Recognizing the Planning-Execution Gap

The Planning-Execution Gap is a phenomenon that rattles almost every organization. The gap comes in all shapes and sizes, but there are important similarities, and you will usually hear people saying things like this: 

  • “We have a clear strategy, but we just can’t seem to execute.”
  • “We’ve been dealing with this issue for a long time, but we just can’t overcome it.”
  • “Only the ED understands everything that’s going on around here.”
  • “We try to be all things to to all people, and everything seems like a priority – but we never get anything done.” 




A big challenge when leading your association through business planning, is bridging the gap between strategy and execution. 

It’s easy to fall into the trap of helping your organization’s leaders articulate a nice strategy, but that doesn’t mean it can or will be executed. Many organizations will have a sound strategy at one end of the planning spectrum, and good projects and actions at the other, but the two just do not connect.

The participants in your planning process are human. Sure they would love it if they could execute their plans to move the business forward, but it takes hard work and many don’t really want to make the necessary changes to close the gap.

As a result, many organizations live with the Planning Gap because it is easier to “do” business planning once a year, and forget about it. Everyone seems surprised that very little actually got accomplished in the following year, then justify the shortcomings in a variety of ways, and repeat the process over again. 


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

Choosing The Right Association Management Company For Your Association

When Associations make the choice to go with an Association Management Company (AMC) it can be challenging to decide on which one. Each one claims that they will do the best job for you and will do your best to impress you. After seeing a series of great presentations for similar services it can be hard to distinguish between who has the best presentation and who will give you the best service for your money.

Ensure you are getting the best deal and experience possible by doing the three things below while meeting with AMC’s.

Be Prepared. Be direct with what you expect from your AMC. Is it membership growth? Accounting? Social media and ad management? AMC’s offer a suite of services so be sure to know what you want for your association and why. Make sure each one you talk to can fulfill everything you need for you association and keep good track of how much they are charging for what.

Ask for examples. Likely there was a moment that caused your association’s board to decide to seek out an AMC. Explain the situation and be clear about where your association is in everything from membership to finances. Then ask how the AMC has dealt with other clients in a similar position to your association. A good AMC will have plenty of experience dealing with situations like yours and should be able to walk you through in exact terms how they can improve your situation.

Set tangible goals. AMC’s aren’t magical. They cannot fix each one of your association’s issues in a single day. So share with your prospective AMC’s what you want to accomplish and have them say honestly whether those goals are realistic. Strong AMC’s will be able to estimate a timeline to accomplish them. They will also tell you which goals they cannot reach for you. This clear communication is essential.

What are your tips for selecting for a great AMC? Let us know in the comments or through social media.

Why So Many Associations Opt For Association Management Companies

When associations become too large to be managed solely by volunteers they are left with a choice to hire staff or an Association Management Company (AMC). We know that the board’s objective is to deliver great value to members so should they hire staff or go with an AMC? Each association needs to take time to have a discussion about what is best for them.


Here are four essential questions your board should consider when choosing between hiring staff or an AMC.

  • What is realistic for our budget?
  • Are there people who are part of the association who can take on staff roles?
  • Is there a clear goal that you hope to achieve by bringing in an AMC or Staff?
  • Is that clear goal trackable and realistic?

When your board considers those four questions they will be able to make a better choice. By setting realistic goals your association can get the results they need from either an AMC or staff. What else would you consider before deciding between a staff model or AMC for your association? Let is know in the comments or on social media.

Three More Ways Association Management Can Combat Silos

span style=”font-weight: 400;”>Did you get a chance to read last week’s post? If you haven’t you should take a few minutes to look it over before reading this.

Great, now that you’re caught up we can go over more strategies association management can use to get rid of silos.

Your association's structure still shouldn't resemble this picture.

Your association’s structure still shouldn’t resemble this picture.

1. Strong Vision

Craft a vision that can only be achieved with intimate organizational collaboration, and then provide the tools and permission to let staff work together. If everyone is working together departments will not isolate themselves. Think of your vision as a catalyst that highlights the need for true collaboration.

2. Smart Leadership Succession Planning

Your formal succession planning process is part of your silo reduction strategy. Let me explain.

First, remember that succession planning isn’t only about the current corner office occupants. Use your process to identify potential future stars by digging through many layers of your organization. Next, ensure you have an organization-wide process that is pure in mission, and agnostic to functional-areas. Do not protect star employees for promotion only within a functional area.

Employees destined for big things should be required to change functions on every promotion. This  will generate better leaders in the long run and with each movement those employees will poke holes in your silos.

