Best Practices for Effective Vision Statement Sessions

In the past we’ve discussed how the start of a new year is a great opportunity for association leaders to revisit an organization’s strategic plan. More specifically, it’s the perfect time to refresh and strengthen your organization’s vision statement.

A good vision statement is an essential element of every good business plan, and should take priority when it comes to proper association planning. A successful vision statement articulates what your organization aims to be and what the organization will look like in the future. Take caution though, they can easily become overused, abused, and the most poorly written part of your business. We’ve laid out what a good vision statement looks like here.

In order to help you create a strong and practical vision statement, we recommend facilitating a group session. Be sure to ask specific questions, as it is easy to be vague when discussing the future. These 5 practices will help your team articulate an exceptional vision statement:



Be specific about the date:

Depending on the length of your planning horizon, ask them to think about an exact date (ex: 3 years from today). Be specific of what day of the week it is and where they are. Don’t just ask them to think about the future.

Be specific about success:

Most vision statements paint a positive view of the future. Ideally, your vision statement will too, but you must ensure that participants are specific about what a successful future state looks like. If they make a statement that fits our view of a practical vision, but is too vague to be useful, then prompt them to be more specific. Your participants should be able to specifically articulate what success will look like in the future, otherwise the vision won’t be practical.

Use a third party view:

Whenever possible, encourage your participants to talk about what others would see if they looked at the organization in (3) years’ time, for example. One of the most effective scenarios I’ve used is to help them imagine that a newspaper article has been written about the association in the future. You can then ask them in specific terms to describe what is written in the article. I find this small trick allows for more honest, practical, and reasonable responses.

Take a future view:

Again, asking your participants to think about the future is vague. Instead, ask them to imagine that the future is already here. Statements about the future are more reasonable when participants really try to imagine they have already arrived at that future state – especially when combined with the practices described above

Get personal:

Have the participants imagine themselves within the future state they have described. By picturing themselves as part of the vision, your participants will be more specific, realistic, and optimistic about the future.

Is a Team Mandate Really Necessary?

Associations love teams and committees. It seems like every day, I see association clients forming a new working group, team or committee for some special purpose. In a world where collaboration and shared wisdom are critical, it is often imperative to bring together a diverse group of brains that share a common goal.

Because we have started so many working groups, the natural reaction is to get to work and skip the boring process of hammering out our mandate and terms of reference. It’s really just process and adds no value, right? Wrong, establishing a clear mandate, scope, boundaries and powers before your team dives into content is the most worthwhile investment you can make in your group’s success. Getting the ground rules in place does not need to be fancy…it just needs to be formal. If you just want to cover the basics before you get started, answer these simple questions:

  1. What can this group do, that no other group or individual can do alone? (Hint: if you can’t answer this question, disband your group immediately)
  2. What powers and authority does this group actually have?
  3. What are the range of specific topics and issues that are in the scope of what we will discuss?
  4. What are the topics and issues that are out of our scope?
  5. How will we get work done between meetings?
  6. How will communication flow into and out of this group specifically? Who is accountable?
  7. What do we need to do specifically to ensure no of us are wasting our time attending meetings?
  8. How will we measure success of the work of this group specifically? What are the indications that the group is not working?

If these questions make you remotely nervous, don’t form the group.

Non profit management meetings

Deadly Planning Mistakes: Planning to a Calendar Year

Some planning mistakes can damage an association’s ability to grow, improve, and change with the times – planning to the calendar year is one of them.

Whether or not we’re ready to admit it, 2016 is quickly coming to an end and time is running out to meet end of year deadlines.

If there’s one lesson to take away from the turmoil of end year stress, its that appropriate project planning can make all the difference. Associations need to create strong but flexible plans in order to keep up with a constantly changing, and often uncertain playing field. A plan that empowers leaders and employees to strengthen the organization’s values and visions while allowing room for adaptation. But how can a planning process do that if its arbitrarily forced into a calendar year? Sure, structure and discipline are important factors, but we don’t need to let the calendar dictate strategy and execution.

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The Reality of December 31st

For many organizations, the majority of their execution happens in the fall due to the dreaded deadline of December 31st. But is it ideal for these projects and initiatives to have a late fall execution, and a completion date of December 31st? Of course not. Depending on the type of project, it would have made perfect sense to complete for February 15th, or April 30th, or July 1st…you get the idea. An organization’s plan should adapt to the most sensible dates for each initiative, not the other way around.

