When Does an Association Need to Do Strategic Planning?

Call me a heretic or drum me out of the “strategic planners” club, but I don’t think that associations should try to do strategic planning every year even in this age of rapid change. Real strategic planning involves research, analysis, weighing options, and making big decisions. Most associations need a strategic plan that can carry them for three to five years. Some years, it is more than enough to focus everyone’s energy on implementing the existing plan.

To not invest time and resources in strategic planning involves a decision. The associations that seem to get into trouble are the ones that just “keep on keeping on” without making the conscious decision to do or not to do strategic planning during a given year. They drift.

So how can the leaders of an association know if it is time to implement existing or introduce new strategies?

A great place to start is a review of the premises behind the existing strategic plan. Unfortunately, most association strategic plans do not include a list of the underlying premises to make this process easier.  Association leaders can help their successors and save their association a great deal of wasted time and money by documenting their underlying premises/assumptions when it is time to do a strategic plan.

Premises often aren’t captured because they seem so obvious that they don’t warrant documentation or strategic planning participants are so pressed for time that they feel compelled to rush to the decision making step in the process. Executive directors and other staff can help by preparing a list of premises for review by the group of people who are charged with strategic planning. Busy people are often more capable of adding, deleting, and changing such a list than generating it from scratch.

When there is no written list of premises for the existing plan, it is worth the time and effort to review the plan and generate the list after the fact.  The assumptions can be inferred by the strategies that were selected.  For example, a strategic plan that features conferences, seminars, journals, etc. was probably based on the observation/conclusion that members need more education (increased knowledge, improved skills) and that other organizations (schools, corporations, government, other associations) cannot adequately address those needs. That association’s mission and strategies would warrant review if universities and training companies had dramatically improved since the time that strategic plan was prepared.

It is wise for association leaders to review the premises behind their strategies on an annual basis.  If the premises still ring true, the discussion can move to evaluating the effectiveness of existing strategies.

Often, the most important planning task for an association is the evaluation of the effectiveness of existing strategies.  The strategies may still make sense, but the execution may be incomplete or lack luster.   I have personally responded to dozens of association surveys and conclude that most do not go far enough. They ask about the size of my businesses, my interest in various topics, my forecasts, and whether I have any questions.  Very rarely do the surveys actually ask me to honestly evaluate the effectiveness of the association’s services or to make recommendations for improvements. Members correctly wonder if the leaders of their associations are more interested in initiating new things than in being effective.

Associations that have a tradition of annual themes face a unique challenge in this regard. These associations must involve at least the chair of the nominating committee in their annual planning so that presidents who enjoy leading change are not set up to be frustrated or become loose cannons during years that call for follow through rather than major new initiatives. Annual themes can then flow from and complement a multi-year strategic plan.

If the premises have changed and/or existing strategies seem inadequate, it is time to do strategic planning.  As a reminder, there are five steps to any process:

  1. Opportunity/Problem Identification
  2. Research
  3. Design
  4. Implementation
  5. Evaluation

Often, when leaders of an association realize that it’s time to do strategic planning, they rush right to the “design” phase and generate ideas for new initiatives.  It’s important to do the first few steps before wasting people’s time and energy on generating new ideas.

Who Should Participate in Strategic Planning?

Participative approaches are effective for the steps that involve divergent thinking.  More focused approaches that are driven by experts or specialists are more effective for the steps that involve convergent thinking.  I have found that strategic decision making benefits from alternating back and forth between divergent and convergent thinking so successful strategic planning processes provide alternating opportunities for expanded participation and focused effort to encourage that to happen.

The “opportunity/problem identification” step is best served through a participative (inclusive) process.  This is an opportunity to hear from members who may not attend every conference or serve on the board.  Then the research step calls for more convergent thinking and is best served by a more focused approach (staff or committee-led) especially if the research involves technical or specialized questions.  A return to a more inclusive participative approach helps in the generation of ideas and options.  Then the process returns to the more focused approach when the pros and cons of options are weighed and the implementation/action plan is designed.  It is usually wise to execute the evaluation step with a combination of participative and focused approaches to gain as much insight as possible.

Strategic planning includes consideration of the association’s marketing, management, finances, technology, facilities–the full range of the association’s identity.  Words that begin with the letter P (place, product, program, price, promotion, and positioning) help frame the discussion about the association’s marketing strategies.  Six words that begin with the letter C help frame the discussion about an association’s financial strategies (control, cash flow, capital investment, capacity, collection, and credit).

These days, I find that associations are struggling with the management strategies more than the marketing and financial strategies.  “Structural” questions seem to dominate strategic planning discussions.  Is it time for our association to establish a separate foundation?  Should a strategic alliance be forged with a related association to achieve efficiencies?  Would multiple levels of membership be well received or divisive?  How much influence should corporate sponsors have? Should we view corporations as sponsors or true partners?  Should our board finally become a policy making board as opposed to remaining a volunteer-driven organization since they are too busy to follow through and the work to be done requires professional experience?

It is often a good idea for associations to make important strategic decisions about their marketing and finances before addressing the management strategies.  The answers often flow from those decisions.  For example, a strategic decision for most associations is related to the desired proportion of dues vs. non-dues-related revenues.  Therefore, an association that adopts a strategy that is dramatically different from “the average association” will face different decisions.  If endowment monies are attracted that skew the numbers away from the desired mix of dues vs. non-dues revenues, that association might consider the establishment of a foundation sooner than anticipated.

To summarize, strategic planning remains an important part of association life, but full-blown strategic planning does not have to be a yearly chore. If the premises from the existing plan still apply, it’s probably time to focus on improved implementation.  Documenting underlying premises can help surface appropriate strategies and prevent wasted effort later. Resisting the urge to skip steps is critical to success in any strategic planning effort. Establishing marketing and financial strategies can help ease the difficulty in management-related strategic decisions. Utilizing a process that alternates back and forth between participative and focused effort helps build enthusiasm and buy in while keeping the process moving along. Evaluating the effectiveness of existing strategies is an important step.  Matching the leaders with the work to be done can save valuable resources, because time, money and energy are not wasted on new initiatives at a time when the association needed improved follow through.


Known as The Growth Strategist®, Aldonna R. Ambler, CMC, CSP helps businesses in Achieving Accelerated Growth With Sustained Profitability® through a combination of speaking, consulting, executive coaching, authorship and growth financing.  Aldonna has been named one of New Jersey’s 25 Women of Influence, was a Philadelphia Business Journal “Woman of Distinction”, was named “Businesswoman of the Year” by Office Depot and was the national “Woman Business Owner of the Year” for 2000.  Aldonna can be reached at www.ambler.com or 1-888-253-6662.

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