7 Steps to a better youthwork strategy

You dont really need to do much research to discover the various business decisions and strategies that have deemed to have failed, as they have lost money, caused the closure of a business or shown to have lacked the foresight required in determining the future. One example of the company Kodak, who spend £millions in the 1970 developing a prototype for the digital camera (delivering a mighty 0.1 megapixels), only for the company to shelve the plans for mass production deciding instead to focus on developing the print arm of its camera sales, an area that was a huge profit making arm of its business in the short term. However, as other companies joined the market and speciailised in digital cameras, and their sales rose Kodak gradually faded from existence.

Another example might be the fast food giant Macdonalds, who decided upon selling Salads and healthier foods about 10 years ago, but this has largely been an unqualified failure, only 2% of its overall sales have been from salads and healthy ranges, though it gained publicity from trying to be healthy at the time. It is also very quick i notice today at giving publicity to the governments plea for healthy eating as of last week, their publicity now has reference to calorie intake recommendations at meal times ( 400, 600, 600 – respectively). The culture around macdonalds for its key customers was not salad orientated, and also quickly news spread that its salads and dressings were unhealthier than the burgers. Hmm – great healthy eating strategy that one…

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Developing Strategies in churches and in youth ministry has become, dare i say it, almost the norm. Examples like the above can be used as a way of encouraging the need for strategies. One of the operant viewpoints theologically in the adoption of strategies is the verse ‘Without vision the people perish’. What is also often said that developing a strategy is a way of bringing together disjointed activities under one umbrella or approach, or to make targets. Having a strategy might be used to develop vision and an aim, and then scope out the steps along the way to get there. However, Strategic management can be used as a tool for conformity, control and containment- and might be a way of management that suits churches, which often have a default culture of conformity within them anyway. And as we know, Culture eats Strategy for breakfast anyway -doesnt it?

Whilst the church, at times as opted in to Macdonaldisation and its key tenets of control, efficiency, calcubility and repetition, and not always in a good way. What might be learned from the example of Macdonalds and its salads for strategy development?

There are a a couple of different learnings we can take from the McDonald’s salad adventure, one of its worst business strategies. The first is simply the fact that as a general rule – companies should decide on what their core competencies are, and stick to them.

Whenever you embark on a new strategy – you need to clearly articulate why you’re doing it, and what problem you’re trying to solve. This shared vision needs to be so well embedded in the strategy that the people involved can recite it easily and quickly, and that it permeates everything around the execution of that strategy.

The McDonald’s strategy with salads started off as trying to mitigate reputational risk. Then it changed to trying to drive extra revenue. That’s fine – strategies are meant to evolve. But the problem is that in moving towards making extra revenue – they forgot entirely about the original reason that they launched salads in the first place! And thus, they’ve come full circle and are once again defending themselves about how unhealthy their menus are – only the products they’re defending are the very ones they introduced to try to solve this problem in the first place!

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Problem is, is that we’re not dealing with customers, with products and with turnover being the key operational features of the organisation of the church. (even if the treasurer of the diocese says so) And even in a charitable organisation as one delivering youth work and provision – its charitable focus should be its aim, and not profit – although this can be more difficult to focus on in the deep water currents of neo-liberalism, cost cutting, and competition between organisations and churches for survival and the attraction of the few christians around. What is as easy is to talk about the bad strategies, and whats wrong with them – too vague, too broad, too nebulus as they refer to values or goals, and these are said to to be strategy deficiencies in the business world – yet at the same time, churches and youthwork talk up goals, mission, values , vision and principles within strategies – as values, principles and overall vision are core to (it is hoped) the ethical practices within youth work.

So, after dissing the bad ones, thats the easy bit – what might a good strategy need to do?

  1. Realise what the problem is that the strategy is trying to solve. Sometimes a strategy has no purpose in its inception other than to assert power and control to the strategy creator. Its is management fluff and flim flam as they might say. But a strategy that has a purpose to increase our fundraising possibilities or something that solves a problem (rather than creates them) is going to be more beneficial. However, if there are problems within the organisation – then these need to be faced. In the sometimes ‘passive aggressive’ culture of churches a strategy wont avoid the problem.
  2. Determining the Culture – but not afraid to try and affect it; And back onto culture. If the organisation or church has got established patterns of working, established environments and actions – then it has culture. There is culture internal and also culture external to organisations – all of which have a effect on it. So understanding what the cultural norms are that will affect culture is important, but also so is working out the effect of change upon it. You might have a great strategy for discipleship that doesnt take the young people to a summer festival – but this might have an impact on parents (who got a week off from their kids, the church (which liked the reputation of sending kids to it) and also the young people themselves (who got stuck in the same repeated rut), culture had already been set.
  3. Knowing the resources. This is where strategies can as easily make or break. Many a good youthwork strategy becomes affected by a lack of resources. Many a poor strategy is created because there are under used gifts and resources not known to those creating them. We might create a good strategy that is about the people we are trying to ‘reach’ – but what about developing strategies that involve them and give them space to use their own resources? (and not for our gain – but theirs in negotiation)

4. Not forget the principles! If our strategies dont also reflect the principles, ethics or theology of our belief systems, then we should question what they are about, and what direction they are taking the organisation in. And dont give me ‘we prayed about it, so its what God wants us to do’ when its about saving up £millions for a building construction or branding exercise when people in the parish go without food. The ethics and principles are almost pointers to helping faith based organisations have some kind of rudder or plumbline, if a strategy doesnt reflect the same compassionate values – but embraces and encourages it somehow – then its likely to be given disruption along the way.Instead of having values, and putting these aside for the sake of strategy aims that seem to be at odds with them and the culture of them that are already core to the organisation. Strategising through principles may engender more motivation and coherency. But a strategy of only values and a mission statement is too vague.

