One of the most important starting points for any association when undertaking strategic planning is to engage a consultant that has experience in leading strategic planning sessions. If you think you can have your executive director/staff conduct a strategic planning session for your association, you are sadly mistaken. Having staff members and the directors of the board involved in the process is vital to creating a solid strategic plan but the process needs to be managed by an independent third party.
After the consultant is hired the next step is to determine who the stakeholders are in your industry and compile information from each group. The information includes how they interact with your association, whether they impact your decision making, whether they can change the direction of programs and services made by the board, etc. The list of stakeholders can be suppliers, customers, patients, government, media, consultants and the list goes on. Determining the stakeholders and getting input from them is vital to a strong planning process.
The consultant will take you and your stakeholders through a very common strategic planning exercise called a SWOT (Strength, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis. A SWOT analysis is an analytical method, which is used to identify and categorize significant internal factors (i.e. strengths and weaknesses) and external factors (i.e. opportunities and threats) an association faces. A face-to-face meeting of the board, key stakeholders, staff and the consultant is a key step to really getting to the key strategic priorities your association needs. A good consultant can do much of the prep work for your board so when you meet face to face they can facilitate the conversation and guide the board through the process.
I attended a strategic planning session for one of our association management clients, which proved to be a great experience. The client is a provincial association, which has a parent national association. The national association does a strategic plan every three-to-five years. They hired a consultant who did a fabulous job of gathering all the information needed to discuss matters efficiently and get the planning process completed during the one day of face-to-face meeting time.
The consultant gained perspective by talking to past presidents of the association and key players in the industry from different regional and international interests. He also reviewed the previous strategic plan and pulled the components of that plan that were still relevant today. All this work was done in preparation for the one day where we all got together to discuss the strategy needed for the association moving forward. It was done very well and again, having the consultant who does this for a living, was invaluable to the entire process. Once the plan is complete and the board has agreed upon the results of your hard work, the next step is to implement the plan and then regularly check back and adjust where and when needed.
As you can see, when approaching the strategic planning process you must allocate the proper level of resources necessary to make the process meaningful. Consultants cost money, and gathering information takes time and staff and volunteer resources. As a board you must make the time and dedicate the appropriate resources to this process. It will pay off in the end as it will provide your board and your staff with the strategic direction your organization should take when conducting the business of the association.
How often you do a formal strategic plan will depend on your industry. I was listening to a speaker recently talk about how he plans for his business and it was very interesting to hear. He said he has a two-year overall plan but at the rate of change in the world and his industry he really doesn’t plan much more than six months ahead. This isn’t doable for associations but it did indicate to me that you can’t just create the plan and not make changes to it going forward. It is necessary to go back to your strategic plan and regularly tweak and adjust what you are doing in order to stay relevant and effective.