ASAE Annual Meeting

7 Practical Ways to Design a Better Association Strategy

By Association Adviser staff • August 13, 2021

Strategic planning is one of the most important but intimidating parts of association work. The extent to which your association achieves your goals, and how quickly, depends in large part upon the thoroughness of your strategic plan. There are many factors to consider when designing a calculated association strategy that can guide your association in the short, medium and long term. Here’s our best advice for thoughtfully assembling a better association strategic plan.

7 Practical Ways to Design a Better Association Strategy

  1. Base your plan on your association’s values
  2. Incorporate multiple perspectives
  3. Assess your operating environment
  4. Set a timeline for planning and implementation
  5. Keep internal and external stakeholders in the loop
  6. Use the right tech tools to ensure success
  7. Regularly measure your progress

1. Let your values guide your association strategy

What is most important to your association? Serving members? Serving the industry? Let the reasons your association was founded, combined with modern approaches to solving today’s challenges, be the impetus behind your strategy. Arundati Dandapani calls this practice finding your “value story.” Refer to your mission, too: Does your current or future strategy drive your association toward achieving that mission?

If you need help translating your core values into an actionable association strategy, think of them in terms of three to five core priorities you want to achieve as an association. Translate those priorities into SMART goals:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Realistic
  • Timely

Identify the deliverables necessary to achieve those priorities; those deliverables become your objectives. Make sure to include metrics and desired completion dates so you can measure the success of your plan.

2. Decide who will set your association strategy

Having different perspectives shape your strategy is essential. Your association should invite board members, staff, regular members, industry partners and volunteers to contribute their thoughts on what activities and mindset are going to make your association as successful as it can be. While you will need to cap the number of cooks in the kitchen, the more voices you include, the better your strategy will hold up over time. In the strategy planning stage, ask yourself:

  • Who is involved?
  • What unique, essential perspective do they bring?
  • Who could we add without slowing down our strategy planning process too much?

3. Gather appropriate data to establish a plan

Use member and industry research to assess the organizational landscape around you before setting strategy. You could do an internal SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) exercise. If your association has more complex, layered operations, you might want to engage a consultant or agency to help assess your operating environment.

This is a great time to conduct a member survey or member focus groups if you don’t regularly do so already. But don’t rely only upon past survey data upon which to base future direction. Use forward-looking impact survey data instead of backward-facing member satisfaction surveys.

4. Decide on your strategic planning timeline

How long should you take to establish a strategy, and how often should your association update it? The answer depends in part upon your goals. Are you hoping to accomplish goals that will, realistically, take years, or months? The answer will also depend on your staff and members’ ability to dedicate time to strategic planning. Can everyone devote time to ideation on a semi-annual or annual basis, or do your big planning sessions have to happen less frequently? What is the budget for getting everyone together? Furthermore, are there rules written into your bylaws that require your association to engage in strategic planning at prescribed intervals?

No matter your strategic planning timeline, your association should have the foresight to create a strategy that will be high-level enough that it will carry your association through any unexpected delays in updating it. “Strategic documents are designed to be durable,” says Mark Athitakis. Even if world conditions change, your core values and goals should be broad and rooted enough to handle that change without bending much.

5. Align your internal and external key stakeholders with your new association strategy

Everyone contributing to your strategy should agree on the new or updated goals and the plan for achieving them. You’ll also want to communicate your expectations for the work different stakeholders must contribute to reach your goals and continue moving in the direction of your mission to members, outside partners and vendors. Everyone should be on the same page when it comes to implementing the plan.

What aligning internal and external stakeholders over a new strategy can look like in action:

  • Hold a kickoff meeting with everyone involved so everyone gets the same messaging.
  • Establish concrete steps for thinking about your association’s goals and the strategy behind them. Provide the “why” for each action step.
  • Publish your goals and the objectives needed to reach them.
  • Meet with individual teams to ensure understanding and to answer questions.
  • Agree on timing. Not everything needs to be a rush. If you want it done right, taking more time is okay.
  • Look for and resolve interdependencies between teams. Ensure the actions of each team won’t impede or cancel out progress on another team.
  • Offer incentives to complete action steps, particularly if they are challenging or your association wants teams or individuals to complete them on a compressed schedule.
  • Hold regularly scheduled reviews to assess your progress toward meeting your goals and objectives.

You can’t communicate too much when developing and refining a strategic plan. Offer plenty of opportunities for questions big and small. You’ll be much more successful at implementing your plan if there’s ample opportunity for everyone involved to understand their role in it.

6. Factor in Technology

Your association likely has many tools at your disposal to help you fulfil your strategy. What systems are available to you, or could be available? Think about the budget you might need for new technology in support of your strategic plan. Consider the time and effort that your staff might need to train on new systems and learn new processes.

7. Determine how you’ll measure strategic success

Business students have this drilled into their minds all the time, but it bears repeating: You can’t measure what you don’t track. As you design a new strategy, plan for how you’ll measure the success of its implementation and how you’ll course-correct if needed. Two ways your association could measure strategic success are:

Choose a method that works for your association’s technologic and staff capabilities.

A dynamic, actionable association strategy takes thoughtful planning from many angles. Build your strategy upon a value-based foundation. Ensure you’re incorporating all essential forward-looking perspectives. Take the time to properly assess your operating environment and map out your strategy planning timeline. Overcommunicate with your internal and external stakeholders to ensure acceptance of your new strategic plan and how you’ll act on it. Consider how technology can enhance your ability to implement your new strategy. And know how you’ll measure progress before you begin.

If your association needs help designing a strategic plan, establishing priorities, or identifying critical deliverables, the Naylor team is ready to help. Contact Walt Phillips, Naylor’s Chief Revenue Officer, to connect with a member of our strategy and planning team.


About The Author

Walt Phillips is Naylor’s chief revenue officer and responsible for growing all revenue streams across Naylor. Together with other members of the executive team, he executes Naylor’s corporate strategic plan with a focus on expansion to new customer segments and partnerships while strengthening sales and account management operations. Reach out to Walt at [email protected].