Digging deeper to bring strategy to charity work

Dr Rieuwerd Buitenwerf is General Secretary of the Netherlands Bible Society (Nederlands Bijbelgenootschap or NBG), a charity that translates and distributes the Bible in the Netherlands, and sponsors Bible projects in developing countries to help churches in difficult circumstances. His educational background is theology; he has a PhD in biblical scholarship from the University of Leiden. He followed the Erasmus Executive Programme in Strategic Management (EEPSM), an open education programme from RSM Executive Education, comprising 11 plenary sessions over three months. He says what he and his colleague learned will inform his organisation’s new strategic plan.

“Obviously, theology is important for a Christian organisation like NBG. However, it is equally important to learn what works in a more business-like environment,” he says. “We work mainly with donated money, and we feel the responsibility to use that money in the best and most efficient way possible. In a changing world, and rapidly secularising country, we need clear strategies for our current work, and to take innovative steps which make us ready for the future.”

Dr Buitenwerf followed EEPSM with a colleague from the NBG management team, an approach which he thinks worked well to reinforce the way he and his colleague used their new knowledge. “We were the only students attending together, but I would recommend it – the programme is more effective if you take the time to discuss what you learned together and apply it to your daily work.

“Both the curriculum and the Strategic Decision Project were relevant for our team and organisation. They gave us more tools to evaluate our financial business model, and to design a more strategic roadmap to do innovation in the future.”

Replacing intuition with strategy

Specifically, Dr Buitenwerf wanted to change the way the organisation innovates by introducing a more considered strategy. “NBG was not bad at innovation. In the past decade we have developed various new concepts and a digital platform which combines mission impact and sustainability. Our impact has significantly grown through our innovative products and concepts,” he says.

However, most of NBG’s innovation was based on intuition rather than strategy. “Many of our staff are also our target audience, and we know our current customers rather well. We make new concepts on that basis. However, we do not yet apply a strategic innovation roadmap, which would help us to innovate in a more efficient and measured way. Moreover, a more strategic approach will also help us develop the necessary leadership style and organisational model.

“Obviously, innovation is something that every organisation wants so it’s a common challenge; there’s a lot of scholarly literature about innovation and leadership. NBG is a charity with a specific aspirational goal, and innovation for us is not primarily related to business – although our donors are also customers with specific needs and demands. Instead, innovation for us is related to our impact.

Innovation in a rare context

Dr Buitenwerf realised that he needed a better-informed approach to innovating in a charitable context. “Whereas there is overlap between commercial companies and charities because most companies also have a purpose other than making money, there is not so much literature about innovation in a charitable context. I read a lot and tried to apply what I read to our organisation. In this respect, I found that being mentored as I worked on my strategic decision plan was very helpful and to the point.”

Academic mentoring

“The academic approach of the programme was clearly present in the mentoring I received via Skype during the strategic decision project. The professor challenged parts of what I had written and gave me direction for alternative solutions. The combination of looking at my own organisation, being well-equipped with scholarly literature, and personal guidance from an RSM professor was what I enjoyed most.”

Dr Buitenwerf’s completed strategic decision plan will be used in strategy sessions with the NBG management team. The team has already discussed scaling-up the organisation’s innovation, both for its mission impact (reaching out to new target audiences), and for its business plan of innovative fundraising and increasing its income from publishing. “The innovation roadmap and the organisational advice will certainly result in strengthening our innovation programme,” he says.

Practical – and scholarly

Rieuwerd Buitenwerf says he chose RSM’s EEPSM is because of its practical approach combined with a definite scholarly analysis. “I really liked the programme; it did what it promised in that respect: every session consisted of theory – for which I could prepare by reading relevant articles selected by the professors – and a practical part. It was nice to be in a small group of 15 people, to have dinner together and learn to know each other a little, and to work together during the classes to solve practical issues based on theory. I also liked the fact that certain topics returned during the sessions – the course explored innovation from various perspectives.”

“What I really liked was being asked to dig deeper than I would normally do in my day-to-day business,” he comments. The outcome of Dr Buitenwerf’s new ability to dig deeper into innovation strategy for his organisation is a new strategic plan for NBG in the first half of 2020. “The  RSM programme will certainly have a positive influence on that. We will use the strategic decision plans that my colleague and I developed during the programme. The Erasmus Executive Programme in Strategic Management also helped us think in a different way and to see other options than we had not considered previously.”

He recommends the programme to senior managers who want practical insights and practical training with a scholarly approach. “My advice is that the programme is even better if two or more people from the management team join together.”

For more information about the Erasmus Executive Programme in Strategic Management, see www.rsm.nl/esm