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How to develop strategic priorities using a breakout session model

 strategic planning

Many organizations create their five-year strategic plan and set it in stone, no matter the changes happening that may not fit within that plan. This could limit growth and create stagnancy. To make sure that doesn’t happen, check in on your plan routinely to make sure it is still moving you forward, not keeping you where you are.

A twist on the strategic planning meeting
We recently held a strategic planning meeting for a client who was asking “what’s next?" They have had great growth and developed a very successful stand-alone annual meeting. They had checked all of the boxes of their plan and are now free to explore other priorities that can create more exposure and growth for the organization.

This group does not have members, but the process we followed could certainly be adapted to a membership-based association. To ensure a wide range of opinions and input, all board and committee members were invited to attend the meeting along with representatives from partner organizations. A survey was sent to all invitees to get a sense of priorities for the annual meeting, communication with committee members (or members in general), and working with affiliated organizations. A copy of the survey results was sent to all the attendees prior to the meeting.

Prior to the meeting, the Treasurer worked with the organization's investment firm to come up with scenarios for the group to consider. Scenarios included spending additional dollars above current operating costs and made assumptions at aggressive investing versus more conservative investing. A copy of the strategy report was sent to all attendees to consider prior to the meeting and while discussing the priorities of the organization.

Topic areas to discuss during the planning session were developed and facilitators for each topic were selected. Facilitators were provided materials about their specific topic and some questions to consider as they facilitated their specific “workshop." These questions, along with the high-level survey results, financials, and a previous strategic planning report were sent to all attendees prior to the meeting.

Breakout sessions helped form priorities
The meeting started with a history of the organization. Since this association doesn’t have members, it was nice for those who hadn’t been as involved as others to hear about how they had grown and changed since inception.

Attendees were assigned to participate in one of the workshops during each of the four breakout sessions Participants were divided so that they all participated in each workshop and the same people wouldn’t always be in the same group. The first group in each workshop started at a fairly high level – essentially laying the ground work for the groups that followed. During each breakout group, the facilitators gave a brief recap of what happened in the group(s) prior and started to drill down into talking about creating new programs, policies, etc. At the end of day 1, the facilitators reported on the themes that came from their discussions. From those reports, staff identified 15 items that could be prioritized by the group.

On day 2, the treasurer gave a financial overview, helping attendees understand how adding programs or technology, etc. would impact the overall health of the organization’s finances. The 15 priorities were shown to the attendees and they voted on whether they were high, medium, or low priority (we asked that they choose 5 high, 5 medium and 5 low so that all were not high) and were weighted. Once the votes were all in, we reorganized the list and decided to dive in to the top five priorities.
After the planning session, the Executive Committee looked at the priorities and defined the scope of each. Three workgroups were developed to define infrastructure, administration and funding needed. As the workgroups move through their processes, they will be able to refer to the work that was done during the planning session and the financial overview to help guide their decisions and bring recommendations to the board.

This process has created stronger engagement in the organization and has started to define the “what’s next." Checking in on the progress of the workgroups and implementation of any new programs will be important in making sure that the “what’s next” is truly addressing the priorities of the organization and moving it forward.


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Strategic planning vs. long-range financial planning: Successful associations need both


In association management, there is a difference between strategic planning and long-range financial planning, yet they are both necessary to ensure the overall financial health and growth of the association.

We consider long-range financial planning as an inwardly focused look at your association’s goals and objectives. It is an extension of the one-year planning budget with a timeline of at least three years and is simply a prediction of future revenues and expenses based on past events and the “predicted future.” A long-range plan doesn’t take into consideration any social or political factors, assumes a stable future market and is numbers-driven. The long-range plan is important because it sets the process by which the strategic plan will be achieved.

At AMPED, we make sure we begin our client budgeting process at least three to four months prior to the cleint's fiscal year end. We begin forecasting their current fiscal year about four months prior to their fiscal year end so they have an idea where their year will end compared to their budget. This is important so that steps can be taken to reduce expenses should the forecasted revenues fall below budget. Another aspect of our monthly reporting is cash flow forecasting, usually one year into the future. This is very important if the association has invested in new and significant initiatives that are cash heavy upfront with revenue being generated at a later time. Will there be enough cash until that revenue is generated?

Strategic planning is much more complex and crucial to the ongoing success of the association. A good strategic plan will ensure that your association is quick to respond to a changing environment. The strategic plan assesses the larger forces in society including social, natural resource and political factors. Your plan needs to address what your association’s situation is, what your association wants to achieve and what needs to be done to achieve your goals. The strategic plan is idea-driven and more qualitative and needs to provide a clear vision/focus for the association. It is a framework and way of thinking rather than a set of procedures. The strategic plan should be developed cooperatively between the board of directors or a strategic plan committee (subset of directors) and senior staff.

All of our clients have strategic plans in place which continually evolve to meet changing external factors. Don’t forget the financial impact. And remember to consider cutting rather than always adding!

How is the health of your association?

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'Tis the season for strategic planning


I have always had a passion for planning – thinking longer term, envisioning the future, dreaming big. AMPED client associations are in the midst of their planning seasons as well. Each association approaches this planning in a unique way and, as staff, we share ideas and ultimately help the leadership define a process that will work for them. In each case, there are some common themes or contributions that help simplify the planning process and make it very doable for associations of any size.

Member input. However you decide to acquire this input, be sure you have a good sense of what members value -- not just from the association, but from outside the association as well – in their profession, business or industry.

Know your potential members and customers. Their perspective is important as well, and this group may represent an important market segment for non-dues revenue or engagement on another level.

Trends. What is happening in the marketplace of your members or in the broader economy? What about global trends? Factor these into your thinking and process.

History. While planning is about the future, looking at the recent past will help you determine potential areas of growth, contraction or expansion for your association.

Simple, achievable goals. Consider 3-5. I have seen many associations with strategic plans that have “VII, A, 5, iii” as a tactic for a certain committee to take on. They end up being charged with a very tedious to-do list. Empower staff to help implement broad goals as directed by the Board, with input from volunteer groups.

Thinking long term. Three years tends to be as far out as most associations think in the ever-changing high-tech world we live in. However, it is important to have a plan that transcends the leadership of the Board so that current initiatives keep their momentum.

Finances. Be sure your plan translates into the budget. An ill-funded plan will not be strong and is more likely to fail.

KPIs. Define your specific key performance indicators. How will you know you have been successful? What indicators will be apparent if you need to retool?

Lastly, be flexible and keep the plan alive. If is it simple, that will be easy to do.

Good luck and best wishes into 2015 and beyond!


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