Everything You Need To Know About Strategic Planning for Your Association: Part 2

by Caitlin Smith 

Did you know highly successful associations and nonprofits report that Strategic Planning has a high impact on overall organizational success? Though Strategic Planning can seem daunting and time consuming, setting aside time to create your organization’s strategic plan is worth it. 

In our last post, we discussed the basics of Strategic Planning. Now, let’s get into the details.

What should our Strategic Plan focus on? 

Most associations cannot continue to do all the things they have been doing and then pile on new direction-setting initiatives. Being “strategic” implies that choices will be made so that the association will become more relevant, more competitive, or will achieve a desired positioning in the global marketplace. 

Strategic planning naturally involves, you guessed it, strategy. It is a form of planning and evaluation. Specific outcomes must be targeted and champions should be assigned to lead the efforts and specific strategies should be applied to reach the desired outcomes. Where there is disagreement, taking time to discuss and debate before making clear decisions will help everyone work in maximum alignment. A written plan document should result from the process, but the most valuable result is management and leadership consensus on the big picture outcomes to be pursued. 

Every planning function should revolve around these five questions: 

  1. Where are we going? 
  2. What is changing in our environment that will affect us? 
  3. Where do we want to be? 
  4. How do we get there? 
  5. How will we know when we get there? 

Where should we start?  

Most associations start with a charter (or purpose) presented in the articles of incorporation and serves as a constant reminder of the original intent.  

A mission statement describes the primary purpose of the organization. This should be carefully crafted, concise, and unambiguous. It defines why the association exists.  

The vision is an aspiration of what the world will look like when the association is successful. It is a shared understanding of what the overall impact of the organization will be. Mission and vision are typically reviewed by the board annually and should only be edited when substantial change to the association’s direction is needed.  

Core values are assumptions that staff and members bring to how they are expected to complete their work. By including explicit consideration of the desired core values in a strategic planning process, the leadership can focus on areas where change would be desirable or stability a continuing strength.  

Core values provide a standard against which the culture can be assessed and developed.  

Inclusion of overly broad or universal statements (for example, being financially stable) is meaningless and detracts from the overall plan. Culture change is hard and takes time. Through continual application of leadership throughout the organization, current core values can be transformed into desired ones.  

Most strategic plans include a reference to the environmental scan through the inclusion of challenges and opportunities that provide rationale for the goals and objectives. Challenges and opportunities may be considered as they affect the association as a whole or in the context of each of the strategic goals.  

What steps are necessary to create these deliverables? 

Strategic planning is about closing the gap between where you are now and where you want to be. This can be identified by performing an internal SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats). 

There are terms and different meanings that support organizational goals. It is important to clearly define a specific meaning to each term and avoid debate over the language.  

ASAE defines goals as general outcomes, objectives are more specific outcomes, and strategies are the approaches used the reach the objectives.  

The most important phase in strategic planning is the development and selection of the organization’s goals. Goals form the basis for detailed objectives for the organization as a whole and for its constituent parts. These are intended to drive change and create a future state in which the mission is most significantly advanced.  

ASAE recommends having 3-6 goals. One common pitfall is selecting too many. With a long list, not all can be a priority. The associations impact could be diluted, trying to be all things to all people, and the paid or volunteer staff responsible for implementation can be overwhelmed.  

Your goals should be broad but clear and focused, without specifying how the desired outcomes will be attained (that is the role of the objectives and strategies). They should represent the most important work the association seeks to do.  

How should we structure the Strategic Planning cycle?

In an annual strategic planning cycle, it is likely that there will be a need to refine or replace some of the goals. Priorities and opportunities shift, so the goals must be changed along with them to keep the plan focused and relevant.  

Objectives should represent the most important outcomes that will aid in the realization of your goals. For each goal, consider 3-7 objectives. They should be SMART. To develop these, its common to brainstorm about possible draft objectives first, narrow them down through prioritization, establish specific targets, and finally refine the language to make them clear and unambiguous as possible. Ask “what”, not “how.” 

Identification of strategies should follow the objectives. This is when the “how” is addressed. Strategies can be identified by asking how the association can best reach its objectives. To have a chance of successful execution, strategies require identification of a lead “champion” to oversee each one, allocation of specific resources of time and money, and a commitment of sufficient leadership attention.  

Look out for our next post

As you can see, Strategic Planning is incredibly important for any thriving association. Our next post will discuss how to implement your Strategic Plan.

Do you need help with your association’s Strategic Planning? Contact IMI Association Executives today! We’ve helped numerous clients not only create plans, but we’ve helped them accomplish the goals they wanted to achieve. Contact us today!

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