Playcentre has provided a valuable service to New Zealand families and communities since 1941 and currently has 489 centres across New Zealand. It is recognised as the strongest parent-led early childhood education organisation in the world, and embodies and demonstrates its commitment to bi-cultural partnership through a dual Maori and non-Maori board caucus.  But social patterns have changed a great deal over the last 70 years, putting the future of this iconic institution and community asset at risk.

Business Lab was engaged to help this complex organisation find a way to ensure its ongoing sustainability.  With the organisation’s decentralised governance structure and wide range of important stakeholders, meaningful and wide participation was critical to ensure there would be strong ownership of the outcomes.  Ultimately, the successful engagement process meant that somewhat controversial changes could be proposed with a strong level of understanding and acceptance.

Playcentre philosophy is based upon child-initiated play and recognises parents as the first and best educators of their children.  The organisation was founded upon a set of firm values and originally envisioned as a support service for women left raising children alone due to partners being away in the Second World War.  With isolation and low family incomes being the reality for many women, Playcentre's founding aims were “to provide leisure for mothers and opportunities for the social development of the pre-school child”.  However, the organisation’s well-intentioned decentralised governance structure and reliance on parent volunteers now threaten its ongoing viability.  Pressures on mothers to return to work, competing community interests for people’s time, and changes to Government funding structures all present real challenges for the traditional Playcentre philosophy and operating model. 

In 2013 the Business Lab team was engaged by the Board of the New Zealand Playcentre Federation to carry out a strategic review of the organisation’s needs and future direction.  With some extremely sensitive strategic decisions at stake, Playcentre embraced Business Lab’s collaborative planning approach to ensure meaningful engagement with the passionate volunteers running its 33 regional associations and 489 Playcentres nationwide.

Our team worked alongside the Playcentre Board to identify a number of key influencers and stakeholders who were interviewed to glean deep insights about the opportunities and challenges needing to be addressed, as well as potential solutions.  These insights were then used to inform wider group discussions at the organisation’s annual conference.  Using the outcomes from that constructive dialogue, Business Lab put forward a series of considered recommendations for inclusion in the new strategic plan.

The recommendations included some big changes on somewhat sensitive topics, such as centralising administrative duties and employing more people.  These proposals represented a significant move away from the traditional approach of being a volunteer driven organisation.  There were also recommendations to capture vital data about activities across the whole Playcentre network though a uniform Playcentre Management System, with the aim of increasing the value that Playcentres could deliver to local communities.  The full range of recommendations were incorporated into a vibrant and simple strategic plan to guide towards a set of clear 5 year goals.

The involvement of the Business Lab team as an independent party enabled the Board to make the hard, and politically sensitive, decisions necessary for the ongoing survival of Playcentre.  By providing a meaningful and objective engagement process, the Board was able to put politics to one side and garner strong support around the Board table, and from the wider Playcentre community, for the new strategic direction that would ensure the organisation continues to thrive.