organisations. Note that contrary to assumption, this has no correlation with compromising core purpose, and typically is only achievable by staying focused to the social cause and social outcomes.


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