3. Cross-Functional Teams

Identify the goals, issues and obstacles that are best addressed by a cross-functional team. Communities of Practice and cross-functional working groups are sometimes the only way to solve cross-functional problems, and the solutions they produce are superior.

That being said forcing a cross functional group just so you can have it can worsen silos. Make sure the group is well composed, has a clear purpose, and real goals to achieve. Then check if the group has the mandate, power, and resources to get things done.

When you meet those prerequisites the goodness coming from employees in different areas working together on specific issues will quickly spread to other parts of the internal relationships. Stronger internal relationships are a key to killing silos.

Let us know if these strategies have worked in your association in the comments or social media.

Association Management Has The Power To Break Silos

While working at a large association you have likely learned to live with silos, smokestacks, or stovepipes. No matter what you call them you know their organizational impact is the same: inefficiency, dysfunction, hard feelings, and low moral.

The conditions that created these silos are often firmly entrenched that combatting them doesn’t seem worth the effort. However good association management knows that the overall negative impact from silos can be reduced. It will likely take a big change approach with effort from every level of the association.  

With that in mind here are three strategies for that can help your association dismantle the silos.

Your association's structure should not resemble this picture.

Your association’s structure should not resemble this picture.

Operational Empathy

Empathy is the ability to identify with and understand another person’s feelings or difficulties, operational empathy is how individuals and entire functional areas identify with and understand other functional areas.

There is no doubt that this strategy is the most difficult to execute, but without operational empathy, silos will continue to rule. Use a top down approach to build operational empathy over time. From experience we know senior leaders set the tone for their functional areas, and their empathy will spread to their teams.

One way to create operational empathy is launching a monthly forum where senior leaders present their operational results, progress on major initiatives and challenges to their peers for input and assistance. Over time, each leader will gain a better understanding of their peers’ organizations. This broad collaborative approach will produce superior results, compared to a narrow, function-only focus.

Organizational Design

Look at your organizational design to determine what changes you can make to break down silos. Matrix structures require considerable effort and leadership to manage, but the output is usually better. Think about what’s worth the effort in your organization.


Big or small, every silo has a leader, and it is only through the intentional or unintentional efforts of the leader that silos are allowed to flourish. Good leaders develop, reward, and protect their staff to build a strong, cohesive and effective team.

Yet these very acts can further insulate a silo from the rest of the organization. Great leaders build a strong team with an eye on the broader organizational context and the good of the organization balanced against the good of the team.

The effort, pain and angst of changing culture to eliminate organizational silos can be immense, but the rewards may be greater than any other single change strategy you can pursue.

Next week we’ll look at more strategies your association can use to attack silos. In the meantime let us know about how silos have affected your work experience in the comments and on social media. 

Association Managers are you getting the most out of volunteers?

Volunteers are the lifeblood of many associations. They bring new ideas, create a communal culture and should make your life easier. So how can association managers like you get the most out of your volunteers?

volunteers association managers

A new paper from Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly has some insight on that. They surveyed 244 college students to see if their interests and motivations were matching up with their actual volunteer experiences. Finding a specific role for a volunteer can require more short time work and coordination but the researchers believe it pays off in the long run.

It makes sense that volunteers who are engaged in doing something they are passionate about are likely to become more dedicated. Conversely volunteers who are not matched with an activity they are suited to are less satisfied with their experience.

The first thing your association can do to create happier, more productive volunteers is ask them what they are interested in. Consider setting up simple binary categories such as physical labour. There are volunteers who will find it rewarding and the ones who do not will be able to avoid it. If you are looking for more idea’s for ways to narrow down the categories you can put volunteers into check out this blog post from Alex Maki, one of the researchers who conducted the study.

Maki has also posted a Volunteer Interest Typology (VIT) Questionnaire online for anyone to use. In an email to Associations Now Maki said that the VIT makes it easier to highlight distinct types of positions to potential volunteers.

Have you used a tool like VIT before? What things does your association do to improve your volunteers experience? Let us know in the comments.

Non Profit Management: The Great Meetings Guide

Meetings are a regular and often dreaded part of the workweek for all of us in association and non profit management. In an ideal world meetings are actually a highlight of your workday. They are productive and highlight how well your team can work together. Seeing your team help each other is inspiring. However this ideal likely does not match up with your meeting reality. So how do you move closer to this ideal?

Non profit management meetings

If you are in charge of the meeting there are many things that you can do. First show up early to test your powerpoint, sound, video and the room’s wifi. Your coworkers will understand if technical problems out of your control occur happen and they will appreciate you taking care of it beforehand.

By showing up early and addressing possible technical difficulties your meeting will start on time. There should be a designated attendee who records key items throughout your meeting.