December 31st, or March 31st as a fiscal year end, is not a magic project execution date. On a stand alone basis, most projects would be better executed on any other date.


Keep December 31st Open for New Years’ Eve Parties

When you compound the problems by the fact that so many projects are being executed in late fall for a December 31st deadline, the issues are even more pronounced. There are a variety of reasons why choosing December 31st is a poor date for project deadlines:

  • It falls in between 2 major holidays; Christmas and New Year’s Day.
  • Most staff and managers would like to take some vacation time during the Christmas break.
  • Most large organizations put a freeze on system implementations for at least the last week of December.
  • Projects are competing with each other for all kinds of resources.

Alternatively, help your association create an agile planning process based on a rolling 4 or 5 quarter horizon (or a rolling 12-15 month), that way execution can happen when it makes sense.


Two More Essential Principles for International Success

Last week The Planning Group’s Peter Wright gave us some expert advice for association professionals travelling abroad. This week we have two more important tips to help you avoid making these mistakes on your next trip!

Do – Notice patterns and modify your strategy.

“There have been times when I’ve started think that whenever the French are involved, my projects tend to go sideways, but that isn’t really true and starts to become an excuse.” It’s important to step away from stereotypes and look at the bigger picture. “Better yet, think about patterns or trends you have seen dealing with particular cultures and work modifications and mitigating strategies into your approach.”




Do – Above all, stay true to your ethics.

“We all know someone who has been entertained a little too much by a client the night before a big sales presentation. I myself have firmly said no to a client when a fun night of Karaoke in China ended with an offer that conflicted with my values.”

Although it is important to try to experience the local business and cultural practices as much as possible, the old adage ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans’ only works to an extent. Whenever you are presented with a situation that goes against your ethics, stay true to yourself and your values.


Essential Principles for Navigating Cultural Differences & Language Barriers for International Success

Association expert Peter Wright from The Planning Group has some practical advice for association professionals travelling abroad. In 2007 Peter’s international endeavours heated up and as a result, he now works with clients in over 20 countries around the world.

With experience comes knowledge and Peter has shared some of the principles that he has developed over the years. “I’ve made some mistakes but I’ve learned a lot about doing business outside of North America. My clients all struggle with the same fundamental planning and execution issues: How do we add value? Where do we want to be in the future? How do we get there?”




These are a few of the successful principles Peter has developed along the way:

Don’t assume that other cultures are homogenous.

From a North American perspective, it is natural to want to treat other countries as one big culture that differs from our own. China for example, has many cultures, languages, and practices that vary from one Province to another. So this assumption is not only culturally insensitive but will lead to faulty business decisions for your organization.

Don’t equate English fluency with intelligence.

This can be easy to forget when a meeting is being conducted in English where English is the second language. Remember that if someone’s English skills are not very strong, chances are they probably speak more languages than you!

Don’t gravitate to the best English speaker in the room.

In any country this will likely come off as disrespectful. There may be situations where the most junior people at a meeting or a dinner have the strongest English skills … and the association’s president does not. As a foreign guest be aware of how much time you spend with each person. Treat client interactions similarly to how you would in North America, and set language barriers aside.

Don’t be upset if people don’t always speak English around you.

“Admittedly, there were times I felt offended when a room (or car) full of people all spoke as if I wasn’t there! My advice is to think about the situation from their perspective. If we had a German visitor at a meeting here, would we all try to speak German?” Just remember that you are visiting them, and the world doesn’t always work in English.


How does your association prepare its staff for traveling over seas? What are some of the principles you have developed for interacting with clients from other countries?



Data Analysis Tips For Better Association Planning

Within the context of effective association business planning, there may be occasions where you are required to perform data analysis. Whether you working with data that you have collected or have been given data that someone else has collected, we’ve got a few suggestions to help you better prepare and stay organized throughout the planning process.


