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June 7, 2019

Getting Started: How to Begin Your Association’s Strategic Planning Process

Most association executives know the daunting feelings that the development of a new strategic plan can produce. You rely heavily on your volunteer leaders. You must find time on busy calendars. You have to encourage the senior team to rise above day-to-day challenges and think of the big picture. And yet, you know that good planning has the power to position and align your organization for newfound successes, and that alone makes all this hard work worth it.

But where do you begin?

Based on McKinley’s observations and experiences in conducting strategic planning with hundreds of associations, the best place to start is pretty simple: establish a process, including a timeline.

Where to Begin
Depending on the capacity and resources of an organization, a strong planning process can last anywhere from several months to more than a year, incorporating a range of research phases and/or formal planning discussions. We find that the amount of time for the process is less critical than having a mutual understanding between volunteer leaders, staff and other stakeholders about the overall duration of the process.

Process Elements
There are three key components to a good strategic planning process: a situation assessment, development of the plan document, and performance evaluation.

The situation assessment is a research phase where data — both qualitative and quantitative — is compiled. This data should include operational trends and forecasts; member, customer, and stakeholder sentiment; staff insights; and macro trends for the field and society at large, including economic, political and social changes. Careful compilation of this information provides a solid, data-driven foundation upon which the strategic plan can be built. This step of the planning process has the most variation in time required. If resources are limited, a shorter, less time intensive research compilation can be built. The greater the available resources, the greater the opportunity to take time to build a deep, rich set of data.

The development of the strategic plan document is the second key element of the planning process.  Often done in a retreat type setting, this is the most familiar aspect of building a strategic plan.  Leaders and senior staff roll up their sleeves and, using the conclusions they have been able to draw from the situation assessment phase, build a clear set of strategic priorities and initiatives that will be given extraordinary resources including time, talent and treasure over the life of the plan. Two or three days of collaboration is typically required to create the plan, followed by careful refinement and editing by a smaller number of participants.

Finally, and often overlooked, a robust performance evaluation process needs to be established at the outset. What, when and by whom will performance of the plan be assessed? In what ways will the organization refine or adjust the plan in response to changing trends or issues? A truly strong strategic plan cannot be handled as a static document, but rather as a dynamic guide that leaders use to set and adjust course as conditions and needs warrant.

One of the critical components of the performance evaluation process is the identification of a timespan for the plan itself. While strategic plans are aspirational in nature, they are most effective when focused on a defined length of time. In the past, plans were often developed for five or even 10 years. But the world today moves too quickly and is full of too many uncertainties to plan for extended periods of time. In our experience, the optimal lifetime of the strategic plan is three years. This planning horizon supports forward-thinking goals and initiatives without giving potential shifts in future organizational priorities or the overall landscape the power to render the plan irrelevant.

So, to recap, getting started on your plan requires a specific focus on:

  • A clear and collectively understood process.
  • Establishing a research-centric situation assessment.
  • Time to build the plan itself.
  • A clear and powerful performance evaluation.

Lastly, as you approach the end of your plan’s lifespan, it is critical that your organization recognize that effective strategic planning is a never-ending cycle. The work and assessment of one plan feeds immediately into development of the next plan.

Effective planning outlines a tailored, strategic direction to guide an organization forward and ensures all aspects of the organization are working toward short- and long-term goals, priorities and objectives.

Of course, strategic planning doesn’t stop here. My colleagues and I plan to continue diving into this subject with a full series covering all corners of the process — from development and additional steps to the roles and responsibilities required for success.

Want to learn more about the strategic planning process? Read the next installment of the strategic planning blog series: Measuring the Impact of Your Strategic Plan.


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