Putting the strategy into strategic planning

Imagine if we were to sit down in a conference room, and take 10 strategic plans of associations we know well, but with the identifying information removed. Would we be able to to tell whose was whose?

We should be shocked – but I wouldn’t be surprised – if the answer was no.

Given the effort associations put into their strategic plans, why do they often sound interchangeable and generic? Why is it so difficult to discern the actual strategy underlying them?

Let’s first note the difference between a strategy and a strategic plan. The strategy is how you are going to mobilize resources to succeed; how are you going to win? The strategic plan, which often takes on a bureaucratic mind of its own in the non-profit world (not that the corporate world is immune from this), describes how the strategy will be delivered.

Strategy represents a set of decisions. The strategic plan is a tool, the document that captures that decision, with its nuances and implications.

I can think of a few reasons why strategic plans are so generic, some of which are more problematic (others less so):

  • The organization lacks strategic capabilities, whether among the board, the staff, or both. Strategic planning remains at the operational/tactical level where the team is more adept and comfortable.
  • There are internal political issues which mean the strategic issues don’t get fully discussed, or agreement isn’t reached. This can lead to vague strategic language being used as a compromise.
  • There are external political concerns which mean the real strategy is not articulated outside the organization.
  • Insufficient time was allotted to the strategic planning process, or fatigue set in, so the strategic plan was rushed to completion.

Now, if you don’t implement the strategy in your strategic plan – or the strategic plan lacks sufficient clarity to really articulate an actual strategy – what does it matter? Surely you will just get on with implementation and figure it out somehow. And the answer is yes, you will implement something or other, but it’s certainly not going to be a strategy that you can clearly evaluate, measure, or adapt. Your staff and volunteers will make day-to-day decisions about how the association does business, but they won’t be executing on an aligned strategy, with the risk they are investing in the wrong activities and paying attention to the wrong things. There may be a strain on your senior staff as they try to guess the intentions behind the vague strategic statements.

Strategy is about choice, and about action – associations need to make these choices clearly and explicitly, execute on them effectively, and communicate them purposefully. A strong strategic statement should correspond to the actual situation you face, be identifiable and executable, and be subject to scrutiny through measurement as to whether the strategy was effective.

How does your strategy hold up to scrutiny?

For more on taking a strategic approach to strategic planning, check out our white paper on this topic.

Contact us at meredith@meredithlow.com 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.