Now you may be tempted to wait for a late coworker, or delay the meeting to allow everyone to settle in. Do not give into that temptation. It punishes those who show up on time ready to work. Another thing to avoid doing is catching up late attendees. It interrupts the flow of the meeting and again punishes those who showed up on time.

During the meeting tactfully end any off topic or dead-end discussions. One way to do this is to say “That is an interesting point you are raising but it we are not able to do it justice right now. Let’s make it a priority at another meeting.” If your attendee insists respond with “We have a lot on the agenda today and we don’t have the bandwidth to add more items.” That should shut down all off topic discussion without antagonizing any attendees.

Often meeting leaders allow redundant dead-end discussions because they do not want discourage participation. Do not be afraid to explicitly state something like “Let’s avoid redundancies. You all have valuable things to contribute so let’s keep moving forward.”

Aim to get everyone’s point of view and ideas. To do this solicit input for those who have contributed yet. Take a the direct approach with passive participants by asking them questions like “What do you think about this plan?”

No matter how productive and excellent the discussion happening in your meeting is you need to end it 5-10 mins before the scheduled end time. This allows  your attendees to make it to their next meeting on time. It is a small thing but it will reduce your attendees stress for the rest of the day.

Once the meeting concludes look over the key items and compose a brief summary email for all attendees within 24 hours. This email compounds the importance of the meeting and stops attendees from forgetting about their responsibilities. The final thing you need to do is touch base with the attendees to ensure that they are following through on action items.

Do you have any meeting tips that we missed? Share them with us in the comments.

Do you want to implement an effective meeting policy in your association? Download this free great meetings template on us. It has even more information than this blogpost and can be implemented in your non profit right away.

Association Management: How To Follow Through On Change

Last week we discussed how to conquer feeling overwhelmed at work. People are busier than ever before yet feel like they are not doing enough. In order to beat this feeling we need to establish then follow a formalized process. The second thing we went over last week was what questions to ask when starting a new project. By asking those questions we were able to find out if projects are being started with the intent to finish them.

These questions should also be used to prioritize current projects. Think of your own portfolio, do any projects have start dates more than a year old? What about three years old, or even five? Don’t worry you’re not alone. We all bite off more than we can chew. It is part of human nature.

So what do you need to do to make sure your tasks are achievable?


Brutally Prioritize

Having major projects that are never going to be completed stresses managers and employees out. During the prioritization of major projects team members say things like, “no it doesn’t support our strategy at all, but it’s a really nice project.” Remember human nature means that employees and managers often tie their worth to the number of projects on their list. This makes prioritization very difficult. It is one of the key reasons we generally avoid real and meaningful prioritization.

Keep in mind that more priorities can be accomplished over time if you tackle less at any one time. Increased productivity with decreased stress is good association management.

Eat The Elephant

We have all heard the expression that the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Mark Twain said, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”

Big, complex actions do seem overwhelming until they are broken down into something manageable, measurable, and achievable. You need to determine the best process for eating your elephant and then stick to it.

Association Management: We Need to Change the Way We Work

Take a minute to consider the changing nature of work. Think about how the demands in your work have changed in the past 5 years. Think about how you need to work today compared to 5 years ago. Think about the complexity, variety, and busyness of the work you do every day.

Everything you do is more automated and more process driven. Organizations work much differently, but individual practices and association management have not evolved that much. This is the principle reason why people feel like they are busier than ever before, yet have this sinking feeling of never getting enough done.

So how do you conquer feeling overwhelmed?

Is your team feeling overwhelmed?

Does your team struggle to accomplish tasks?

Follow a Process . . . Any Process

To do this consider how you need to change the way you work and build a very simple process. It will bring structure and discipline to how you work. Be formal about using the process in your own work. Do not be afraid to blame it if things go wrong. In the end this will help you build a stronger and more streamlined process. 

Intend to Finish What You Start

You will never finish something successfully if there was never true and supported intent to complete it. Here are nine questions you can ask to determine the intent:

  1. What is the current situation that makes this project or initiative worthwhile?
  2. What are the desired and expected outcomes that will be achieved as a result of this project?
  3. Precisely how will the success of the project or initiative be measured?
  4. Precisely how will completion of the project be measured?
  5. What precise process will be be followed and who specifically will be responsible to measure and report on project completion and outcomes?
  6. What will ensure at least the core project team can and will dedicate at minimum 20% of their time to this project?
  7. What will ensure the operational managers of the key project team have a plan in place to backfill operational duties?
  8. Is there a real and enforceable mechanism to ensure project team members dedicate at least the agreed amount of time to the project? 

Next week you’ll learn how to effectively prioritize all the major projects in your organization.