Why Associations Should Create a New Strategic Plan in 2021

 Some membership organizations had a plan that addressed the disruption of 2020 — but most did not.

strategic planning

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Associations typically develop a new strategic plan every three to five years. Between those plan years, it is common to conduct an annual review, allowing the board to assess current goals and tactics. Many associations are now asking the same question: Should we be jumping into a new strategic planning process? The answer is yes. There is no better time for associations to begin a new strategic plan, even if you just created one a year ago.

An association’s board should be forward-thinking, looking ahead to strategically guide their association into the future. Last year was a year of disruption, a year that put every association under pressure when forced to cancel events, shift to virtual event formats and handle impacts within their respective industries. While there were associations that had a strategic plan that was built to address the disruption of 2020, the reality is most did not.

Reassess Operations

As more associations transition into remote and hybrid operations, their strategic plan must be updated to address these important changes. They need to put effort toward updating employee resources, technology and operations procedures. This includes technology to ensure employees are connected and productive. While staff may not be going to an office anymore, a shift in how remote employees are supported is vital. The shift can include addressing operations in a new way, such as engaging an association management company. 

Utilizing an AMC as a fully outsourced management partner, or to pick up specific operational needs, can be extremely beneficial for an association. AMCs allow associations direct access to new levels of expertise at reduced capacity, improving the overall sustainability of their organization. Offering support is essential when competing for top talent that expects the flexibility to work from home. Remote staff is likely to request stipends to maintain a home office, reimbursement for WiFi and technology solutions to ensure they are connected to their team.

The impacts of the pandemic were not just limited to the products and services offered by associations. Associations are employers too and have had to face the same questions and impacts we have seen among businesses. Organizations have had to address their own work from home set-ups for staff, as well as addressing a growing need for employee wellness programs. Isolation from social distancing and reducing time in the office have led to increasing mental health issues. All of these are extremely important issues to the ongoing success of an association and its ability to deliver on its mission.

Shift From Reactive to Proactive

Ask any group how many attended a virtual event this year and it’s guaranteed most hands would be raised. Then ask how many of their strategic plans mentioned virtual events and it’s likely most hands would go down. While the increased availability of vaccines and declining infection rates are cause for some measured optimism, the lasting impacts of the pandemic are here to stay. Members and stakeholders will continue to expect a virtual component for future events. Going forward, many will seek a more polished and customized virtual experience. In most cases, the virtual event is a completely new and different product than the usual in-person event, even if they are tied together.

This shift in needs of your stakeholders is going to require strategic intervention by the board. This means repositioning resources, including shifting how content is planned and delivered. This is a massive adjustment in the strategy that requires the full attention of the board to assess and chart a path forward for the organization. While 2020 may have been about reacting and putting in place short-term solutions to address the pandemic, 2021 must be about laying out sound strategies that are proactive in addressing the lasting impacts of 2020.

Joe Sapp, COO of Talley Management Group
Joe Sapp, COO of Talley Management Group

Address Programs and Services

Now is a great time for associations to take active steps to address low-performing or undervalued programs and services. Associations should be nimble and quick to move on from programs and services that are not valued, cumbersome to maintain and not profitable. Too often associations let programs sit dormant for years, draining resources in the process. It is a prime opportunity to make changes and return valuable resources that can be deployed against better-performing programs or newly developed programs that are a part of the new strategic plan.

Make Use of Data

The only way for associations to make decisions related to programs and services is by using good data. Having systems in place to track engagement, usage and profitability is an integral part of the board’s decision-making process as it relates to keeping or cutting programs and services. By incorporating a data strategy into the process, the board is empowered to move quickly, making the decisions based on fact while ensuring that programs and services are evaluated equitably.

Now Is the Time

One of the most common questions we hear from boards these days when the topic of strategic planning comes up is, “Is now the best time to pay for this?” Absolutely. Cost should not be a driving factor of whether now is the right time to conduct a strategic planning session. There are many ways to embark on strategic planning without negatively affecting the bottom line. Strategic planning requires an investment of time and resources, and that the board put aside short-term thinking; funding these efforts is integral to the future and direction of the association.

Joe Sapp is the COO of Talley Management Group