Two Key Ingredients for Association Success

Two Key Ingredients for Association Success
Jim Collins quote

Good to Great

From time-to-time, I hear whispers around the association community that “strategic planning is dead,” or that associations should “reinvent their strategy on a quarterly basis.” While these sound bytes may seem compelling, they fly in the face of an essential best practice in association management. In McKinley’s 2016 Economic Impact on Associations Study, we found, unsurprisingly, that 93% of respondents have a formal strategic planning process in place. Indeed, the casual guidance to abandon strategic planning (in favor of what, exactly?) would certainly leave a large gap in how associations think about and approach the future. In addition, when I think about Jim Collins’ quotation to the left, the concepts of choice and discipline are two of the essential characteristics of crafting successful strategy in an association environment.

Conscious Choice

Ultimately, a good strategy is all about making choices. This is particularly true in an association setting in which “volunteer enthusiasm” can often outstrip organizational capacity. Associations need sound methods in place to help reach consensus on what to do now, what to do later and what not to do. Once a high-level strategic framework is established to document why the organization exists (mission) and what it will pursue as its key priorities (goals and objectives), a handful of well scoped strategic initiatives can answer the key question of how the association will accomplish its aims.


Not having a clearly defined direction, measurable outcomes and an agreed upon definition of success places associations in the difficult position to answer a key question: how are we doing? A good strategic plan helps answer this question on a consistent basis. It also can help provide continuity for the organization by engaging current and future leaders in a conversation about the future. This helps ensure that volunteer and staff leaders are aligned with the association’s priorities and reduces the risk of “lurching” from year-to-year on the whim of a volunteer leader or change in the Board.

We recently wrote about some of these dynamics in this Forum magazine story on strategic planning. While we would agree that associations can and should pursue a more agile posture around their business practices, the idea of abandoning strategic planning sounds far more like the flavor of the month than a recipe for long-term success.

If you are interested in learning more about strategic planning, please contact Jay Younger at