Strategic Planning – What’s the Point?

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For decades, many associations never saw the point in taking time to do any level of planning beyond the committee work.  Sure, some larger associations invested time periodically to have a retreat, talk about some “big ideas,” go through the motions of writing them all down and then left them on some shelf until the next time someone brought it up and then everyone did it all over again for no good reason.  That is why many association boards of directors thought it was a huge waste of time, effort and money.

The Strategic Plan

Then several years ago NAR – National Association of REALTORS® made having a strategic plan a part of their core minimum standards and it was mandated that each board, no matter what their size, was required to have one.  Some groups became resentful believing that this was no more than an unfunded mandate from ‘big brother’ that was created for the sole purpose of eliminating the smaller boards.

Clearly, that is not the case, nor was it the point. Without a plan, you will always get where you are going since you have no idea where that is. And along the way you are going to waste a lot of the member’s money in the process!   For any business to remain viable, it needs some long-range plan.  Associations are no longer the networking clubs of the past – they are businesses with substantial assets that require strong leadership, clear direction and financial focus.  Boards of Directors are required to manage the member’s assets responsibly and one excellent way to accomplish that is to have a road map of initiatives funded by the organization’s budget.  

So, depending on the size and sophistication of your association, plans can be simple or complex. They don’t have to be costly to create but some are and generally, you will get a much better result if you hire a facilitator that has no vested interest in the outcome.  It all depends on what you need to accomplish and what you want to create.  The important part is that planning should be budgeted for and generally, you should do it every couple years no matter what the length of your plan is.  The reason for that is so that you can take a temperature check on where you are, determine if you are all still committed to the same overall direction for each area of your business and adjust if needed.  You don’t re-do the plan every couple of years – you just stretch it.  

A plan by a good facilitator with a solid plan structure can be a great investment for many, many years.  It becomes an investment rather than an expense if you have the right person leading you through the process.  

The Big and The Small

I have worked with some small associations that are very sophisticated and invest in comprehensive planning to do some amazing things.  I have also worked with some large associations that have only basic planning with no real overall commitment and they aren’t even coming close to reaching their full business potential.  When it comes to associations, size doesn’t really matter when it comes to planning – what counts is everyone buying into the same horizon line and having a commitment to funding your ideas.  Planning is about putting your money where your mouth is, so let’s look at the options available so your board of directors can make the best choice for you.

First of all, let’s understand the terminology.  There is short-term planning, mid-range planning, long-range planning and strategic planning.  A short-term plan is a set of tasks that are meant to be done in under six months and the Mid-Range Plan is about six months-1 year and it is also primarily task oriented.  A Long-Range Plan is around 1-2 years and will have some strategic objectives and strategies to accomplish items and a real Strategic Plan is 3-5 years or so with strategic purposes for each business area along with strategic objectives to accomplish them.  It sounds way more complicated than it really is.  

Other Considerations

Another thing to consider is who you want at your planning table.  Aside from your CEO and senior staff, you want good thinkers at your session and sometimes that is not just your board of directors.  Since the plan is not going to be implemented until after your budget process you want to involve folks that will be involved next year.  Incorporate some diversity at your session – generational, gender, brokers from all sizes of firms, good thinkers from different business specialties in your market environment, some new folks that have no idea who you are and even some folks that don’t necessarily like what you do.  Those different voices and viewpoints can make a huge difference in the quality of your outcome.  

Associations have natural departments – Governance, Community Outreach, Government Affairs, Communications, Professional Development and MLS (unless you are part of another entity).  Each of those areas should have a Strategic Purpose or what I refer to as – ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’ in that area.  So the overall goal is to have a business plan for each area of your association business that has a strategic purpose with a set of strategic objectives to make that happen.  All of that should be consistent with your organizational mission, vision and core values.  Once done – your group prioritizes what needs to be accomplished and then you can formulate a financial plan and implementation plan to back it up.  What are they?  Those are topics for another day.

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