Making the Case for Disciplined Association Planning

Do associations have the same responsibility to create business plans as their profit driven counterparts? In a word: yes. In fact, with funding coming from members, sponsors and donors, associations managers have a higher duty of care to create and execute clear, measurable plans.

Associations have a number of unique complexities that make deliberate, action-oriented business planning essential:

  1.  So called “mission driven” organizations are complex animals. Whether we like to admit it or not, profit is a compelling and focused motive that forces at least some strategic alignment in a profit driven organization. Gaining business plan alignment across a large association to a noble but “soft” mission can be elusive.
  2. Large parts of many associations run on volunteers, and we simply can’t count on volunteers to behave the same way employees do. While it’s true that employees are driven by a complex set of motivators, volunteers are driven by motivation that is multifarious and amazingly subtle. When employees stray too far from our priorities, we fire them. When volunteers stray too far, we try even harder to engage them.
  3. Funding can be incredibly unstable, and often overly concentrated on member fees or a single cornerstone program. Most established companies have revenue momentum and diversity that associations can only dream about.
  4. By their very nature, many associations are torn between equally important, yet highly contradictory priorities. Yes I know that we have competing priorities in our profit driven enterprises, but nothing compares to the choice we face in the allocation of scarce resources in associations.
  5. Compared to any large company, association organizational structures can be incredibly loose and unwieldy. Whether a federated model, a charter model, or any of the other complex structures under which associations operate, central bodies simply don’t have the same clout as the corporate office of any well-run company.
  6. With a complex assortment of stakeholders to consider, associations are adverse to risk and change. Given this backdrop, things can move pretty slowly compared to even the largest public companies. I can’t remember the last time I heard anyone in a profit oriented company even use the word “stakeholder.”
  7. A business plan won’t make these complexities go away, but it will help to clarify mandates, priorities, accountabilities and timelines so associations can focus their efforts on the seriousness and importance of their mission.

Increasingly, associations are conducting themselves more like businesses. In my experience, this has not yet reached the disciplined planning and execution that is becoming more common in most large companies. The tools and processes required are similar, but associations must take an even more deliberate and measured approach to planning and execution than profit driven enterprises.

3 thoughts on “Making the Case for Disciplined Association Planning

  1. To your point #3. The fear and reality of dwindling membership (and ultimately revenue) can also be another good reason to be seen as fiscally responsible and proactive. Much more likely a professional wants to be associated with an organization like that. Just my toonies worth.

  2. You are so right Paul. Associations certainly try to manage membership numbers, but often in a very tactical way. When I ask association clients how much they want to grow over the next few years, or what their market share is, they often don’t know the answer…one more reason for a disciplined approach to strategy and business planning for associations…

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