Preparing for a Strategic Planning Session
One of the most important and impactful responsibilities of an association board of directors is developing a strategic plan. This document serves as the association’s blueprint, laying out its long-term goals and objectives, along with an action plan that outlines programs, initiatives, and strategies to achieve them. Most association boards convene for a couple days every three years to develop a strategic plan that guides it for the next three to five years. While every three years is a typical frequency, that might vary due to the association, its industry or profession, and other circumstances.

To be most effective, the process should start before the in-person strategic planning session begins. Stephanie Kusibab provides an overview for how boards can prepare in advance for a productive strategic planning session that sets the organization on the best path forward.
The Right People

Preparing for a strategic planning meeting starts with making sure the right people will be in the room, explained Kusibab. This obviously includes the members of the board of directors. This is a core function of volunteer leadership that should never be delegated. While the board must drive the process, it’s also critical to think beyond the board and determine whether there are other constituencies that should be represented — a specific member segment, for example, or an expert from a relevant field. Additional voices should be considered to expand the board’s perspective and help it discover new ideas and solutions.
An essential participant of a strategic planning session is a professional facilitator who can create an effective agenda based on board input, and then expertly lead the discussion through structured exercises. A professional facilitator will understand the dynamics of the board and can prod, cajole, and ask tough questions that push the group. Not relying on staff members to lead the session also means that they can participate fully, contributing their knowledge, expertise, and insights to the conversations.
A good facilitator should work in advance of the meeting with the chief staff officer and key volunteers to ensure she or he understands the basics of the industry or profession, whom the association serves, key programs and services, and the organization’s financial position. In order to ensure a positive, productive discussion, the facilitator should also understand the dynamics of the board and any current concerns that are likely to surface during the strategic planning meeting.

All board members must commit to coming to the strategic planning session prepared, said Kusibab. Preparation starts with having a complete understanding of the organization’s mission, vision, values, and culture because these core principles will guide all strategic decisions. Similarly, they must each fully understand their fiduciary responsibilities to ensure they are making the best decisions for the longevity of the organization. These requirements might sound basic, but there may be new board members who do not have total clarity on these elements. For other members, it might serve as a good reminder.  
Further, all participants should be familiar with the current state of the industry or profession and the association, Kusibab added. It’s a good idea for board members to gather, distribute, and review any relevant data that might help inform decisions about the future direction of the association. Leverage committees, staff and each other to gather and share relevant information and articles.
Board members should look at both internal and external data that could impact the strategic plan. As for internal information, begin by reviewing recent member surveys, including post-event evaluations. That data will help gauge attitudes and interests and may show board members opportunities that haven’t been considered previously. It might also help them assess what is working already and what could be improved, or it might shine a light on what services or programs members are seeking. Perhaps there are opportunities to take the organization in a new direction. All board members should also review the existing strategic plan to gauge its progress against its goals and objectives. Taken together, this knowledge — fresh in the minds of board members — will result in more productive conversations during the strategic planning session.
It’s also important to understand external forces. What are the current trends in the marketplace and what is likely to change in the next few years? What is the next big thing for the industry? Perhaps there’s market research or analysis that has come out since the last strategic session. Are there certain challenges related to demographics, technology, policy, or something else that could impact the association?
Also, some boards ask their members to take a pre-session questionnaire. Their feedback on the state of the association, its current challenges, concerns, and opportunities can serve as a foundation for strategic planning discussions and help identify both areas of agreement and topics that need further exploration. A pre-session questionnaire also allows board members to gather their thoughts in advance, allowing the group to engage more quickly in meaningful debate. In lieu of a questionnaire, a good facilitator may also conduct some one-on-one interviews with a few board members to obtain this foundational information.
Gathering and synthesizing information in advance will provide board member participants with objective information and insights to help inform the plan. However, it’s also extremely important for each participant to come to the planning session with an open mind and a willingness to listen and explore new concepts and solutions. That, along with the inherent expertise of board members, are the key ingredients of a productive strategic planning session, Kusibab said. Ultimately, strategic planning is a continuous process. The ability to generate ideas that can lead the association into the future are often the result of being fully prepared. As noted educator William Arthur Ward said, “Excellence without effort is as futile as progress without preparation.”
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Board Forward is published 10 times a year by SmithBucklin, the association management and services company more organizations turn to than any other. SmithBucklin has served volunteer board members for 70 years.


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