A Mandate to Act: A New Strategic Direction for the Nelson Festivals Trust

Setting a strategic direction for the new Nelson Festivals Trust

The Nelson Arts Festival is a beloved institution in Nelson. This year will mark the Festival’s 25th year - making it the longest-running arts festival in New Zealand.

Last year marked a turning point behind the scenes. The Nelson City Council transferred the operation of the Festival to new organisation, the Nelson Festivals Trust.

Once a powerhouse Board had been chosen, Board Member, Sarah Yarrow, contacted Business Lab.

As a new organisation, they were looking ahead to some common challenges:

  • Do we start with a new strategy or by developing our culture?

  • How do we involve our key partners in the new organisation? How do we work with them, not to them?

  • What key steps do we need to take to ensure a smooth handover?

Engaging the arts community

Over coffee, we explained our engagement approach to Sarah and Board Chair, Brent Thawley.

Traditional strategic planning often limits involvement to a few key people. Perhaps just the Board of Directors and a few key staff members.

But our approach is to broaden the net to involve as many people as possible from your key stakeholders and community of interest. This approach made sense to the new Trust. They wanted to ensure the community felt a genuine sense of ownership of the new organisation and a renewed Festival.

We wasted little time getting started.

We interviewed 16 key people to gather insights about the current and potential future state of the Festival. We coded this qualitative feedback, and shared a high-level summary to communicate the diverse viewpoints.

An example from the interview summary: “ What does success look like?”

An example from the interview summary: “What does success look like?”

We used these to inform an engagement event at The Trafalgar Centre with over 100 participants from the Nelson arts community.

Nelson Arts Festival Planning Event showing groups

Then, a quick three weeks later, we brought together a smaller group to narrow the focus around some key themes.

Nelson Arts Festival Implementation Event

It was fast paced, with Business Lab regularly reporting to the Board and communicating with participants.

“I loved the speed of the process,” Sarah told us. “I’ve been in so many planning processes that take forever but this just had a natural momentum about it.”

But was it too fast? And has it left the Board feeling confident about their future direction?

The result: a mandate to act

We caught up with Sarah in January to hear about the Board’s response.

“Our final board meeting last year was awesome. It made us realise how much work we had done and how far we had come.”

Sarah told us about tension within the Board during the process. Some felt they should first be creating their values and developing their culture.

“But when we talked about this in December the Board felt it was the right order. They felt they couldn’t develop their culture without having some direction about what we were trying to achieve.”

And that’s the value of collaborative planning over a traditional closed-door planning process. It doubles as both a strategic process and a culture-building process.

Over the next year, the Board’s challenge is to maintain the momentum from their community engagement. That’s where it can be helpful to have some outside accountability - and that’s why we’ll be meeting with the Board in six months to check in how they’re going.

And what about the Board’s concern that their input would fall by the wayside when engaging with their community of interest? I’ll save the final word for Sarah:

“We found there was huge alignment between the new Board’s views and the community’s views. The process has given us alignment with the community and a mandate to act. That’s really powerful.”


Is your organisation at a turning point?

When your organisation sees a big change on the horizon, we can help you engage your stakeholders and community members to set a new direction. Don’t ignore your people - they are your biggest asset. Instead, involve them in your strategy process and feel confident about your next steps.