Whether you are a volunteer leader or the Executive Director of a non-profit organization, you are familiar with those who fear the strategic planning process.  Association “best practice” suggests that strategy, coupled with goals and timelines, is vital to moving any organization forward.  Yet, as leaders in the non-profit world, many of us find the process scary because we believe that choosing a strategy can leave us feeling cut off from alternative opportunities and feeling forced to confront a future for which we are only guessing.  We sometimes fear that getting those strategic decisions wrong could adversely affect our professional reputations.

In today’s association marketplace, leaders sometimes face criticism that suggests that the traditional approach to strategic planning is based on outdated and irrelevant assumptions. “The static and un-nimble strategic plan is dead.” Yet there are still those leaders in our industry who are valiantly trying to save traditional strategic planning models by trying to take the fear out of the process and focusing even more on rigorous data analysis.  Other leaders among us argue against the value of strategy, saying that “organizations need agility above all else”.

In my 15 years of leading successful associations, I have found that accidental success is very rare. There are examples of associations that have achieved strategic success without any formal strategy or plan, but in today’s world, I would suggest that they are lucky.  From an association staffing perspective, the lack of a strategic plan can negatively impact the attitude of an organization’s team.  Employees who see aimlessness within an organization often lack a sense of a greater purpose.  Association professionals need a reason to come to work every day (besides the paycheck).  Lack of direction can also result in morale problems with volunteer leaders because, when the future is uncertain and unpredictable, they are less willing to give of their professional time freely.

 “What you are afraid to do is a clear indication of the next thing you need to do” – Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Healthy fear and discomfort are an essential part of strategy making.  In fact, if you are entirely comfortable with your strategy, there’s a strong chance it isn’t very good.  The most effective strategy involves making difficult choices and pulling leaders out of their comfort zones.  Remember that one of the best objectives of the strategic planning process is not to eliminate risk but to increase the odds of success.

If your current strategic plan is sitting on your shelf in a thick binder, gathering dust next to other binders from 5 and 10 years prior, know that you’re not alone.  I recently participated in a strategic planning session for one of my association clients that believed that effective strategy is the product of hours of research and brainstorming with charts and graphs that w ultimately leads to the setting of perfect goals and strategy.  Truthfully, I was a bit fearful of their expectations.  As we prepared our team for the process, our preparation and thoughts were shaped and framed by one simple principle – effective strategic goals and plans are often the result of a simple and often quite bumpy process of thinking through what it would take to achieve what you want and then assessing whether it’s realistic to try.  Some of the most successful facilitators of strategic planning suggest that the key to a successful planning process is to keep board members outside their comfort zones.

How can you mitigate the fear for the strategic planning process?  Be willing to get yourself out of the comfort zone and follow a few simple rules –

Rule 1: Keep the strategy statement simple.

Focus your energy on the choices that influence your key stakeholders —that is typically your members. There is no reason why an association’s strategy choices can’t be summarized in one page with simple words and concepts.  Characterizing the key choices as who are our stakeholders and how do they define success will keep the discussion grounded and makes it more likely that volunteer leaders will engage with the strategic challenges rather than retreat to their planning comfort zones.

Rule 2: Start with a SWOT Analysis

Analyze (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) to get clarity on where you are today and how you’re perceived by both internal and external stakeholders.

Rule 3: Accountability

This is such a small detail, but it is also one of the key elements of a strategic plan that so many organizations fail to implement. A lack of accountability will absolutely destroy your strategy execution. Lacking or confusing accountability results in:

  1. Outcomes not being delivered because no-one knew who was in charge
  2. Conflicting interpretations of what goals each leader should be working on
  3. Increased ‘finger pointing’ and hearsay when things don’t go as planned
  4. No-one taking any satisfaction or pride in the outcomes delivered by the association

Ideally, the people responsible for each segment of a strategic plan should also have been critical contributors to crafting the plan.

Rule 4: Focus on Strategies that underscore your mission and values and play to your strengths

Strategy isn’t just about what anyone would do; it’s about understanding what YOU would do, based on your priorities and values. Be sure to play to your organizational strengths. Strategic planning takes many forms based on a nonprofit’s structure and goals.

Rule 5:  Acknowledge that it’s a process

Strategic planning should be continuous. The plan is a living document; a framework that must be flexible enough to adapt to changing times and circumstances. Plans must be used, monitored on an ongoing basis, and adjusted as needed.

Dale Carnegie once said, “If you want to conquer fear, don’t sit home and think about it, go out and get busy.”

According to ASAE, associations with strategic plans are twice as likely achieve their goals and what they define as success.  So fight through the fear, dust off those strategic plans, and think about how scary it would be to lead an organization without goals, strategy, or direction.