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Organizational Strategy

Strategic Planning in 2021: The Same, but Different

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The pandemic didn’t change the goal of strategic planning—setting an organization’s overarching direction and priorities—but for many associations it changed the focus of the discussion and revealed new, more effective processes for strategic thinking.

For many associations, putting together a strategic plan in 2020 may have felt like being pulled in two different directions. On one hand, strategic planning requires that boards take the long view, developing three- or five-year processes to meet big-picture goals. But COVID-19 has made the long view difficult: How do you think about the future when the pandemic is upending everything right at this very moment?

One answer has a lot to do with the Zoom window you’ve been spending a lot of your time looking at for much of the past year. Tracy Betts, CEO of Boldr Strategic Consulting, says the pandemic hasn’t so much changed strategic planning as it has forced digital issues to play a more central role in strategic discussions.

“The biggest shift that we’re seeing [in associations]—because they have no choice—is digital,” she says. Although associations have been talking about digital transformation for a while, the pandemic forced the issue. “Organizations are finally coming to us saying, ‘Our online adoption rates are miserable. Help us figure out how to create more value,’” Betts says.

Doing strategy right doesn’t mean layering more digital tools on top of strategic goals, though. The hasty virtual events that many associations assembled in 2020 are proof enough of that. Rather, Betts says, associations should be looking at the core needs of members and customers, while being more mindful of how online tools serve those needs.

“Every single association survey I’ve seen from a membership organization says the reason members want to join your association is for networking,” she says. “But when you dig deeper, you find the question isn’t how to create networking for associations. It’s how to create a sense of belonging. Because if we’re solving for creating a sense of belonging online, that’s really, really different than solving for networking.”

“The biggest shift that we’re seeing [in associations]—because they have no choice—is digital. Organizations are finally coming to us saying, ‘Our online adoption rates are miserable. Help us figure out how to create more value.’” —Tracy Betts, Boldr Strategic Consulting

Inclusion Builds Buy-In

Confronting such challenges on a strategic level may require input from stakeholders beyond the board and staff. In that regard, the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors landed on a pandemic-ready strategic approach years before it was necessary.

In 2015, the association undertook an ambitious reorganization to streamline what had become a crazy-quilt chapter and dues structure. To do so, says CEO Kevin Mayeux, CAE, NAIFA created a 30-plus-member strategic planning committee to provide input on key issues and offer a seat at the table to a variety of constituencies. The inclusive process helped create buy-in for the restructuring.

It worked so well that NAIFA leadership revived the committee last summer when buy-in for a five-year plan during a pandemic was urgent. “We talked about how the world has changed a lot because we’re now in the middle of a pandemic and the world was different in June and July than what it was just six months prior,” Mayeux says.

Digital issues came to the surface during the planning process, and NAIFA worked to weave them into its long-term goals.

“We learned we can do virtual programming and members will be receptive toward it,” he says. “And we can do hybrid events, which may be the way we look at program delivery moving forward. And that was taken into account relative to how we might execute on the plan. But the parameters of the plan, regardless of delivery modality, are the same.”

Strategic discussions did have to change during the process. To offset Zoom fatigue, sessions were shorter, with many of the exercises conducted offline or asynchronously. But that taught NAIFA how to handle the discussions more efficiently, setting a model for the future.

“We did a lot of that in advance, so that our time together eyeball-to-eyeball on the screen was much more productive,” Mayeux says.

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.

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