Watch for Your Strategic Blind Spots

A new study says associations are more strategic. But truly strategic associations are alert to the challenges they'll face in the future, not just now.

Recent surveys say that associations are becoming more strategic. I’m half-tempted to get a confetti cannon and set it off somewhere.

After all, for years, survey after survey has reported that associations struggle to put together a strategic plan, let alone implement it. But there are a few bright spots in this year’s McKinley Advisors’ Economic Impact on Associations Study. The first part, released earlier this year, said that nearly all associations (92 percent) have a strategic plan, and that a strong majority (72 percent) are putting it to use.

The recently released second part of the report underscores the good vibes around strategy: 29 percent of respondents placed “strategic planning” among their top three priorities for the coming year, a sizable jump from 19 percent in 2018. And interestingly, that finding comes at the same time that more reactive types of priorities have slackened: The percentage of organizations that prioritize nondues revenue slipped from 33 percent to 23 percent.

Shelley Sanner, CAE, senior VP of industry relations at McKinley Advisors, suspects that associations haven’t become less interested in generating nondues revenue. Rather, the newfound focus on strategy has meant that nondues revenue has become part of strategic conversations. “We’ve seen that diversifying revenue or positions like ‘ensuring longterm sustainability’ become a priority in the strategic plan,” she says.

So far, so strategic. But—and here’s where I hold off on firing that confetti cannon—while it seems that associations are more comfortable holding conversations that they call “strategic,” they may not be laying the groundwork for sustaining those conversations, and they may be ignoring the kind of headwinds that strategic planning is supposed to help you through.

For instance, second-lowest goal among the survey respondents is “ensuring a high-functioning governance structure.” (The very lowest, alas, is improving D&I within the association’s industry.) It may be, perhaps, that high-functioning governance isn’t a high-priority because associations are already on top of it, just as they might be with nondues revenue. But a high-functioning board is one that thinks ahead, and right now it’s not thinking ahead on trends like automation.

“Automating internal functions and processes to realize increased efficiency and effectiveness” is another low priority, according to the McKinley report. And while that’s just one data point, Sanner sees it as a troubling one. “Associations have spent millions of dollars on AMS systems for years and have not been able to get that right,” she says. “So how can they even begin to tackle something like AI?”

Sanner also expressed some concerns that associations aren’t fully embracing another element of a truly strategic organization: data analysis. According to the report, just over half (54 percent) of the survey respondents say they’ve “expanded the use of data and analytics to understand performance and inform future direction.” (Interestingly, the percentages are similar regardless of budget size, lest you think data analysis is something only large associations do.) Still, that’s a relatively low number, especially considering that a large proportion of organizations who’ve done it say it’s had a major impact. And some associations may be conflating data collection with actual analysis.

“We hear all the time that even when data is in place and it’s good data, it still doesn’t always answer questions like, why are we hemorrhaging members?” says Sanner. “It needs a human eye or human analysis above and beyond just data. I do have a suspicion that that is something else that’s going on for associations.”

To be clear, there’s lots to like in the McKinley report findings: Associations are more aware of long-term approaches, and are generally making the right gestures toward the actions that reflect strategic thinking. But the age of truly strategic associations may not yet be upon us.

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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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