Six Essential Steps in an Association’s Strategic Planning Process

Six Essential Steps in an Association’s Strategic Planning Process

You may have decided to undertake a Strategic Planning Process within your Association. Or, you may be about to recommend that your Association develops a multi-year plan. In either case this article may be helpful.

My definition of an ideal planning system is one that is not time consuming, aids job performance and drives overall organizational success. For the purpose of this article, the operative phrase is “not time consuming”. We need to accomplish the Strategic Planning in an economical manner, so that we have not exhausted the patience of the Board of Directors or consumed the staff with too much complexity within their already busy jobs.

So, here are six important steps to help with your planning process.

Step 1 – Hire a Skilled Facilitator with a Clear Approach

Do yourself a favor and hire someone who can guide you through the planning process. Let the senior staff and board members participate without having to both lead and do. Find someone who has a track record in facilitating “business” meetings and who has a process that is designed to lead to a specific strategic plan product. The use of a facilitator will forestall attempts to build the document internally. This kind of paper chase creates no ownership in a plan by anybody other than the author. It usually results in a longer process than a facilitated group effort.

The strategic plan product should have specific defined by the elements. For a full description of our approach including a Strategic Framework here. You need to know in advance whether you are working with a carte blanche or refining a current plan. The facilitator and the senior staff person can determine the optimal number of participants for the process. The participants need to be committed to participate during the entirety of the process. Newcomers should not be brought into the process once it has commenced.

Strategic Framework Program for Associations

Step 2 – Initial Planning Session

How long should this session be? Experience has taught us no more than two days and, in most cases, not much less than two days. It is critical that everyone knows what is to be achieved during the session. Never enter into a process with the view that “we will get as far along as we can and then come back to it later”. For example, if the plan is to include a Vision Statement, Pillars of Success, Strategic Objectives and Key Initiatives, it is essential that this be accomplished during the session, albeit in a preliminary state.

By covering each of these components, it will become clear to the participants the kind of roadmap that is emerging. It will clarify what we know already and what we need to know, before we can finalize a plan.

Step 3 – Member Survey

Immediately following the initial planning session is an ideal time to implement a survey of the association’s members. A survey should provide at least three types of input:

  • Overall, how satisfied are members with the association?
  • What are their levels of satisfaction and their sense of importance about specific aspects of the Association?
  • What narrative comments do they wish to provide about what the association needs to keep doing, stop doing, or start doing, in order to provide the required member value?

Frequently, surveys are conducted in advance of initial planning sessions. While this is acceptable, in my opinion, waiting until afterwards permits the development of questions with more focus and ones that are better aligned to the structure of the preliminary strategic plan.

Step 4 – Final Planning Session

The goal of the final planning session should be to “finalize” not “start over”. It is easy to let the work of the previous session unravel and put at risk the integrity of the entire planning process. Finalize means setting objectives in line with the priorities expressed in the survey. Calibrating objectives means having specific outcomes, measurements and timeframes. Moreover, identifying the key initiatives – projects or programs that will be required in the medium term creates clarity about the Association’s roadmap.

Step 5 – Communications

It is easy to sit back and be pleased with the creation of the plan without aggressively focusing on communicating the plan to the critical audiences. Employees who were not part of the creation of the plan need to have an opportunity to understand the implications of the plan in terms of their jobs.

Association members who did not participate in the sessions need an opportunity to become aware of the plan and to believe that it has the promise of providing member benefits that warrant membership in the organization.

There will likely be other strategic communications projects embedded in the strategic plan, but we should consider communicating to these two audiences as part of the planning process.

Step 6 – Aligned Plans

The strategic plan is one of three elements of an Association’s planning system. The others are the annual budget and annual work plans. The strategic plan sets the direction and the budget and work plans provide details about how and when resources will be deployed. It is essential that budgets and work plans be developed or amended so there is immediate alignment across the three elements. Failure to do so will render the strategic planning process fruitless, but by creating this alignment, it makes each component vital and mutually reinforcing.


An ideal planning system is one that is not time consuming, aids job performance and drives overall organizational success. It is important to enter into a planning process that can be accomplished within a reasonable amount of time – a few days of a Board Member’s time over a couple of months is probably reasonable.

Make sure you enter into a process with clear products to be developed within the time available, with the assistance of a skilled strategic planning facilitator.

Ensure that your get the feedback of your members but consider doing so, after your first round of deliberations, but before you finalize the plan.

Remember, the planning process is not complete until you have communicated the plan to staff and members. Also, remember that the plan is not relevant until it is reflected in the annual budget and work plans.

Finally, strategic planning should encompass some of the best days of an association’s life – don’t fear it, enjoy it.

Good Luck.

Download Seven Questions to Assess Your Strategic Planning