Not many people roll out of bed daily asking: “How can I think strategically today as a volunteer board member”?

All volunteer board members come to the board table with a skill set and a level of knowledge that benefits the association/profession with which they are involved. They are subject matter experts with their own backgrounds and contribute to the mission & vision of the association in their own ways. Not all your board members have experience in strategic planning or “thinking” strategically. It is a skill, and it takes time & resources to start having those bigger conversations as a board.

What is Strategic Planning? 

Strategic planning is necessary for every association, big and small. It is a process to figure out where your association is going. How to get there? It is also much more. A strategic plan defines who you are as an association and lists concrete actions to achieve your goals. When the unexpected occurs, a strategic plan helps your association survive and find new opportunities while staying true to your values and mission. It also allows a board to allocate the resources needed to achieve your plan. 


One of the association boards that I work with recently attended a Governance Forum presented by the Canadian Society of Association Executives (CSAE). The session presenter, David Weiss, Ph.D. from Weiss International Ltd., provided a six-hour virtual session to the entire board explaining how they can:

  • create a strategic plan;
  • take accountability for the implementation of the plan;
  • allow contingencies for a deviation from the strategy, and
  • evaluate the achievement of the strategy.

The forum was set up to allow for virtual breakout sessions so the board could apply & discuss the concepts presented. The session was valuable as it included the entire board, allowing everyone to hear the same message from a professional strategic expert. One breakout session outlined the steps an association might take in developing its strategic plan, including:

  • when to do a SWOT analysis
  • when to consider Vision / Mission
  • when to consult with stakeholders

The interesting part of this exercise was when all the associations participating came back together and reviewed the steps to creating their strategic plan; they were all different. It stressed to me that there is not only one way to approach strategic planning, which again was an excellent message for the entire board to hear.

Another association client has embarked on updating its strategic plan. They have hired a facilitator and realized up front that they needed to invest in getting themselves ready to “think” strategically. The board is taking part in three readiness sessions with the facilitator to discuss the big complex issues in preparation for the day the board comes together to develop their strategic priorities for the future.

Readiness 101

How do you talk about the big complex issues without making decisions?

For a readiness session, you must determine the complex topic / burning issue for your members/stakeholders. The topic might end up being part of the strategy or not, but this will flow from the discussion your board has on the subject.

Board readiness is meant to get board members thinking about a topic but not leading them in a specific direction. It allows the board to evaluate what might be possible without making decisions or determining strategy. A readiness session is a safe way to discuss complex/complicated and simple issues allowing the board to wrap their heads around them before defining future strategy.

Anything discussed in the readiness session is theoretical and may be feasible. The idea here is for the board to expand their thinking on topics that allow them to push the boundaries to think “outside the box.” The more readiness sessions you have on significant topics, the better prepared your board will be for future strategic development.

I have been involved in two readiness sessions and can already see the value in investing resources of time & money in preparing for the strategic planning session. Thinking strategically is not natural for most people. Having a trained facilitator come in, ask the questions, and create a space where good honest discussions can take place will only make the strategic planning process more in-depth.

Spend the Money

It’s a busy time for strategic planning facilitators, and many organizations are struggling with mapping their future based on the past two years of the pandemic. Now, more than ever, it is important to spend the necessary resources to train/get your board ready for the discussions about the future. Readiness sessions make sense. They work on making the board think differently about the future and assist them in what is “possible.” When this line of thinking happens, you develop a better strategy.

Find a good facilitator and ensure they understand what your association does—relying on your board members for their subject matter expertise. Rely on the facilitator to get the most out of your board. The readiness session is one component of getting your board ready to roll out of bed and start thinking strategically! I highly recommend readiness sessions!

Read more about strategic goals in my previous article: