Military Strategy, Operational Planning and Philanthropy – reflections from practice

David Sanderson, Chief Executive of The Rank Foundation, reflects on lessons from his military career for contemporary philanthropy.

Joining the Social Sector after 24 years of military service was seen by many as a significant challenge, a giant cultural leap fraught with complexity. My experience of two decades of operations (either on, preparing for or coming back) along with significant exposure to working in smaller, often remote post conflict environments, demanded a readiness and willingness to adapt to meet new, fresh challenges in often less conventional ways. As a graduate of the Army Command and Staff Course, I was also equipped with several years of formal staff training, to plan, execute and review operations: surely this wouldn’t go to waste? Now, with fifteen years under my belt, leading a foundation on a new and exciting journey around a more engaged model of philanthropy, I offer these reflections covering three distinct areas: the importance of mission (in its widest context), the value of concentrating ‘force’ and the application of an analytical and formal planning process to routine operations.

The idea of ‘Auftragstaktik’ can be described as a decentralized leadership and command philosophy that demands decisions and action at the lowest level of command. Developed by the German army, perhaps as early as the early 19th century, ‘mission command’ became vogue, both in the US and UK, from the mid 1980s onwards. What sounds rather formal and cumbersome is, in practice, anything but. Having a clear understanding about the organisational mission, this model should serve to empower ‘active and agile’ leaders, allowing considerable freedom to operate.

As the Rank Foundation moved away from functional areas of interest like elderly and disability, we have looked to promote a strategy on developing leadership and promoting enterprise. We continue to engage with our areas of historical, functional interests but we do so in a different, more liberated way. My small, energetic, curious and highly focussed team have great freedom to pursue their own path, as long as the destination remains the same: tell people what you want to achieve and not how to do it. Furthermore, the principles of mission command: mutual trust, shared understanding and accepting prudent risk present a very good fit for our style of philanthropy.

On the subject of ‘mission’, it is worth mentioning the importance of defining and phrasing of mission. Mission is about intent and purpose: what you want to do and why? Yet despite this, our early experience in Hull, as part of a wider place based programme, indicated that our initial mission statements proved too woolly and imprecise. This failure only became apparent as we set out to evaluate the programme and to properly measure progress. In order to remedy this, we paused to rethink and then started again, presenting a series of revised mission objectives that connected more readily with our work and a shared theory of change process, where the output and outcomes flowed more easily, providing a better means against which we could measure progress and evaluate success.

This neatly brings me to my second point: concentration. Concentration of force is a principle of war according to British Military Doctrine, that involves the decisive, synchronized application of superior fighting power (conceptual, physical, and moral) to realize intended effects, when and where required. Whilst the context is different, our concept of place based funding is designed to maximise impact by concentrating knowledge, funding and expertise in a precise geographical way, combining social, intellectual and financial capital in a way that goes beyond funding just a cluster of distinct and different projects. These independently evaluated programmes continue to demonstrate the added value of this ‘concentrated approach’, where the combined outcome exceeds the sum of each part.

The final reflection concerns the process of operational planning. We were often asked to identify those ‘special ingredients’ in planning and executing place based programmes, where ‘time on reconnaissance’ is seldom wasted and where knowledge and relationships have proved pivotal to success. Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield or IPB forms a key part of staff training for combat operations and contingency planning in providing a tool that analyses mission variables, culminating in a decision support template, with timelines, action requirements and specifying intelligence and information needs. Like all tools, these can easily be adapted to embrace different environments and the evolution of the IPE – Intelligence Preparation of the Environment – as a systematic place based planning tool is being shared and developed alongside our existing partners. Alongside the ‘Estimate’ process, these military planning tools are designed to assist with decision making, often under pressure, in a timely fashion: these can work in any industry or sector.

The Rank Foundation continues to evolve as a ‘grant maker’ as we move towards a more proactive, engaged model as a means of increasing impact and effect in our chosen areas. The creation of an active, vibrant and growing network requires increased resource, energy and commitment: this enhanced operational model demands a different set of tools, knowledge and expertise. Adapting military knowledge and operational experience has its value but perhaps no more than that garnered from any other sector. The key is to utilise existing knowledge and skills in a flexible way, to adapt and change old models to meet new and dynamic situations, to be mindful of the bigger picture, to actively encourage delegation and, above all, to accept risk and failure as part of the learning process.









David Sanderson, Chief Executive, The Rank Foundation