Strategic planning: a beginner's guide

Strategic planning: a beginner's guide
Arts Consultant Imelda Dervin's guide for small arts groups and organisations.

Many small music groups and organisations that occupy the arts landscape in Ireland are very focused on delivering ongoing activity in the context of a very tight resource environment. A focus on ongoing activity can bring strain and sometimes hamper development when adequate time is not spent on long term or strategic planning. Many small music groups and organisations operate under numerous constraints. However, the exercise of engaging in a planning process can have the effect of easing pressure in the long run. It can also lead to new opportunities in many respects, including securing funding for the future.

Strategic planning is an important element in the development and sustainability of any group or organisation be it small or large. The process of taking stock of why a group or organisation exists in tandem with deciding where it needs to go in the future focuses the attention and ultimately the efforts of those involved on a shared purpose – the purpose of the organisation including who it serves.

Developing a strategic plan can harness the focus of a committee or board on the aims of a group/organisation to keep activity on track thus strengthening overall effectiveness and efficiency.

It involves:

  • determining where a group/organisation is at currently
  • articulating what is important for the group/organisation
  • developing a pathway towards achieving what is important for a group/organisation.

A strategic plan is a concise document that maps out the aims and objectives of a group or organisation for a defined period (3 – 5 years) and outlines how said aims and objectives will be achieved. In essence, it is a roadmap for the group/organisation that reflects its overall direction and facilitates its development in a shared and focused way.

In developing a strategic plan for an organisation, it is necessary to harness the expertise of its stakeholders in the process. The process can be conducted by the committee or board of a group/organisation or indeed a subcommittee thereof. Groups/organisations may also opt for engaging the services of an outside facilitator to steer them in the process. This person should have built experience and knowledge by engaging in strategic planning processes in a variety of different contexts in the past. As well as keeping the process on track, a facilitator can often bring a range of different views to bear, thus ensuring rigour and a depth of questioning as well as very relevant outside perspectives.

The following elements should be considered in developing a strategic plan:

Mission statement
A clear definition of why a group/organisation exists. What does it do, and with and for whom does it do it? This statement should be directly linked in to the constitution of the group/organisation and have its core values as a foundation.

Vision statement
A statement of where the group/organisation wants to be and what it would ultimately like to achieve. Essentially, this is an inspirational statement for the future that is developed out of the core values of a group/organisation that reflects ambition.


The core beliefs that underpin the purpose of a group/organisation. They represent the principles by which the group/organisation operates thus reflecting its overall culture and providing a framework for decision-making.

The strategy of an organisation should be underpinned by its mission, vision and values.

Current position

  • Where does the group/organisation sit currently?
  • What are its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (often referred to as a SWOT analysis)?
  • What is working well and so needs to be continued and what is not working well? Articulate why?
  • What needs to change?

Future position

  • Within context of mission and vision, where does the group/organisation want to go, both internally and within the external environment?
  • Leading on from SWOT analysis, what is possible?
  • What are the potential risks – resourcing (people, funding etc.)?

Strategic aims and objectives

  • What are the priorities for the period (3 – 5 years)?
  • How will priorities deliver on the mission and vision of the group/organisation?
  • What are the high level aims and objectives that stem from each priority?


  • What activities and initiatives will the group/organisation engage in to deliver on strategic aims and objectives?
  • What are the risks and how will they be overcome?
  • How will they be resourced in terms of personnel and funding?
  • What should the outcomes look like? How will the group/organisation know that it is delivering successfully on its plan?
  • What mechanism for review and evaluation will the group/organisation engage in?

In conclusion, the process of developing and agreeing a strategic plan for any group/organisation ultimately strengthens its capacity to operate effectively. The concentrated focus that the planning process brings to a committee or board (whether conducted by members or indeed with the help of an external facilitator) has the effect of channelling the collective expertise and skills of members in building the plan for the group/organisation. It ensures buy-in and a united front that can be reflected both internally and to the external community in which it sits.

Imelda Dervin has worked professionally in the arts and culture sector for over two decades and has experience in leading and working with a number of public cultural organisations, including the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaíon, the National Chamber Choir (now Chamber Choir Ireland), the Irish Chamber Orchestra, Opera Theatre Company, RTÉ Concert Orchestra and Cork 2005: European Capital of Culture.