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  1. Ask questions. People are usually happy to give their opinion so take a moment before you get started to ask the people around you questions. Not only will this help you refine your focus, but it will save you a lot of time in the long run.
  2. Make access clear. Is there a clear agreement that you have access to ALL of the relevant data you will need? You can sign a non disclosure agreement to cover your bases for any special areas that are outside of your regular duties.
  3. Define your boundaries. Avoid getting lost in the data by establishing what is inside and outside the scope of your analysis…before you get started.
  4. Define your objective. It may sound obvious, but digging into data without a clear focus on what you’re looking for will cause confusion and set you back.
  5. Reorganize. Once you know what you want, reorganize the data in a way that suits you. For example, create a spread sheet so you can effectively collect and summarize your data and analysis.
  6. Get a second opinion. Get in touch with a key contact within your organization and bounce your preliminary findings off them. A second pair of eyes can prevent you from going off on irrelevant tangents.

So the next time you are asked to create a draft of your long term financial plan or opportunity analysis you’ll have these 6 tips to keep you ahead of the game.


AMC Audit to Avoid Going to RFP

In our last blog we opened the discussion about avoiding going to RFP (the nuclear option) with your Association Management Company. To recap briefly, this is useful in a situation when an RFP is unwarranted (you don’t actually want a new partner), but you need some assurance that you are getting good value for your members.

For all of us that have seen an RFP process for a new AMC, it is to be avoided if possible. The new bidders can almost never fully appreciate the intricacies of the engagement and through design or lack of full comprehension, they will often under price their proposal. The board is then encouraged  to choose a new bidder over the incumbent and faces a painful learning curve that leads to higher prices in the future. Absolutely no one wins. If the incumbent AMC was doing a poor job, all the pain will be worth it. We are focused on situations when the incumbent is doing a good job.

So what can a board do? Hire an independent 3rd party to do a full and fair audit. Our strategy and planning partner Peter Wright at The Planning Group gave us an overview of how they do these very audits for their association clients. They dig deeply into the association’s financials and practices to answer 2 critical questions:

  •  Is your AMC running overall operations effectively?
  • Is your AMC charging you a comparable amount for administration compared to alternatives?

To do this, The Planning Group follows a comprehensive process that includes:

  1. Complete analysis of association financials. This is not at all like a financial audit. This is more of a breakdown of financials to key ratios for comparison to others.
  2. Compare key ratios to standard association benchmarks. This is usually a 1:1 comparison of association ratios to the ASAE bench-marking survey for associations of similar sizes and compositions.The key benchmark categories are usually operational effectiveness, compensation and expenses.
  3. Compare key ratios to AMC benchmarks. It is critical to not just compare efficacy as an association overall but help the client board understand how they stack up to typical AMC benchmarks like total percentage of expenditures spent on their AMC.
  4. Confidentially speak to other AMC’s. This is a tricky thing that only a 3rd party can do. The Planning Group speaks to principals of other AMC’s and without disclosing their client association (or their AMC) they get a “smell test” on the costs and terms.
  5. Deep dive comparison with 2-3 similar associations. It is critical to have multiple data points and this one is key. The auditor does in depth interviews and financial analysis of associations that are similar in size and make-up to the target. This can also only be done by a 3rd party that is deeply trusted in the association world because the comparator associations do not know who the target is and the client associations do not know who the specific comparators are. Size, association type and often region or at least city size are disclosed, but not association names. It is also critical here that at least one comparator is association run and one is staff run.

All the secrecy is imperative, because the nuclear option is being avoided. If other AMC’s or other associations know that the client board is “kicking tires” they may as well just go to RFP. Ultimately the audit will help the board understand if the association is being run well in relative terms, if they could run it better without an AMC and if another AMC could likely run it more effectively. With good results in place, the association and their AMC can sign a contract renewal with faith and comfort. If the outcome is poor, the board can move to an RFP to find a new AMC.

Association Due Diligence

Avoiding the Nuclear Option with Your AMC

At Association Hub, we love Association Management Companies. The model is excellent for so many of our clients that are making the move from purely volunteer associations to professionally managed organizations. While an AMC may not be the right solution for every association, the statistics speak for themselves. There has been good research over the years that looks at comparative bench-marking of staff run versus AMC run associations. Not surprisingly, a number of good studies can be found at the AMC Institute.