For example – a church that wants to ‘grow’ through being efficient and developing new services – may sit at odds with congregants within it who ascribe less to the services, but want to do more of what the Gospel says – helping the poor, and mission in the community. An alternative series of questions to frame a strategy is to discover what the core values and principles are of the organisation – what Cameron may describe as its ‘operant theology’ – what is revealed through its practices, but also the points in which there are tensions. But a church growth strategy – might sit at odds with the overarching values and implicit actions required in the gospel – which seem to shift the established view on its head and promote vulnerability, sacrifice, minimalism and reduction/avoidance of self gain. It may go against the grain, theologically or principally to desire successful or profitable organisation , but at the same time the beaurocracy of organisation is now an established part of British philanthropic culture.

5. Put the how into the why; One way that might encourage positive strategy, is to put the ‘How’ to the ‘Why’. For, many people know why they are part of churches or youthwork organisations, the personal motives and values, in voluntary organisations these can usually align with the organisational values and motives (especially when the person is a volunteer within it or a supporter of it) Therefore, putting the how to the why – becomes less about organisational survival (growth, loss and profit) and more about organisational purpose – why its in existence, what it is good at, how it does more, or creates more opportunities that continue to fulfil its reason for existing. So – we might ask:

How might we encourage more participation in young people?

What opportunities can be created so that people are more fulfilled?

How can we love people more?

How might we put ‘loving mercy’ into action?

How might we be more inclusive?

How might we be more aware of our own blind spots – and hear the voice of others?

How might we allow for risk taking that looks like people trying to use their gifts to love others?

I remember being part of an organisation who said that they wanted to help its volunteers to thrive and use their gifts – but in reality that boiled down to shaping them in a way so that they would be consistent and regular in being a volunteer leader in an ongoing weekly youth club – not a bad thing in itself, but its strategy for voluntary participation, empowerment and gifts wasn’t matched in its culture, necessarily. In a way a culture of conformity desires regularity and avoids risk. At the moment the culture of organisations is set in to risk adverse mode. No one wants to be the next scandal, or organisation collapse. Yet this can negates the risk taking that caused the organisation to exist in the first place.

6. Think better- not perfect; The title of this post is steps to a better strategy and this is deliberate, because Im not sure whether there is such a thing as a perfect strategy within the kind of work that involves developing relationships with young people. Rev Hamiltons mantra of developing strategy from the point of contact remains true. A good youthwork strategy is one negotiated at the point of action – but that doesn’t mean to say it doesn’t require plans to recruit volunteers or some help financially. However, it is still a strategy that is participative in itself- and one that is about creating opportunities for further action, an thoughts about further action with the people involved. It’s a better thing that strategizing to work with young people, doing so without young people.

7. Creating strategy is revealing; There are better strategies that others and There are really interesting ways of developing ideas for strategies, however, as organisations, cultures, values and principles can be as much at play within them, sometimes a culture will eat strategy – and that might be a good thing as it says something about the ignorance of the culture of the strategy, other times culture itself needs a shift. There is another way, is what Jesus kept saying. You heard it was said is what Jesus kept saying. Macdonalds may be saying to us one thing – but Jesus might be saying another.

In the imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis says: Whoever loves much, does much, whoever does a thing well, does much, and he does well, he (she) who serves the community before his own interests (p43). Much more doing may be required, and there is doing in the planning, but doing in the doing needs to happen too…

It might be practical for a church to have a strategy – but as ive said before- lets not lose sight of being prophetic too. Love is a verb, an action, a way of life- is this lost through strategizing it? probably. But what might be needed is more encouragement and the opportunities to be more risk taking in loving others and the charitable aims of the organisation which may be about the flourishing of people in communities. Spending less time on strategy may be better, or maybe action first, like theology first, is through its performance and action- strategy itself might be trying too hard to provide control in the divine chaos at times, and bring too much management into a movement of people guided by the spirit, and at other times in need of space and participative risk taking opportunity.

References

Cameron et al Talking about God in Practice 2010

Goetschius & Tash, Working with the unnattached 1964 (appendix)

Ive put many resources on management and community settings on this page here: https://wp.me/P2Az40-QV which might be of use to think about developing strategy – especially in the current climate of strategy development within a competative managerial culture.

As an aside, FYT are hosting a series of seminars on developing strategy in youth work practice – if you want to find out more see below:

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