Sector Snapshot: Business Planning Challenges and Opportunities for Heritage Organisations

27th April, 2023

Based on a business planning focus group held on 27th March 2023 in partnership with Creative United. Facilitated by Sarah Thirtle, Director of Strategic Development, Creative United.

A series of focus groups was run at the end of the Rebuilding Heritage project, in March 2023, to explore current challenges and opportunities for heritage organisations. The findings from each focus group are presented as a series of ‘snapshots’ of sector views and experience.

To see all of the sector snapshots, click here.

Purpose of Focus Group

To explore the current challenges surrounding business planning in the heritage sector – for individuals and organisations.

Nine people attended the focus group. They were drawn from different parts of the UK, different types of heritage organisation, and different roles. The discussion focused on barriers to business planning, who is responsible for business planning, what helps in terms of business planning, priorities for the year ahead and how easy or difficult it will be to achieve those priorities.


The first discussion topic was “what prevents you, or limits you at the moment, from carrying out business planning activities for your organisation?”

For most participants, the dominant issue is lack of capacity: there isn’t the time for existing staff or volunteers to devote to business planning activities. Several members of the focus group talked about business planning being ‘squeezed out’ by other priorities. For example, health and safety issues, regulatory issues and the need for urgent income generation all take precedence over business planning. They find that their organisation is limited to taking a reactive rather than proactive approach.

Other barriers include governance structures and a lack of business planning skills and experience, (particularly at Board or Trustee level) and the challenge of influencing key stakeholders and getting Board-level engagement to ensure a range of perspectives is built into the planning process.

Participants were then polled on what their first choice for help with business planning would be, choosing from a range of options. The most popular response was ‘seeking help from an experienced member of your Board’ (44% of responses) followed by ‘seeking help from a programme providing free support’ at 33% of responses. No-one in the focus group chose ‘paying for training in business planning’ or suggested something else.

This implies that people working in heritage organisations want help with the process of business planning, from internal or external sources, rather than paying to develop their own skills. It underscores earlier comments about lack of capacity being the greatest limiting factor in that people want extra resources to help with the process.

Who Should be Responsible?

The discussion then moved on to who should develop and/or be responsible for business planning in an organisation. For organisations with Boards or Trustees, there was strong support for responsibility being assigned to this level as these people make the decisions on what the charity or organisation does.

However, as noted previously, at many organisations there seems to be a lack of business-planning knowledge and experience at Board level. Within our focus group, the preferred solution to this conundrum is to bring in external expertise. The advantage of this is that the business planning gets done, and within a defined period, albeit at a cost.

Unfortunately, the cost of external help is a significant problem for many organisations. Staff or volunteers need to make the case to trustees to spend money on the activity which is often not seen as a high priority by the Trustees or Boards and so not supported.

Assuming that the process of business planning can be carried out by someone, there was unanimous agreement that business plans are valuable and should be embedded throughout the organisation and used by Board, staff and volunteers.

What Helps?

The focus group was then asked to think about recent opportunities and things that had helped their organisation’s business planning activities. The Rebuilding Heritage programme featured strongly in peoples’ replies!

Committing to an activity (in this case, a Rebuilding Heritage Action Learning Set) that required focus and removed other distractions (competing organisational priorities) gave the ‘head space’ to think about the planning process which made it achievable.

Rebuilding Heritage’s 121 consultancy sessions helped other people to get started. Partnering with people with a broader skill set was found to be transformational and enabled progress to the point where others in the organisation could get on board and the business plan became a collective responsibility.

The light-touch Rebuilding Heritage application process was appreciated. Participants commented that sometimes the application and feedback processes for funding or support are so onerous for small organisations that it outweighs the potential benefits.

A recurrent theme appears to be that the most difficult thing is getting started. Once people find time to understand what is needed and where to start, they make good progress.

Priorities for the Year Ahead

Our focus group attendees were asked to choose which of the following activities are a priority for the year ahead (multiple responses possible).

The most frequently selected option is ‘diversifying or increasing income’ (78% of responses) then ‘examining or developing our business model’ (56%), closely followed by ‘creating capacity in the organisation’.

People in the focus group talked about their ambition for growth and for generating more income. This is an acute issue at the moment as cost-of-living increases mean that more income is needed to support existing business models because base costs have increased.

Group members observed that priorities are also shaped by which stage of the business planning process they are at. Organisations that already have a business plan might be looking to review it and develop their business model; whilst those at an earlier stage of the cycle will prioritise vision, mission and values activities.

“Big Things have Small Beginnings…”

Finally, the group was asked to reflect on how easy or difficult they think it will be to achieve their business planning goals and objectives.

The uncertainty of the current economic climate was frequently cited as making it difficult to plan. However, the creativity and persistence of the sector is apparent. Many people spoke about the value of breaking work down into small parts:

Think about where to start

Start with small nuggets of information – don’t aim for a polished plan straight away

Get to the heart of the issues in a short document

Sketch out what the plan is going to include even if you can’t develop the whole thing

Focus on a couple of income targets that are ‘good enough’ for this year

Focus on one area of change, e.g. Board review

Look at the information you already have, e.g. in your organisation’s strategy, pull out what you need and organise it in terms of a business plan.

The session closed with reassurance that business planning is not a mystic art but really just a process of getting down onto paper all the stuff you already know in a logical way. Most importantly, it’s not just about the act of writing a document but about the collaboration and conversation that gets everyone on board with the process.

Rebuilding Heritage was a UK-wide support programme designed to help heritage organisations navigate the challenges presented by COVID 19 (July 2020-September 2022) and challenges arising from increases in cost-of-living (November 2022-April 2023).

The project was coordinated by the Heritage Alliance, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and delivered in partnership with the Chartered Institute of Fundraising, Clore Leadership, Creative United and Media Trust, with support from additional providers.

More Resources

Sign up to our mailing list

If you would like to receive updates on the Rebuilding Heritage programme, please sign up for our mailing list