Do You Want Better Results from Your Association Strategy Session? Take it More Seriously.

A strategy session is arguably the most serious and important thing that any association can undertake. As we often tell participants of our association strategy sessions: “This is not an exercise.” It may feel like an exercise because we often have our board and leadership together away from the day to day, but ultimately we are there to make strategy.

Think carefully about the intent of your session. Do you truly intend to make strategy that will guide and constrain future actions and investments? Do you intend to see actual progress within a year and dramatic progress within 3 years as as a result of your session? If you plan to have an interesting exercise and make some vague proclamations about the future, you will see minimal results. With the wrong strategic intent, you will be having the same strategy conversation again and again. 

How do you take an association strategy session seriously? While there are a number of tactical things you can do (which we will talk about in the next blog), the most important way to ensure progress is to openly discuss and agree to the seriousness of your session, the expected outcomes and hardcore objectives. Your Executive Director, Board Chair and facilitator should discuss and agree to the following well in advance of the session:

  • What specifically will be different or better as a result of the session? What do we truly hope to accomplish during the session?
  • Will the team create a strategy during the session that actually binds this board and future boards?
  • Will most of our association’s strategic spending in the coming years be largely dictated by our decisions in and shortly after the session?
  • Will most of our structure, resourcing and hiring decisions be dictated by our decisions in the session?
  • Will the decisions in this session likely cause us to stop, de-resource or back-burner some of the projects we are working on today?

If you answer the above questions affirmatively, you have strong intent to be successful. Your next challenge is to convince all your session participants that they are making strategy that will impact your association (and often your industry or profession) for many years to come. Not everyone will believe you and not everyone will want the responsibility that comes with this level of seriousness and obligation. From our experience many participants will be truly surprised at the expected impact of the session and most of them will step up to make an effective strategy.

Association Strategy Sessions

Association Strategy Sessions

Why Are Association Boards So Scared to Invest in Strategy?

Association boards love to make strategy, but they are often reluctant to adequately invest in those strategies when the time comes.  Even after a rough patch, associations in North America are sitting on bigger financial reserves than in any time in history. Yet, the hangover of a few lean years has many association boards in cost cutting mode. It is the obligation of association boards to:

  • Make decisions that will grow organizations and sustain their mandates
  • Make decisions that will bind future boards
  • Invest their members’ money (because that’s what reserves are) on their behalf

We have seen many association clients shrink themselves to irrelevance while they watch their reserves dwindle over a painful decade or more. Like a cycle of death, association boards see a decline in attendance or an increase in competition for example for their conference or professional development. Instead of investing in future innovation, growth or alternate revenue sources they cut expenses to make up for revenue shortfalls. The result is that the conference or PD becomes less valuable to members and revenue drops further. Next comes the decision to drop prices because the board no longer trusts their value proposition…and the cycle continues.

Association board members: your paid staff need you to make and invest in big strategic decisions. They need your leadership to take real, but calculated, risks for the long term sustainability of your organization.

Association Board Risk Taking

Association Board Risk Taking