Who does association strategy belong to?

“The new board members didn’t feel like it was their strategy or plan, so they weren’t very committed to it and they started asking for different priorities.”

“The new president is really looking forward to putting his own strategic plan in place during his one-year term. How can I say no?”

“Once the executive director announced her retirement, everyone just let the strategic plan slide. It was really her strategy all along.”

Comments like these are signs of problems with your strategy and strategic planning process. Understandable – and common – problems, but problems nonetheless.

Champions and systems

It’s true that a strategic plan really benefits from a champion. This could be the chair or the Executive Director/CEO (or shared by both roles). But there’s often someone who understands the plan deeply, knows how all the moving parts fit together, and is willing to go to bat to move the plan forward. And the deeper the strategies go and the more difficult the changes needed to get them implemented, the more charisma and drive is required to get it done.

However, we should remember it’s a strategic plan for the whole organization. It’s not a personal performance plan, and not an individual’s election campaign speech. And it’s certainly not a blueprint for a cult of personality.

The strategic plan belongs to the organization. It has to, because the whole organization has to implement it. The board is responsible for there being a plan at all, and for approving it. They’re accountable for the plan existing and for it being a reasonable set of choices given the information they had at their disposal.

But once it’s approved, it’s not just for them. Everyone involved – staff, contractors, volunteers, are key, both to make things happen but also to be intelligent and thoughtful about the plan. It’s not a mindless deployment of resources, but a conversation among everyone in the organization.

A broader sense of ownership

There are a few potential specific issues (and fixes) when it comes to plans being too closely driven by one or two individuals.


Board members don’t understand their role when it comes to strategy. It’s not their personal strategy; it’s the strategy of the whole organization. That’s true for the board members who developed and approved the strategy, and it’s true for the board members who come into their terms with an existing strategic plan in place.

Potential fixes:

  • Focus on board orientation, including the principle of board unity.
  • Orient board members to the strategy cycle (whatever that is for your organization) and help them understand what happens when.
  • Even if you are not in strategy formulation mode, there is still a great deal of strategic thinking required of board members. They should be asking questions about how the current activities map back to the logic of the strategies. They should be thinking  about how the operational information confirms or refutes hypotheses embedded in the strategies.


Your strategy timeline doesn’t match your organizational tempo. If you have a one-year-term president coming in and changing the priorities every year, you might be whipsawed and have difficulty making any kind of longer-range investments. If you have a set-in-stone plan you only reopen every five years, you’re going to have more difficulty with people understanding its logic in the last couple of years that it runs.

Potential fixes:

  • Consider a strategic planning timeframe that lets you take a deep dive when you need to, but also keep things stable when that makes sense.
  • Keep the strategy as a living document, adjusted as conditions change.
  • Even with some kind of multiyear plan, there should be a mechanism (perhaps tied to annual operational planning) that checks in and reviews the plan based on current information.


The plan isn’t fully embedded in the organization. It’s too confined to the board and upper management, or, worse, only gets referred to in the annual report.

Potential fixes:

Sharing goes far beyond communicating

Too often, there’s a notion that “sharing” the strategic plan is just one-way communication from the board decision-makers to the rest of the organization. The reality is, smart strategic plans are porous and responsive to additional information. The sharing instead should be multidirectional and ongoing.

The more a strategy or plan is seen as “Meredith’s plan,” the more likely it is to fail. From a perspective of organizational stewardship or succession, it cannot be “Meredith’s plan.” It’s a sign of organizational unsophistication or unresolved political issues if the plan is so connected to a particular individual that it would collapse without their presence.

If you’d like to discuss how we can help you get strategies decided upon and actually implemented, please get in touch.

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

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.