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Less is More: How Boards Can Sharpen Their Strategic Focus
By John Stoiber, Executive Vice President - Outsourced Services, SmithBucklin

Less is more. Bigger isn’t always better. These sayings sometimes seem counterintuitive in a global economy and fast-changing marketplace where organizations are fighting every day to stay relevant and competitive. But for volunteer boards of directors under constant pressure to impact industries, grow membership and increase value, adopting those mindsets might actually be the best way to stay relevant.

Too often, boards believe they need to do more. However, this approach can have the opposite effect. Too much diversification can make it difficult to access the required expertise of volunteers and staff. In addition, limited financial resources can be spread too thin and members eventually experience a reduction in perceived value.

Increasingly, boards are making the strategic – and difficult – decision to sharpen their focus and flip the current relevance paradigm from a horizontal mindset (be diverse; offer many things to multiple audiences) to a vertical one (be relevant; offer deep expertise and value to those who matter most). I have outlined below the three common themes I have seen from such forward-thinking boards.

Clearly Define and Serve Your Core Segment

In an effort to grow membership, many boards are prone to target a wide range of member types and build a diverse menu of products and services to meet broad needs. The results, though, often included over-extending resources, providing less targeted value and opening the door for competition to capture market share.

Organizations should complete a comprehensive, strategic analysis of their membership base. After they define the core segment they want to serve, they should build depth and value in audience-specific offerings that competitors are unable to duplicate. By doing so, the investments will help generate a level of loyalty that competitors cannot match. The National Paper Trade Association (NPTA) is a great case study of a board that has modeled this well. You can read more about NPTA’s story in this edition of Board Forward.

Focus on Fewer Initiatives and Deliver Them Exceptionally Well

Leadership on volunteer boards can vary significantly from year to year, and it is common for new leadership to launch new initiatives and services. As a result, some organizations are constantly “bolting on” new programs to an already bulky portfolio. Typically, these initiatives are added without discontinuing or modifying existing ones. As a result, new initiatives are sometimes under-funded because they compete with the annual maintenance costs of existing initiatives.

In addition, it is not uncommon for 30 percent or more of an organization’s existing offerings to have little or no relevance in the current marketplace. Therefore, it is important for boards to regularly assess the value and return on all of their offerings and slim down the portfolio to focus on the high-value opportunities that deliver significant returns with focused levels of investment.

“Own” Areas of Work Truly Critical to Your Members’ Success

In 2009, the Window & Door Manufacturers Association (WDMA) faced a difficult market challenge. A majority of its offerings were being duplicated by a competitor, and the organization faced becoming irrelevant.

The WDMA board responded by focusing on an unmet need within the market and it became the clear industry leader for representing member companies on critical legislative and regulatory issues in Washington, D.C. In doing so, WDMA not only identified something that it could truly “own,” but the association became the best at advocating on the behalf of the industry. WDMA’s efforts could not be replicated by the other competing organizations. As a result, WDMA is now financially stronger and many members who left have since rejoined the organization. Most importantly, WDMA is now indispensable to its membership.

Warren Buffett, one of the most successful investors of the 20th century, once said, “You only have to do a very few things right in your life so long as you don't do too many things wrong.”

If your volunteer board is wondering about its association’s long-term relevancy, Buffett’s wisdom is worth heeding. You may be best served by having a laser-sharp focus on the few things that matter most. If boards concentrate on deep and differentiated value as opposed to broad and diverse value, their associations’ futures will be assured. 

  As executive vice president of Outsourced Services at SmithBucklin, John Stoiber is responsible for providing high-impact, specialized services to associations, corporations, nonprofits, philanthropic entities and government organizations. Prior to his current role, Stoiber served as executive vice president and chief executive of SmithBucklin's Business + Trade Industry Practice.

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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 almost 70 years.


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