How Strategy Can Lift an Association’s Spirits

A recent study connects a strategic plan with optimism among association leaders and staffers. That's great—just make sure the board is engaged too.

There are plenty of ways an association executive can try to feel optimistic these days. A walk on a cloudless late afternoon. A catch-up conversation with a friend you haven’t seen in a while. A happy-hour get together with staffers.

But nothing bolsters an exec’s mood, apparently, quite like having a strategic plan.

These are unsettled times in many ways. But the latest edition of McKinley Advisors’ Economic Impact on Associations Study is remarkable in its assertion that these are stable, even upbeat times for the association community. Based on a survey of 152 executives and staff members from 82 associations, the report finds that fewer respondents are concerned about the direction of their associations and the industries they serve, compared to prior years the study has covered.

Moreover, respondents generally say their positive outlook is the result of the work they’re doing. “Respondents attributed their optimism in large part to internal factors that are generally within an association’s control, including leadership-related factors such as organization-wide strategy, strong executive staff, and a high-functioning board,” says the report.

My colleague Tim Ebner has explored what the findings mean for member engagement and retention. But the study’s findings regarding strategy are also of interest, and what the report shows is that a commitment to forward thinking and strategic planning has a meaningful impact on an association’s fortunes.

An overwhelming majority of respondents (92 percent) say their association has a strategic plan.  But more important, they’re not letting it sit on a shelf: Nearly three-quarters of respondents (72 percent) say they are actively implementing and adhering to the plan, and solid majorities were measuring progress toward strategic priorities, aligning the plan to the budget, and communicating the importance of the plan to staff.

High-functioning boards don’t exist in a vacuum; they need clear guidance from CEOs about the work they need to focus on, and why that work has value.

“Strategy is cited as a critical component to an association’s success,” says the report, and it’s heartening to see that attitude take hold. But as the risk of being a killjoy, there’s still work to be done when it comes to strategy.

The McKinley study reflects the attitudes of executives and staff, but not of boards, who are often not well onboarded or oriented about the association’s strategic plan. According to a 2017 Heidrick & Struggles/George Mason University study, only about two-thirds of board members (67 percent) say they were trained on the association’s strategic plan, and only 60 percent on decision-making processes.

Getting boards on the path to strategic thinking can be a challenge, and earlier this year I spoke with a number of association executives who stepped up. One common theme is that without a little elbow grease on the CEO’s part, boards will default into operational mode. Leaders can address that by putting strategy front and center from the get-go, and then keep talking about it.

“I used every opportunity—sometimes committee by committee, sometimes board decision by board decision—to reflect back what [the board] said,” said Carey Goryl, CAE, executive director of the Association of Staff Physician Recruiters. “They said they wanted to be a strategic governing board, so I would ask, ‘Is how we’re now currently making this decision, is that how a strategic governing board would approach it?’”

Similarly, Gary A. LaBranche, FASAE, CAE, CEO of the National Investor Relations Institute, has the association’s board take a survey before every meeting assessing its strategic focus. It’s a regular reminder of what the volunteer leaders are there for, and whether they’ve strayed from the path they need to be on.

For the optimistic respondents to the McKinley report, that committed leadership may have taken hold: The second reason cited for the general mood of optimism is “strong executive staff leadership.” High-functioning boards don’t exist in a vacuum; they need clear guidance from CEOs about the work they need to focus on, and why that work has value. Getting a board to be just as assured, strong, and optimistic as the executive and staff is truly something to feel optimistic about.

What do you do as a leader to engage your board in your association’s strategic planning process? Share your experiences in the comments.

(Kameleon007/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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