Why you should cultivate a symbiotic approach to strategy and culture development with inclusion at the heart of both

By David Mbaziira and Grahame Darnell - December 2021

We recently brought together sixteen leaders from the charity sector to take part in our first virtual Leadership roundtable: Challenges in a post COVID-19 world and intended it to be a leadership discussion with a difference. We thought long and hard about the types of people who should take part, including perspectives that could take the discussion in interesting directions, and for individuals whose responses and open language would invite others to participate. We included extroverts and those who are more naturally reflective, experienced CEOs / fundraising leaders and those starting this next step of their development. Attendees came from the UK and Ireland, and from international and domestically-focussed organisations, allowing us to consider geographic and differing operating markets as well as a range of causes. By thinking about the conditions we were creating, the desired outcome was a more inclusive discussion about where the charity sector should go next.

What our attendees provided was a rich, broad exploration of the issues and actions of their organisations. We were incredibly grateful to all participants for being so honest and candid with their contributions, sharing learnings, and reflections as four main themes emerged.

  • The relationship between Strategy and Culture development must be symbiotic

The key take away from attendees was that if you undertake an approach that separates Strategy and Culture you will end up with misalignment and a compromised ability to deliver. Authenticity is a theme that has been moving up the priority list for organisations, driven by internal and external stakeholder need. You can’t be authentic if you don’t develop Strategy and Culture together. In fact, we’d go one stage further than that and say whilst people have to think about strategy and culture more cohesively, the importance of inclusion being at the heart of both can’t be overstated. The cross over and mutual dependence between developing these two transformational work streams means that there must be a symbiotic and, in many ways, iterative relationship between the two.

In our poll of leaders, 70% voted that Culture and Strategy is currently or would be considered in parallel. The remaining 30% were split between, there would be some cross-referencing but they would be largely separate pieces of work (15%); and culture and strategy would be considered separately (15%).

“We embarked on a 10-year strategy last year, we’re embarking on a transformation program, 5 workstreams with culture at the heart of it, and it is actually genuinely right from the outset providing huge value. For us there has been an absolute recognition of the interrelationship and the necessity of creating that formal relationship between strategy and culture.”

Paul Amadi, Chief Supporter Officer, British Red Cross

Historically if there was a hierarchy between the two, it would almost certainly have been strategy first, but the need to be agile in responding to changes and opportunities – a key feature of COVID-19 - has resulted in a shift with some organisations leading on culture.

“We’ve needed to be very quick with decision making but also we had to learn, we had to bring in expertise, we had to bring in that diversity of thought, we had to make sure that it was representative in a very short space of time. Therefore, actually I would say that culture has been put at the forefront and put ahead of strategy in terms of the organisation that we need to be”

Louise McCathie, Director of Fundraising, NHS Charities Together
  • Listening and building in a regular feedback loop

One of the big reflections when it came to driving forward strategy and culture was the need to actively listen early in the process and ideally for this to be the starting point. Everyone highlighted the need to gather the views of audiences post-COVID in order to inform the strategy and identify where the culture aligns with audience values. It is important that this takes in all stakeholders – external audiences and staff. This should not be viewed as a ‘one-off’, successful organisations have created and prioritised the scope for more regular feedback loops. Recognising the need and creating a space where people can feel heard at any point is a key component for nurturing and supporting inclusive cultures.

The role of leaders and managers in being active participants in modelling and fostering this safe environment was also highlighted, along with the need to show that it’s not only ok but desirable to have combative but respectful challenge within the culture.

  • Opportunities to engage with audiences and partners in a different way

One of the biggest obstacles and challenges is the prevalence of homogeneous groups and thought and the lack of diversity in the sector.

“On COVID-19, Inclusion and Diversity is a powerful enabler of business performance. Companies whose leaders welcome diverse talents and include multiple perspectives are likely to emerge from the crisis stronger”

McKinsey & Company, Diversity Wins - How Inclusion Matters May 2020

Utilising external perspectives, can be very useful especially when working with a proactive rather than reactive mindset to deliver greater breadth to current thinking, supporting the opportunity to deliver positive change. New thinking could also be changing the conversation with audiences to build engagement around shared values. To achieve this, organisations are thinking about how they can demonstrate their values in all that they do. Once you have understood and listened to your audiences and are clear about your values, you can build a strong strategy that authentically reflects who you are. This will then enable organisations to engage with audiences around shared values creating deeper, more meaningful and longer lasting relationships.

  • Working in a more cohesive way

Progressive organisations began to change before COVID-19, and if anything, the pandemic has merely accelerated the need to do things in a different way. Leaders spoke of recognising that continuing with what was successful in the past was not a viable option, a combination of operating in mature markets with sophisticated audiences; some elements of cynicism; and individuals questioning their relationships with organisations including charities has resulted in the pandemic accelerating responses to trends that were already present. It has also prompted bigger questions about what society requires of organisations to make and deliver sustainable change.

Successful organisations are not just focused on breaking down silos, they are finding ways to work in a joined-up manner, supporting the culture to enable everyone to pull in the same direction. Some charities are reviewing how they are structured and operate, doing away with the rigid demarcation of directorates, departments and separate teams. Moving to a purpose-led approach of combining agile working focused on creating greater impact for their causes. This approach could also transcend organisations – smaller charities are starting to think about coming together around certain issues, whether sharing resources and functions could be more sustainable through avoiding duplication and achieving outcomes in a more efficient way.

“In this context, to thrive we need our organisations to focus first on Impact and work back from there, recognising the need to re-imagine how we work in a way that's relevant to the challenges of the future, not just what's been helpful in the past”

Joe Jenkins, Executive Director Social Impact, The Children’s Society

The Leadership Roundtable: Challenges in a post COVID-19 world took place on 30th November 2021. If you are interested in attending the next Leadership Roundtable event scheduled for February 2022, or would like to talk further about how our consulting work helps charities to develop inclusive and focused strategies and cultures, then please contact me.

Director blog

From time to time, I post a mixture of short form and longer reads here, it might be in connection to a project, a conversation or something that I’ve seen that’s moved me to share my thoughts. I hope you enjoy reading them.

I’m flying the flag for failure

A few weeks ago, I talked at an event about failure and the reason I’m writing about it now, (failure that is not the event), is because it struck me that we hardly ever do and certainly not in a positive light.


What's going on

In 1971 Marvin Gaye released his seminal classic concept album ‘What’s Going On’, featuring a Vietnam veteran returning to America to witness hatred suffering and injustice. It just seemed appropriate to use this amazing piece of music – a searing documentation of the struggles of people at the time as the title of this blog.


How can we help you?

Get in touch with us by email, we’d love to hear from you.

About Us

At okusoka + co we co-create organisational cultures that are truly inclusive and work for all.

Our Contacts

160 City Road,
London EC1V 2NX