The Value of Strategic Planning in a Crisis

The pandemic may have prompted a search for quick fixes, but associations found that holding steady on a long-term, forward-thinking plan makes more sense.

Strategy is still strategy.

Among the many changes I hope the pandemic has delivered to associations in the past year is a new recognition of the importance of strategic planning. COVID-19 was one of those “black swan” events might have tempted a lot of organizations to slip into panic mode. But it may be more correct to say that the pandemic simply accelerated associations’ need to embrace an increasingly digital future that doesn’t lean too heavily on any one revenue stream. And those who saw that change coming had a better chance of succeeding.

Without some kind of technical knowledge on the board, you don’t know what you don’t know.

The value of strategy as a tool for resilience is one that came up often as I was interviewing association leaders for Association’s Now‘s new “Lead2021” special report. Strategic planning might look a little different now, and some of the elements of that plan might be different as well. But there’s still clear value in thinking three to five years ahead to ensure your association’s survival.

One example of that is the National Society for Histotechnology, which entered the pandemic laying the groundwork for being a more digital-first association. Sharon H. Kneebone, CAE, NSH’s executive director, told me that the association began its most recent strategic-planning process recognizing that it would start shifting its annual conference to virtual and hybrid formats to attract more potential attendees. Trying to increase membership in itself was not going to be a meaningful goal.

“We know that only 9 percent of our revenue comes from membership dues,” she told me. “You need to understand your organization’s business model and its economic engine, and we knew that membership was not the driver.”

That meant that when NSH needed to shift its annual conference to a virtual format last year, it was already prepared for that circumstance—and was ready to hold the line on its value. It decided not to discount attendee fees for the conference, and attendees took it in stride.

That tweak to strategic thinking around digital is a common one, Tracy Betts of Boldr Strategic Consulting told me. The trick, she’s found, is to help associations avoid looking at digital as a short-term fix. “Associations get the challenges, but they can get tactical really quickly,” she says. “You have to help them think through the problem. Does this align with your business goals with your customers? Then let’s talk about how to make it happen.”

Because digital offers a variety of potential solutions, Betts says, many associations can confuse a tactical fix with a broader strategic goal. Giving members an opportunity to network via a digital forum, virtual happy hour, or online conference may be fine in itself. But what associations really need to solve for is a sense of belonging, she says. Creating a sense of engagement with a professional community is a more complicated issue and requires more than a couple of online tools.

To that end, Betts suggests, association boards need to become more sophisticated about digital needs. (And more sophisticated in general: My colleague Lisa Boylan writes about the evolving skill sets of successful board members in the “Lead2021” package.) “Without some kind of technical knowledge on the board, without somebody who has a technical lens, you don’t know what you don’t know,” she says. “That’s a skill set that boards need: Somebody who can sit at the table with a technical perspective and know how to answer those ‘How might we…’ questions through digital.”

(BreakingTheWalls/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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