We are witnessing a new era in the non-profit sector. Associations that once walked a narrow, neutral line on key societal issues have adopted bold positions and agendas. Cross-sector coalitions and partnerships have amplified the ability of associations to address our world’s grand challenges. Identifying how and where your association should focus — particularly as the profession or industry evolves simultaneously — requires a new level of rigor and commitment to strategy design and business planning.
For The American Institute of Architects (AIA), the belief that architecture and design is central to advancing the health and well-being of society led to a new lens on strategic planning. By adopting this approach, AIA developed a bold plan that ensures its priorities and activities align with its ambitious direction—both today and into the future.
“Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context—a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.”
– Eliel Saarinen, Architect
- Hoping to avoid the traditional strategic planning model, AIA sought a partner that would challenge the organization to uncover bold and transformative opportunities through a highly collaborative and fluid approach.
- Early in the project, AIA crafted an envisioned future statement to ground the strategic planning efforts in a concrete, yet aspirational outcome.
- Throughout the project, AIA carved out time to consider the existing strategic plan as a way of testing its continued relevance and ensuring that it was properly integrated in the more ambitious subsequent plan.
- To proactively cultivate awareness and support, AIA provided stakeholders with the opportunity to speak―and be heard―in a multi-phased research effort.
Envisioning the Future
While strategic planning has always been an important tool for AIA, the organization set out in 2019 to rethink what was possible—both for the organization and the profession. AIA wanted to set an ambitious and transformative agenda.
Strategy and Solution
AIA entered its strategic planning effort from a strong market position and outlook. To identify and assess high-impact opportunities for the future, the project focused on four research phases:
Multiple waves of research revealed high member and stakeholder satisfaction and the belief that AIA would continue to be essential to the profession. At the same time, AIA’s audiences called on the organization to be more visible, nimble and outspoken in its representation of the field.
AIA’s ambitions for the strategic planning process extended beyond organizational change; staff and volunteer leaders recognized an opportunity to extend AIA’s influence and impact on society. They called on AIA to leverage its leadership, resources, and influence to affect measurable change on some of the signature issues of our time—climate and social justice.
While research is critical to building an informed strategic plan, the value is diminished without a clear process to translate the data into action. After delivering top-line findings and implications from across the extensive research effort, McKinley led the AIA Strategic Planning Committee, Board and Strategic Council through a series of exercises to facilitate high-level visioning and problem-framing. This type of generative thinking helped steer AIA’s leadership away from the “how” and toward the transformative “why.”
Using the input gained from these iterative discussions, McKinley developed a strategic framework for reaction and refinement by the same leadership groups. The finalization process also involved consultation and “pressure testing” with key stakeholders. The culmination of the effort was a launch of the strategic plan in 2020 with the following key imperatives:
A strategic plan represents a specific point in time, but a successful plan allows for some level of adaptability when conditions change. Since launching the plan in 2020, AIA has:
- Adapted to meet the rapidly changing environment. AIA expanded the objectives to address justice and equity. AIA continues to evaluate opportunities to maximize impact by looking for the intersection between objectives like climate action and equitable communities.
- Fostered critical dialogue. Design is a fundamental element of society. Through the lens of the strategic plan, AIA has been able to challenge itself―and the profession―to answer fundamental questions about how architecture can help address society’s pressing challenges.
- Realized greater operational efficiency and effectiveness. The streamlined and straightforward plan has fostered cross-organizational collaboration, prioritized and aligned work, and provided a framework of 2021 Strategic Priorities for clear communications with staff, volunteer leaders and members.
- Leading and energizing staff with new ways of working: AIA committed to a new set of strategic priorities but also a new way of executing the work. It established staff teams to lead each objective, and staff executives were appointed as sponsors. However, rather than assign sponsors based on role and department, AIA made the deliberate decision to align skills rather than titles. These assignments bring new context to the work and allow sponsors to play critical roles in areas such as removing barriers and settling any inherent conflicts.
Meet the Team:
Jay Younger, FASAE
President & CEO