Focusing on your Association’s Future – Do you have a Plan?

Are you and your leadership headed in the same direction? Do you and your volunteer leaders have a vision for achieving the association’s purpose and for better serving your members and stakeholders?  Have you and your volunteer leadership committed that strategic direction to writing?

You and your association leadership have an incredible opportunity to help shape and achieve your organization’s future by developing a strategic plan. This article serves as a primer for outlining what strategic planning is, why it’s important, and its components.  Let’s get started.

What is Strategic Planning?

Strategic planning is a process that helps association leaders identify and focus on specific priorities. A strategic plan articulates how your association, your constituencies and the world at large is better off as a result of your organization’s initiatives, outreach, and impact.  In other words, a strategic plan determines where your nonprofit wants to go and how it intends to get there.  For example, if one of your association’s goals is to make a greater impact on your profession by concentrating on emerging leaders, what steps will you take to accomplish that goal?

Why is Strategic Planning Important?  As Benjamin Franklin once stated, “if you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”

  • A strategic plan clarifies direction. Of all the programs or activities your association could be pursuing, the strategic plan documents those areas where the organization is going to focus its financial and staff resources, and its time;
  • A strategic plan ensures that key leaders are all on the same page and that there is a consensus on the association’s priorities;
  • It ensures that your goals or outcomes are responsive, focused, and directed at moving the organization forward and accomplishing its dreams.
  • A strategic plan is responsive to the changes occurring within your membership, your stakeholders and the world at large.
  • Last, a strategic plan ensures your association leadership is accountable by adhering to a budget that is built around the priorities of the plan.

What are the Components of a Strategic Plan?

A strategic plan provides not only direction, but also clarity and purpose.  Here are the components that you should incorporate into your plan, along with examples of those components:

Core Purpose:  Your core purpose is your association’s reason for being.  This is usually a simple and short statement that is permanent and does not change over time.  A sample core purpose could be: “To create science-based solutions for a sustainable, healthier world,” or “To advance transportation solutions through tolling.”

Core Values:  Core values are the essential and enduring principles that guide your organization.   These core values can consist of one word with a short description expanding upon that word or a sentence outlining your association’s beliefs.  Examples include: 1) “Integrity: demonstrated by honest and ethical behavior and earned reputation for transparency and trustworthiness or 2) “Commitment to lifelong learning.”

Vision:  Your vision is a one-sentence statement that describes a long-term (five to ten years) desired state of what the organization seeks to be or become.  A vision can also be known as a big audacious goal – a goal that stretches the organization beyond its comfort zone, but be so clear and compelling that it requires little explanation.  Examples of vision statements include: 1) “To be the global authority for knowledge and expertise in dermatology care” or 2) “To be recognized as the authority for innovative educational procurement and business solutions.”

Mission:  The mission is a one-sentence statement that defines what the association is, and what it is trying to accomplish. The mission statement is usually more temporal than a core purpose and can change over time. One example of a mission statement is: “to prepare HR leaders to fully anticipate and brilliantly address the business and organizational challenges of today and in the future.”  Another example is “we are an international association of professionals advancing the quality of English language teaching through professional development, research, and advocacy.”

Strategic Outcomes or Goals:  Strategic outcomes are goals that your organization wants to achieve for its members, and stakeholders. Goals are usually achieved over a three- to five-year timeframe, but they are reviewed every year for progress and any changes occurring within the association that would hinder the goal from being achieved.  Examples include: “We will govern effectively and have an efficient structure that provides ample opportunity for rewarding participation.” Another example is: “Society will enjoy a healthier global population and safer environment.”

Objectives:  Objectives describe what we want to have happen to help achieve the goal and are framed in terms of what would represent achievement in measurable terms.  When drafting objectives, you usually start with a word that indicates a direction, such as increase, expand, decrease, reduce, consolidate, abandon, improve, distribute, or enhance.  Again, you would work to achieve these objectives over a three-to five-year timeframe, and review them every year with your Board.  Example of objectives would be: 1) “Increase the number of members who engage with policymakers “or 2) “Expand awareness on the value of membership.”

Strategies:  If objectives describe the “what do we need to do” to accomplish your goals, “strategies” answer the “how.” Strategies describe how your association will commit its resources to accomplishing your objectives and goals.  They bring focus to the allocation of resources and indicate a specific activity. Strategies start with words such as redesign, refine, create, identify, revise, develop, implement, establish.  Strategies should be achieved within a one to three-year timeframe and reviewed every year.  Strategies serve as a link from long-term planning to annual planning and set priorities for volunteer groups, staff and all other work. Examples of strategies include: “Identify an optimal infrastructure for acquiring and managing new funding sources” or “Create a greater presence on the website to make it easier to volunteer.”

Prioritize Strategies: Once you have developed strategies, you will need to determine the priority for getting them accomplished and rank them as high, medium or low. For example, a strategy with a high rating means that work on that strategy must be undertaken within the next budget year; a medium ranking means that work should be accomplished within the next budget year if at all possible, and a low ranking means that work on that strategy can wait until a subsequent budget year, if necessary.

Conclusion: What vision can your association accomplish by having a strategic plan?  We have just answered the three fundamental questions that define an organization: 1) who are we as an association? The organization’s identity is addressed by developing a core purpose, core values and mission; 2) where are we going as an association? The organization’s direction is noted by having a vision, goals, and objectives, and 3) what strategies are we going to be executing?  The association’s activities describe how we will accomplish our goals and objectives.

Carolyn Lugbill, CAE, MAM is a consultant that brings over 25 years of association expertise to the Tecker International team.  She offers strategic planning, global growth strategies, program assessment, Board development and implementation for association clients. You may contact her at [email protected].