Strategy session coming up? Preparation for a board member

It’s easy to overlook, but the strategy process can be stressful if you’re an association board member.

You may feel…

  • Less than capable – strategy likely isn’t your day job, and there is a lot of information to process.
  • Stressed – you probably care a lot about the organization, and may feel leadership as a burden.
  • Disgruntled – maybe you disagree with leadership on key issues.
  • Weary – are these issues being discussed year after year, with no real progress?

Or, you may feel excited… but even that’s a form of stress. (And you may feel a mix of many of these at once.)

It’s fortuitous timing to be on a board when it’s setting strategy – it’s a fantastic opportunity to be part of shaping the organization for years to come. And the experience can be a great growth opportunity on a personal level for directors, no matter what they do for a living. Analysis, discussion, debate, decision-making – all great skills to develop.

If you’re an individual board member, what do you need for this to be a good experience for you? What can you do to get the most out of it?

Claim Your Role

First of all, let’s talk about setting strategy here, not strategic planning. This keeps the focus on the strategy itself – making decisions that involve choices – not the process of writing it all down. And that’s the critical, distinctive role of the board.

During the leadup to the strategy-setting, and during the meeting, ask yourself, “Is this operational?” If so, can you let the staff worry about that, so you can stay focused at the strategic level?


Read whatever preparatory documents you’re sent carefully, and with a critical eye. What surprises you? What’s missing? Whether you are provided with a huge report on in-depth original research, or something much more slimmed-down, start here.

Reread your board orientation – this should cover the organization’s vision, mission, values, history, and prior set of strategies (if it doesn’t, go find them somewhere else, if they aren’t in your pre-read). And, crucially, it should cover the role of the board in setting strategy, as your association articulates it.

Then review financial and operational reporting for the past few years, as well as the website and any other materials, so your grasp of the organization is current.

Make notes and bring in your questions.

Think Big, Think Broad

Take ten minutes in front of a cup of coffee, and a blank sheet of paper. What is the point of this organization? If it didn’t exist, why would you create it? If you had to cut operations in half, what would you keep? If you could double them, what would you do? Even if these are hard questions to answer, sit with them a few minutes. See where that thinking takes you.

Reflect on where you personally fit in the organization overall. Are you a typical member, or atypical? What are the things that are important to you personally, but which aren’t important to most members? How can you ensure you think objectively about these? (Do you need to let go of any sacred cows?)

Reach out beyond your usual network. While you aren’t being tasked with gathering anecdata here, if you have the opportunity to talk to others about the organization, do so. Ask them what they think you should take into consideration when setting strategy. Just listen, and make sure you understand. This is a great practice as a board member year-round.

That said,

Even if you were elected or appointed to represent a particular constituency, as a board member, your stewardship role is to think about the organization as a whole. It’s not all about you, or your closest colleagues, or the people you spoke with most recently. It’s about the entirety of the organization (including them, of course).

Really Show Up

No question, this is a really important meeting (or series of meetings). Do what you can to leave your working life behind for the duration, and come in with energy and an open mind.

It can be exhilarating to be part of a great strategy process. Hopefully you get a chance to feel great about your contributions and excited about the future of the association at the end of it.

(Here I’ve taken a fairly nimble, driven-by-strategy approach to the question of how an individual director can prepare for strategy-setting. For a more comprehensive guide that takes more of a planning approach, this is a really good source.)

If you’d like to talk about your process to set strategy, please get in touch.

Image by Death to Stock, used by permission.

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.