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Strategic Thinking at the Board Level Requires Dedication
By Dale West, Senior Director, SmithBucklin

Too often, boards of directors rely on past successes and forget to spend enough time scanning their association’s environment, thinking about new, association-mission-fulfilling opportunities and effectively executing chosen strategies. Then they are caught off guard when competitors enter the market and membership declines.

This happens despite the fact that boards of directors are responsible for setting the strategic direction of their respective organizations, which means ensuring time is devoted to strategic thinking, adequate resources are allocated for high-priority areas, and volunteers and staff take action to meet the organization’s strategic goals. Board members can tap into other thought leaders and partner with staff in the strategic-thinking process, but ultimately the responsibility lies with the board. To complicate matters further, strategic planning is a never-ending process. Discussions must be ongoing and implementation plans need to be executed and then reviewed.

Despite these factors, there is a strategic planning approach that has a proven record of success. I have outlined it below.

Dedicate Time and Set the Stage

Time must be set aside at each board meeting for strategic thinking. A full day may be needed to establish high-priority areas, while only an hour may be required to discuss progress, changes in direction or new developments. Associations face many challenges that must be addressed, but none are more important than planning the association’s future.

In order to cultivate the best thinking, board members must set the stage. It is imperative that associations establish regular methods for obtaining market research, scanning the industry for changes and fully understanding the needs of members and customers. Having the right information will allow board members to leverage strengths and build the right strategy.

Establish High-Priority Areas, Strategic Goals and Objectives

A board must establish high-priority areas that have the greatest impact on fulfilling an association’s mission. The actual number of high-priority areas will depend upon both the association’s resources and the complexity of its targeted priorities. Most associations can manage two to three high-priority areas while maintaining current business. After all, adequate resources must be allocated to achieve success. If this is not possible, associations must reprioritize. Some strategic areas may be deferred until resources are available. The board may also decide to redirect current resources.

Once the high-priority areas are identified, the board must then develop strategic goals with measureable objectives that clearly state when and what will be done. When establishing strategic goals and objectives, associations should lead with their strengths. If an association is known for high-quality education, establishing new educational programs to meet unmet needs should be relatively easy. It will also reinforce the association’s reputation and build its competitive advantage. There will be times when associations must develop new strengths to meet a changing environment; however, relying on current strengths often allows you to best leverage the resources of your association.

Create Action Plans and Take Action

After the objectives are established, staff should be charged with developing clear action plans to meet the objectives. Action plans should include specific tasks, timelines and needed resources. They should also identify those accountable for the plan’s success. Creating well thought-out strategic goals, objectives and action plans is important, but not establishing accountability will create a recipe for failure.

It is now time to get to work. Stumbling in this phase often happens, with common pitfalls including not holding volunteers and staff accountable for the action plan, failure to allocate adequate resources and redirecting resources to pet projects that do not meet the established strategic goals.

Measure, Monitor and Adjust

As the work is done, it is also critical to monitor progress. Action plans need to be treated as living documents because an association’s world is ever-changing and boards must be nimble. The tactics established in 2014 may not meet needs in 2015. Therefore, associations must monitor progress and adjust course when needed. At times, entire high-priority areas may change because of vast shifts in the professional landscape. However, it is more likely that objectives and action plans will just need to be tweaked.

The Process in Action

The Society for Gastroenterology Nurses and Associates, Inc. (SGNA) has an effective and disciplined approach to strategic thinking and action taking. The following process has been developed and refined over the last 10 years.
  • Prior to each board-level strategy session, SGNA undertakes a thorough market analysis and needs assessment of its members and customers.
  • The board and invited guests then participate in a full-day strategy session, during which three to four high-priority areas of work with corresponding goals are established.
  • The executive director is then charged with developing measurable objectives and corresponding plans of action, which are vetted and approved by the board at least six months before the action plan is to begin. This allows for the right resources to be allocated during the budgeting process.
  • Volunteers and staff who are accountable for areas of work provide regular written updates to the board. Progress is also mapped on a dashboard and provided at each board meeting.
  • The board and staff dedicate significant time at each winter board meeting to discuss progress and continued relevancy of the strategic goals and action plans, and they make necessary adjustments to each.
  • Time is also set aside at each meeting to discuss aspects of the action plans that may not be going as expected, or new developments that may need to be addressed by the board.
  • By using this approach, SGNA has grown into a vibrant organization with a community of more than 15,000 members and customers, an extensive educational product line and significant influence within its profession.
Ongoing Success

To be competitive in today’s world, associations must be able to focus their resources on high-impact, mission-driving programs. Organizations that follow a disciplined approach to developing strategy are able to stay better focused on areas of importance and drive growth by building new products and services that are valued by members. They also tend to have more satisfied volunteers because they are a part of shaping the organization’s future and are able to see the desired outcomes for their thinking and planning. This approach may require changes to current practices and behaviors, but it will yield excellent results.


Dale West, senior director, SmithBucklin, has more than 20 years of experience working with nonprofit organizations. He joined SmithBucklin in 2007 and currently serves as the executive director of the Society of Gastroenterology Nurses and Associates, Inc., a vibrant professional society with more than 8,000 members. He is a principle in the SmithBucklin consulting group and frequently facilitates strategic planning sessions and governance programs for client organizations.

 

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SEPTEMBER 2014 EDITION
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Board Forward is published 10 times a year by SmithBucklin, the association management and services company more organizations turn to than any other. SmithBucklin has served volunteer board members for more than 60 years.

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