It’s your job to set the association’s future direction. These tips will get you started.

by Jean S. Frankel

(Originally published in Associations Now)

What is strategic planning? It is a process of defining an organization’s purpose, values, vision, goals, and objectives for the future. If the board doesn’t develop effective strategy, it will be subject to considering every good idea that comes its way, with no criteria in place to determine how it will spend its resources or how it will ultimately measure success. Some claim that strategic planning is dead: The world is much less predictable than it used to be, so why try to plan for the future? But we believe that uncertainty means it is more important than ever to anticipate conditions and establish responses. Strategic planning exercises in which a document is created and left on the shelf are dead. But active, engaged leadership teams with volunteers and staff creating the future together are very much alive.

Don’t commit your association to do everything at once. Select one or two activities that can make the greatest impact.

A strategic plan should not be developed by others and brought to the board for approval. Defining future strategy is a fiduciary responsibility of all boards. But you don’t have to do this alone: Most effective boards truly partner with their professional staff.

How best to execute the process? Here are some important points to consider:

  • Do a bit of “pre-plan planning.” Start when board members are willing to commit time and energy to the process and staff is not overburdened.Board and staff should participate in the actual face-to-face meetings, but volunteers, past leaders, members, and industry stakeholders may also be part of the pre-planning process.
  • Conduct an annual review of the strategic plan. Don’t commit your association to doing everything at once. Prioritization isn’t creating a rank-ordered list of 32 items and then seeing how many you can check off. Prioritization is selecting the one or two activities that can make the greatest impact.
  • Make time for strategic thinking too. Discuss topics that aren’t yet in your plan. Have an effective method for wrestling with tough issues, making tough decisions, and ensuring that all board members leave the room with a sense of ownership of those decisions.
  • Develop a full new strategic plan every five to six years. In time, the professional environments of most organizations change significantly enough that an entirely new direction may need to be set.
  • Involve members. A strategic plan should be the best tool an association has to answer the member who asks, “What have you done for me lately?” Be an ambassador for the vision, reach out to members to engage them in the process, and regularly share progress updates.

In helping your organization implement an effective strategic planning process, you should be open to many possibilities and be ready to embrace change and share knowledge. You’ll combine your personal passion for good ideas with excitement for what your leadership team develops together.


Jean S. Frankel is president and CEO of Ideas for Action, LLC, a management consulting firm based in Boca Raton, Florida. Her most recent association leadership book is From Insight to Action: Six New Ways to Think, Lead, and Achieve, published by ASAE’s Association Management Press.