A full third of our clients are run by AMC’s and while we remain agnostic, we always encourage associations to consider all possible models for professional management. Our quandary lately though has been how to provide advice to client boards with good, long standing AMC relationships that want to ensure some degree of due diligence. Consider yourself in this situation:

  • Well established, healthy association
  • Long standing relationship with an AMC
  • All staff are employees of the AMC
  • Numbers are good, reserves are healthy, association is growing
  • The board has no reason to be unhappy with their AMC
  • They love the staff and love the growth and continual improvement of the conference and programs

But, the board has a duty of care to spend members’ money wisely and ensure they are getting value. More than half of the association’s total revenues are paid to the AMC. This is not an unusual situation. In fact, many associations with AMC’s are in a very similar position. So everything is fine. Everyone is happy and getting along, but there is a twinge of uncertainty. Is the board exercising reasonable due diligence about how all the money is spent? When the board usually has questions like this, they ask their management and staff…who are also the AMC. Who can they talk to about this? These questions generally arise when the AMC is negotiating their contract. The AMC is usually driving the conversation about fee increases based on increased services.

There is no reason to go to RFP…if not the nuclear option, this is at least like telling your spouse you want to see if there is anyone better out there. How can a board perform realand meaningful due diligence regarding the majority of association expenditures without metaphorically poking their best partner in the eye? Find out in the next blog…Association Due Diligence

Effective Networking At Association Conferences

Association Hub expert Peter Wright had the pleasure last week to speak at the annual conference of the Florida Society of Association Executives. The focus of the session was helping FSAE conference attendees get more out of their conference networking experience. The audience was incredibly receptive and enthusiastic to learn how to be great networkers. With plenty of time for interacting and meeting new people, the session was high energy and lots of fun. Peter offered a range of tips to help delegates maximize their networking experience.

  1. More effective networking leads to a more valuable conference experience, and you control the value you get from networking by the effort you put in
  2. It takes planning to get more out of networking
  3. Planning to meet a speaker is something you should set up before the conference
  4. You have a critical role to help other people benefit from networking
  5. Helping others get value from networking is a great way to take the spotlight off you and be more comfortable networking
  6. Don’t go in to a conference with no objectives for networking. Think about what you want to get out of your networking experience
  7. Write down your rough networking plan
  8. Choose a networking wing-man in advance
  9. Ask your association’s staff and board for introductions to people you really want to meet at the conference
  10. Take lots of business cards and give them to everyone you introduce yourself to

If you would like Peter to speak at your next event, have a look at his services page.

Peter Wright Association Conference Networking

Peter Wright
Association Conference Networking

Is Your Association Board Fully Engaged?

Last blog we discussed the top 5 indicators your association board might be slacking…or at least lacking full engagement. We have had plenty of feedback on the blog and suggestions for 5 more indicators to round out a top 10 list.

  1. Active and effective committee leadership is critical to success for many associations. While there are many board members that step up and provide the leadership required, there are many other examples of board members that pay lip service to this role. Association managers are counting on board members to drive the mandate and work of important committees forward, but all too often low committee engagement just causes more work for staff.
  2. Active engagement in cultivating volunteers is something board members often see as the sole domain of association staff, but this is a critical space where we need board support. Board members are in the best position to turn regular members into volunteers and volunteers into super volunteers. Association management can help with a clear and disciplined process for volunteer engagement, but board members need to be prepared to take an active role.
  3. Active participation in board succession may be as obvious as attendance, but many board members pay mere lip service to their role. Any first time association board member will tell you that ensuring effective succession is central to association sustainability, but do they know what that means? Again, association management will provide a strong process, but we need every board member cultivating future directors and ensuring a full and strong slate every time.
  4. Director skill development is also given cursory and spotty attention by many board  members. Beyond director orientation and initial board training, we need directors to constantly be honing their skills to really serve associations effectively. We may recruit directors for their specific skills, but we need them to learn the basics of the association. After one year on your board, can all your board members tell you your association’s annual budget, or reserves? What about board members that have served many years? From our experience, the vast majority cannot.
  5. AMC oversight is simply the most important function that many boards overlook. With an average of 50% of revenues going to their association management company, boards have an obligation to members to ensure they are getting full value year after year. While we do see boards that get obsessed with monitoring and squeezing their AMC, we also see boards that let the tail wag the dog.

Association board members are mostly tireless, passionate volunteers and we love them for it, but there are too many directors that are passive and disengaged. Imagine the success of your association if every board member was fully engaged in all the right areas.