by Donnelly K. Eurich, CAE, CMP
A strategic plan is the most important tool you have at your disposal to efficiently manage your organization's future. A strategic plan establishes a road map for management to follow, prioritizes the numerous tasks to be performed, and provides the board or directors with a benchmark to measure the effectiveness of the CEO.
A high impact strategic plan features a facilitation process which emphasizes a fast paced, interactive session, measurable goals and accountability. The committee develops detailed action plans which outline the steps needed to achieve the organization's goals. This unique process assures the association of developing a strategy which is user friendly, forward looking and comprehensive.
To maximize the effectiveness of your next strategic planning session, consider the following points:
Understand the Importance of Planning
Competition from other industries, intra-industry consolidations, changing demographics and the explosion of the Internet makes association management a challenging vocation. Many boards wait until a crisis arises before deciding a strategic plan is needed to address the problem. Annual planning sessions should alert your leadership to negative trends before they become unmanageable. Most nonprofits operate on a very tight budget. A strategic plan prioritizes your time and resources, ensuring that the needs of your membership will be addressed.
Survey Your Industry First
Sixty to ninety days prior to the planning session survey your members and non-members to obtain opinions about your organization, its image and the quality, awareness and usage of services. Ask your members questions about their future wants and needs. Find out what your member's priorities are and weave their needs into your plan. Conduct either a comprehensive survey of members and non-members, or hold focus group sessions to gather input prior to your retreat. By giving the committee members current demographics you can use these results to give your entire industry input on your plan.
Inform you committee members of the retreat 60-90 days in advance and explain the importance of their participation. If possible, conduct your session within one day. A two-day commitment may be difficult for all participants to make, which could rob your committee of continuity. Time your organizational goals to coincide with a new budget cycle and fiscal year.
Diversify the Committee
Your strategic planning committee should include board members, influential non-board members, and even associate members. All membership factions who are stakeholders in the association should be represented. Any staff members who will play a part in the implementation of the plan should attend the meeting but participate only in response to technical questions about their department. Leave the policy decisions to the committee. Ideally, your committee should consist of no fewer than 10 members, and no more than 18. If too few members are present, often the focus is lost on the "big picture" as some members may seize the opportunity to push a personal agenda. In very large groups, a consensus can be difficult to achieve due to the sheer number of participants.
Select a Remote Site
Do not attempt to hold the planning session at your office, or the office of one of the committee members. The temptation is too great for you or your host to permit interruptions over minor issues and the session will have the feel of just another board meeting. Select a facility with a quiet, private room which will permit your session to run smoothly. Have the room set with coffee, soda and fruit so participants may refresh themselves as needed. Do not hold a "working lunch" as the break will give the participants a chance to recharge for the afternoon session.
Use a Facilitator
It is virtually impossible to participate actively in a planning session and also facilitate. A facilitator can address issues too sensitive for you to approach, keep the session moving forward, solicit diversified opinions, control overbearing members and provide objective leadership in what is often a highly charged political environment. A facilitator focuses on the process and permits the Chairman and CEO to concentrate on the issues. The facilitator is responsible for the session flowing smoothly and to ensure that the committee establishes the goals which outline your organization's future.
Limit Your Plan to Three Years
In this era of rapid change, government intervention and technological innovation, any plan which exceeds three years is doomed to become obsolete. When one considers the annual work involved to keep a three-year plan up to date, projecting your organizational priorities five or ten years from now can only be done by guesswork. Focus on goals which can be implemented and measured over the next twelve to thirty-six months.
Don’t Forget to Budget
Even the best developed plan cannot succeed if proposed expenditures are not included in your organization's budget. Your strategic plan must be expressed in financial terms in order to be implemented properly. By coordinating completion of your plan with a new budget cycle, appropriations can be made immediately so no delay occurs in implementing goals.
Make Your Goals Reasonable
Encourage your participants to make a mental "wish list" of characteristics they would want from the ideal association. Challenge the committee to reinvent your organization in that image with goals established to reach an operational apex. Five or six main objectives, prioritized and accounted for in the budgeting process are all which should be attempted. Establish a time frame for implementation, a responsible party and measurement criteria to determine your level of success.
Update Your Report Annually
As you accomplish the goals in your plan, you will need to revise your priorities and possibly add new ones. Meet at least annually to update economic factors, revise action plans and update goals and objectives. Keep your document fluid and up to date at all times. Also, as strategic goals are met, you can demonstrate your accomplishments to your board, and make a strong case for that big raise!
Make Your Plan Available
Give copies to your entire board and staff. Outline the duties of individuals who will play a role in the plan's implementation. Highlight your goals in your organization's newsletter or annual report. Use the document as a marketing tool to sell prospective members on your organization.
Use Your Plan!
Don’t spend time and money to develop a vision for your organization's future only to hide it in your desk drawer for the next three years. Your plan is your best vehicle to achieve success for your organization. There is no better management or marketing tool available to CEOs.