Association strategy: 3 reasons we can’t neglect it

When I talk about association strategy, I am talking about a real strategy: making choices about how we will achieve our aims, based on what we know to be true, and what we believe to be possible. What I don’t mean is just a complicated planning document that may help coordinate efforts, but doesn’t really get at what we are really choosing – and not choosing – to do.

Setting strategy is a critical element of stewardship. The board is ultimately responsible for strategy, but many others – including the CEO or ED, and other senior staff – can provide guidance.

And here’s why it’s so important.

1. So we don’t build the wrong stuff

Without a strategy, staff and – more to the point – volunteers are just guessing about what’s important and what’s not. And what often happens when that’s the situation?

  • Pet projects
  • Irrelevant activities
  • Butterfly-chasing

Everyone comes to their role with their own ideas, and that’s what makes group efforts so great. But if there’s no sense of collective priorities, the association tends to amass projects, programs, and activities that absorb resources and add no value.

(Admittedly, we can wind up with something that generates net revenue that’s in this category – but when’s the last time you heard about that? And is that more likely, or is the white elephant scenario more likely?)

2. To make sure we do the hard stuff

Setting strategy isn’t about what’s easy – it’s about what’s important. Strategy sometimes requires us to confront our current realities, including when they are not in fact what they should be.

It’s a clear strategy that will force us to get started on building a competency we don’t have, or addressing an area we should know about – but don’t. Without that, it’s much more likely we’ll just kick that can down the road, or never even recognize we should be dealing with it at all.

3. Because we can’t afford to get association strategy wrong

Everyone complains about resource constraints – big associations and small ones. So surely being strategic about how we invest our limited resources – and generate new ones – matters.

There’s only so long any given organization – business or non-profit or even government – can last while making inefficient choices. There’s an opportunity cost to every sub-optimal decision we make. What could we have done instead that would have moved us further forward?

We can’t afford to invest resources that actively move us in the wrong direction. We can’t afford to pretend that major issues aren’t there, demanding our attention.

Strong strategic decision-making, backed up with a robust planning process that translates those strategies to operations, is all the more important if we are feeling under pressure. This is why it’s a critical element of board stewardship.

If you’d like to discuss how we can help you put a strategy in place, and use it to help you guide your choices, please get in touch.

Contact us at or call 416-737-3935 to discuss how we might be able to help.


We offer resources to help leaders of associations and other not-for-profits think about their approach to strategy and governance, from various perspectives.