All the Right Cuts for Association Executives

With limited resources, launching new products and services means cutting old ones, which has never been associations’ forte. Here’s how to prioritize programs and jettison the dead weight.

For Eric Lanke, CAE, the decision to cut some programs began as an “a-ha” moment. Lanke, CEO of the National Fluid Power Association (NFPA), was gathering materials for his board’s annual strategic retreat when it hit him.

“I realized just how much we had on our plates—and how full those plates were,” he says. While many core programs remained effective, “I saw some areas [where] we didn’t have a lot of accelerated success. Some of the new programs we had started in our attempt to be innovative were working extremely well, but others were not.”

Lanke also recognized that members were inundated with diverse messages from the plethora of programs at NFPA, so he arrived at the retreat ready to share his revelations. By offering detailed status reports of every program in the organization’s portfolio, he helped the board realize just how much was going on at headquarters: too much.

Phasing out less successful programs is essential for many reasons. It can preserve resources for programs that are most valuable, make room for new initiatives in step with members’ changing needs, lighten the load for overtaxed staff, and prevent members from becoming overloaded with options.

“There’s never a lack of new ideas,” says Ronald Skinner, CAE, assistant executive director at the Association of School Business Officials International (ASBO). “But you need to first assess if the things you’re currently doing are the correct things. Are they the most efficient use of your limited resources?”

Doing too much can take the focus away from what you really want to do as an association, says Jaya Pandrangi, a partner at Booz & Company, where she specializes in aligning organizations to drive growth. Too much fragmentation has a negative impact on organizational focus.

It’s less about saving money and more about using the money that we do have more effectively.

What Goes to the Chopping Block?

Of course, cutting programs is easier said than done. How do you decide which ones get the ax?

While budget may play a part in the decision, it’s not a black-and-white issue. “Not everything we do [at an association] has to make a profit,” says Lanke. “It’s less about saving money and more about using the money that we do have more effectively. It’s those areas that cost a lot in terms of both staff time and money, without providing value to a large segment of members, that should go under the magnifying glass.”

Begin by prioritizing what your organization does best and what it wants to be great at, says Pandrangi. “The strategy is as much about choosing what you will do as what you won’t do,” she says.

Pandrangi recommends identifying the one or two things your organization wants to accomplish to make a difference in its field, then defining three or four strategies that can make that happen. All of your programs should be structured around your main goals. The programs that fall outside those goals should be re-evaluated. “You need to stay true to your mission and the things you want to do extremely well,” says Pandrangi.

Lanke followed a similar approach in identifying several programs to “sunset” at NFPA. Armed with data, he worked with the board to spell out three major objectives for the organization. Then he developed a list of tactics and a shortened list of projects that aligned with them.

Not every program that didn’t make the list was automatically scheduled for dismantling. Some were put on the “back burner,” and others were targeted as “maintaining status quo,” to keep in place without promoting as aggressively. But a few programs were identified as ready for retirement.

While some association leaders like Lanke have been able to cut programs with only staff and board involvement, others hire consultants to walk them through the process. Tecker International LLC is one such firm that assists associations through a “strategic program analysis,” involving a formulaic assessment of both current and potential programs. The analysis provides specific metrics to identify programs that are not central to the organization’s mission, programs the association is not in a strong position to support, or programs that are being offered successfully by other organizations.

This kind of scientific approach “brings a significant amount of rational discussion to some very political topics,” says Glenn Tecker, chairman and co-CEO of Tecker International.

ASBO turned to Tecker to evaluate a set of programs, culminating in the -decision to end some that did not measure up. “We had a feeling that some of the programs had to go, but we didn’t have a basis for explaining it to the board,” says Skinner.

Tecker led a strategic program analysis retreat in which all of ASBO’s staff members plus a board member were involved. Including a board member demonstrated to the rest of the board that the assessment and its results were part of a “legitimate process,” says Skinner.

Ending the Program—Really

Once your association makes the difficult decision to cut, how do you go about pulling the plug?

Pandrangi emphasizes that if staff are involved in the decision-making process, they will feel a sense of ownership when it’s time to make the cuts. And if staff are on board, it will be much easier to sell to the membership at large. Lanke is figuring that out now, as he is just beginning to phase out those programs targeted
for closure.

“My goal is to preserve the relationship with the stakeholders involved” in the earmarked programs, says Lanke. Though NFPA doesn’t plan to widely publicize the ending of each program, the organization won’t hide anything, either.

Skinner has phased out several programs over the past few years. Some were easy decisions after Tecker’s assessment targeted them for “divestment,” while others were harder. Discontinuing the annual printed membership directory, for example, was easy because ASBO continues to offer it online. Ending an award program for “facilities masters” was a tougher transition. “We had some participants who were not happy, but we recognized this program was outside of our core mission,” says Skinner. To ease the transition, ASBO worked closely with the program’s sponsor to phase it out.

Some of the toughest to cut are those long-running programs created by influential members, says Tecker. Members can take it as a personal affront when “their” programs are discontinued. Being able to explain the process and parameters used to identify which programs to end can soften the blow.

An Ongoing Process

Once you’ve established the idea of cutting programs at your association, instituting a regular program evaluation process is a logical next step.

Tecker recommends integrating a program review process into the annual strategic planning process, not only to review programs in place but also to verify that any startup programs fit into the association’s overall goals.

A regular review process can also help members understand that the right program changes benefit your organization. “Establishing this kind of review as a routine process dramatically increases the degree of comfort in the organization [that] its staff and members have with the decisions the organization makes,” says Tecker. “You cannot have an innovative culture without this kind of process in place.”

Finally, don’t live in fear of making the “wrong” decision—even in the program-cutting process. “If you make a mistake, it’s OK to bring a program back,” Skinner says. “You’ve got to take your chances and try to be more efficient.”

Christine Umbrell

By Christine Umbrell

Christine Umbrell is a freelance writer based in Herndon, Virginia. MORE

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