It’s a magical time of year, folks. You’ve survived the summer conferences. Fall events are near (golf outing, anyone?). Membership renewal is upon us. And planning 2018 association priorities is likely on your radar. Or, at least, it should be. We are approaching a “timing sweet spot” for executing strategic planning events. You have a clearer picture of the organization’s financial strength, including results of membership recruitment and retention efforts. The bulk of your events and educational efforts are in the books. Advocacy activities on the local, state and federal levels have largely been put to bed for the year. The months of September and October provide good opportunities to plan your organization’s future priorities. The idea of strategic planning may seem simple at face value, but ensuring such an event sees success in support of an association’s mission is challenging when the right pieces aren’t in place. Before you challenge your staff and association leadership with an exhausting strategic planning event, make sure you have a few essentials in place to make it worth the time and effort. Hire a Facilitator For many associations--especially those with small staffs--the idea of paying for a planning facilitator is daunting. But the return on investment is well worth the cost year after year. Tasking your executive director or, even worse, a board member, with facilitating a strategic planning event is usually a bad idea. There are too many biases that are unintentionally introduced because of a staff/board member’s current or previous relationship with other people at the table or personal connections to certain events. Facilitators are skilled at asking questions, sparking meaningful conversations, highlighting trends and shifting conversations in productive directions. Tangents are rarely found in a strategic planning event with a good facilitator at the helm. Facilitators also come with massive amounts of industry experience, so they can stack your problems up to similar industry-wide issues and help you discover tailor-made solutions backed by proven practices. Having a facilitator is basically building an educated, organized, unbiased and engaged window into your association’s future (if inanimate items could have such qualities). Select a Safe and Productive Space Hosting strategic planning discussions away from the association’s HQ is vital to fostering free flowing discussion. By doing so, you are creating an experience for your association leaders to detach from the stresses of their familiar surroundings, free their minds of clutter, and unlock important ideas and considerations. Inside the meeting room itself, assign seats at several tables to ensure each small group consists of varied levels of personality, experience and thought (see section below for more on that). Also make sure each table is outfitted with paper and pens so contemplation and note-taking are encouraged. Additionally, since you’ve so carefully thought out the layout of the room, make sure it’s communicated to your group that the event is a safe place for all ideas to be shared, and that support and respect should be displayed at all times. You want your leaders, especially those who are hesitant to speak up, to feel like they are safe to share when they’re ready. As for the general environment, make sure it is calm and free of worry. For example, feed your participants well, allow them time for networking, and treat them to quiet, comfortable sleeping quarters (if you’re hosting an overnight planning retreat). Consider doing a fun team building exercise (cheesy, but effective; promise) and/or a nice cocktail reception followed by dinner and entertainment. Whatever the agenda, encourage participants to enjoy each other’s company and continue conversations from table talk earlier in the day. You will be surprised by how casual “cocktail hour” convos are brought up the next day as items for consideration or revisitation. It’s all about finding as many ways as possible for leaders to express themselves and work toward solving problems in support of the mission. Build and Maintain a Diverse Board This is a tall order if you currently have a homogenous board. It takes time to commit to a leadership diversity initiative. If you and your staff currently don’t experience diversity on your board, take time soon to dedicate yourself and your nomination/appointment processes to it. Decide what diversity means to your organization. For example, diversity includes--but is certainly more widespread than--gender, ethnicity or age. But diversity also encompasses thought and personal and professional experience. Your board should be representative of your membership, rather than a group of individuals who think the same and make decisions based on assumptions and/or personal bias. The best ideas that are truly in service to one’s membership are generated from respectful conversations among a diverse group of people. And if you hire a facilitator, that person will be able to harness the power of this diversity to showcase areas for growth and success. Encourage Fun and Celebration Alluded to in the “Select a Safe and Productive Space” section, fun is a MAJOR component to a successful strategic planning event. While business is the main task at hand, try not to stifle fun, as doing so tends to choke out the flames of creativity. And, again, if your team gets a little too silly during discussion, you have a highly skilled facilitator prepared to bring things back to center without killing the fun vibe. A big part of encouraging fun is celebrating recent successes. It should be part of any strategic planning agenda to spend time reviewing all the things done well by the association within the last year. This provides excellent opportunities to recognize staff and leadership who helped the association reach and exceed its organizational goals. This sets a positive and motivated tone for the rest of the meeting. Employ a Staff that Follows Through All the tireless strategic planning work in the world means nothing if there’s not follow through. Notes and action items need to be tracked and addressed so they reach their intended “next step” status. Some items can be added to the pile of daily to-dos for functional staff, while other items require more research by staff, committees and/or workgroups. It’s important that an organization’s CSE have a post-event plan for how best to tackle these follow up items. It’s a good idea to have a postmortem meeting with the facilitator to get ideas and tasks considered and organized. Facilitators can impart a lot of wisdom during this crucial step to ensure time isn’t being wasted by making missteps. Another vital part of this step is to socialize results of the postmortem and next steps. All staff should understand and accept their role in the direction of the organization. By the time you’re done with the strategic planning cycle, all parties should understand what the organization’s goals are for a set period of time and how their particular position will work to affect those goals positively. Good luck, and here’s to a strategically driven 2018! Want more tips for managing your association (successfully!) in 2018? Check out our Ultimate Guide to Membership Management below. It’s filled with best practices for membership recruitment, engagement, retention and more - all the things you may be strategizing now!