Choose your moment – timing strategic planning

I have the privilege of getting to know my strategic planning clients pretty well. And why is that? Because a strategic planning process is a big commitment. There’s no  point pretending otherwise.

So I when I get asked, as I do frequently, when is the right time to undertake strategic planning for an association, I understand. And, as with many good questions, the answer is: it depends. (This is almost all relevant for any organization, but I’m focusing on associations for now.)

In general, just about any plan is stale after about 4-5 years. No matter what field you are in, or what your staff or board turnover is, after a few years any plan needs a refresh. It’s just good organizational stewardship. But there are a few good reasons to shift the timing earlier or later than that – and there are some “reasons” to delay that I would challenge.


  1. Changes for the association. Significant change in the organization’s external landscape, such as threats to revenue streams, increased competition for members, or shifts in relationships with other bodies (e.g. national/provincial associations, or overall governing bodies such as the Royal College for medical associations).
  2. Changes for members. Major regulatory, economic or competitive changes affecting the professional lives of members. The organization may need to research and respond to these issues, particularly as they relate to the member value proposition, or emerging member needs.
  3. Current leadership capabilities. Great talent in place, particularly at the Board level, may trigger a somewhat earlier process. If you have a highly strategic President in place and a particularly savvy Board, you may want to go ahead with strategic planning to take advantage of the people around the table at this moment.
  4. Recent – but completed – changes in leadership – especially if unanticipated. This is particularly important if the organization has experienced significant conflict, such as removal of a CEO or Board members. Once the situation has stabilized and new leadership is firmly in place, strategic planning is a way to enter a new chapter.


  1. Existential threat: If the organization is experiencing a crisis that threatens its existence, such as a catastrophic loss of funding, or a crippling lawsuit. Organizational capacity is better used to address more immediate concerns. Take a look at strategic planning once the dust has settled.
  2. Big changes already afoot. If there is about to be a significant change in personnel or structure, eg if a current CEO is retiring, or if a merger is pending.


  1. We’re busy. The busier you are when you delay strategic planning, the more likely it is that you’re going to invest time and resources in the wrong activities. Time to take a step back and make sure you are busy with the right things.
  2. We can’t agree. If those issues are out there, whether among staff, board, or both, or in the industry as a whole, a well-managed planning process can define and articulate your response to them. Time to have it out and find out where you stand.
  3. We don’t have the resources. Strategic planning is a key part of organizational stewardship – it’s one of the most important functions of a board. It needs to be resourced properly to protect the long-term interests of the association. The more pressing your issues, the more you should be investing properly in figuring out your strategy.

If any of this is making you ponder your own strategic planning process, please get in touch – happy to discuss no matter what stage you are at.

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.