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Association Strategy: Bridging the Gap Between Theory and Practice

Filling in the “air sandwich” between strategy and implementation is one of the biggest challenges facing associations, consultant Meredith Low of Meredith Low Consulting told participants at the 2014 Engaging Associations Summit.

Not all associations invest in strategic development. But even for those that do, Low said there’s a crucial difference between setting a broad direction—what she described as “making choices to succeed”—and “capturing and enabling” those choices in a coherent strategic plan and then actually making them happen.

The difference determines how effectively an organization addresses and prevails against strategic challenges it may have worked very hard to understand. And when strategy fails to produce tangible results, it can give the whole strategic planning process an undeserved bad name.

We’ve Heard It All Before

It’s easy to spot a generic strategy that is vague in aspiration and short on delivery, Low said. Try to imagine any association that hasn’t set out to “achieve effective engagement with members and key stakeholders.” To “create and deliver cutting-edge educational opportunities.” To influence public policy, promote and support research, or “strengthen and promote the field through partnerships and collaboration.”

Don’t look now, but that language may not be very far from your strategic plan.

Here’s the problem: When a strategy is that general, it can mean almost anything. So when it comes to implementing the plan and evaluating the results, it actually means next to nothing. Low said the strategy process only works when it delivers specific, targeted goals that point toward actions an organization can and will take – and those they won’t.

By asking the right questions, sharing knowledge, consulting widely, then formulating narrowly, Low said an association can answer the most pressing questions it faces and, crucially, craft a compelling story about what it will do to meet its goals. A clear strategy “can lead not simply to a report on the shelf but, instead, to a stronger, more resilient organization.”

Time Horizons Matter

Low contrasted the 12-month time horizon we often have in a volunteer association president and the longer-term focus that is essential for the organization as a whole and the sector it represents. Although there’s room for mid-course adjustments, she said it’s a mistake to reopen a strategy every year.

“It’s a time investment to get to a commitment,” she told participants, so organizations should be purposeful about developing their strategies and resolute about protecting them, at least broadly: If you shift gears every year, she said, “you don’t have a strategy.” But at the same time, at the level of precisely how the strategy gets implemented, you have to have flexibility to respond to an evolving environment and to the changes within the organization – as you build capacity, as you learn, as you bring in new perspectives.

Click here for highlights of the 2014 Engaging Associations Summit and a sneak preview of the 2015 event.