The newly elected president walked into the executive director's office to discuss the year ahead. He brought a notepad filled with 13 projects to achieve before his term ends.

How should the executive respond?

Start by thanking him for sharing his priorities. Follow that with, "Let's look at our strategic plan to see how your projects fit." The aim is to show that his interests might already be part of the strategic plan or to discuss how they can fit.

If they don't align, the following discussion might ensue, "What should we adjust in our existing plan to integrate your goals so as not to exhaust our resources?" The conversation would benefit by including the executive officers.

The approach shows the importance of a strategic plan to guide the association through successive leadership, avoiding year to year distractions.

Strategic planning is not dead

You might have heard, "Strategic planning is dead." The statement is not meant for associations to abandon planning. The processes and outcomes have simply evolved.

Planning retreats are opportunities for directors to consider the future. They are different from board meetings where attention is generally focused on the current year.

Planning that used to take months or weeks can be done in less than a day with proper preparations. Reports that were 20 to 100 pages have been pared down to a page or two. Rather than starting anew at every retreat, boards have realized it's smart to build upon the prior plan.

Terminology has also changed. Strategic drivers might be set to frame decision-making. Mission and vision statements have been combined. A plan champion or Sherpa may be appointed to monitor and report on progress. Staff track progress on a program of work.

Association GPS

The plan sets a destination and describes a roadmap. Consider it the organization's guiding GPS — goals, priorities and strategies.

The road map should be the primary guide for board, committees and staff. When proposals are made, directors should question, "Why are we talking about this if it is not in our plan?"

Several association executives offered perspectives on planning:

"There is an old adage, 'If you don't know where you are going any road will get you there.' The strategic plan is our road map which, when properly used, will focus and prioritize the financial and human resources to meet significant goals and objectives," explains Glenn East, CAE and executive director at the Northeast Florida Association of Realtors.

At the Retail Association of Maine, CEO and CAE Curtis Picard says, "Having a strategic plan with 3 to 5 clear goals enabled us to focus our limited resources on the things that matter. While it is sometimes easy to say yes to an idea, the strategic plan gave us the criteria to determine if it was mission critical or not. Finally, the plan made our board meetings run much more smoothly once we centered the agenda on the specific goals."

Erica Huffman, CEO at the Escambia County Medical Society avows, "Having a strategic plan gives the association a sense of direction. It is a road map and without it, it is easy to get lost among the variety of task and projects the association manages."

Charlene Wandzilak, executive director at the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association offers, "Having a strategic plan which is referred to regularly and monitored for progress helps provide a vital road map for times when the organization wants to overcommit itself and not focus on its true purpose or tries to be all things to all people. It also provides direction on where to focus resources, energy, time and effort to make the most impact for our members and our organization’s overall success."

The San Diego County Dental Society’s executive Michael Koonce, CAE says, "The plan is our primary guide. It’s our association’s mandate on what it is we want to accomplish and our staff’s marching orders on where and how to focus our time. If done right, it’s also the measure of whether or not we are successful. I can’t imagine working without one."

Overcoming objections

Some boards refute the value of planning. The most common reason, "We just don't have time for a retreat."

Planning retreats got a bad rap because they began with games, trust-falls and group hugs. Directors roll their eyes when they are told to stand up and pick a partner.

Some directors dislike having a plan because they prefer to offer suggestions at will. Without goals to frame board work, the discussions fall to the latest crisis, personal priorities or the "good ideas" tossed on the board table.

Another objection is cost. Hosting a retreat and compensating a facilitator requires a budget. If the price seems high, remember most plans are for three years or longer amortize the amount over three years, and it's a small cost for a road map.

When the board says we don't need a plan, use this rationale:

  • Planning retreats require an investment of time, though an effective plan can be developed with advance work in under a day.
  • A plan lends support to advocacy. The description of the organization and its priorities demonstrates how the organization benefits the community and society.
  • A plan should always be on the board table. Transform the plan into a placemat format, laminate it and keep it front and center at meetings. As ideas are offered, check how they fit in the plan or what must be adjusted to accommodate a new program.
  • The plan is integral to membership recruitment and renewal. It should answer, "Why belong?" Members should know of the organization’s goals and strategies.
  • Incoming directors should ask, "Where is the strategic plan? Our job is to advance it." Directors offering "good ideas" or hoping to leave a legacy is counterproductive.
  • Staff rely on the plan to align work with board priorities. A staff developed business plan supports the board's strategic plan.
  • Committees need to be familiar with the plan so their work can advance its elements.
  • The plan tracks progress and performance. Without a plan efforts may go in any direction.
  • The plan is as important as the governing documents and budget; directors should read them all to fulfill fiduciary duties.
  • The planning retreat is not just about adding new ideas; it is a time to evaluate programs and drop what has low relevance.