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The New Role For Association Boards: Thinking Strategically

Many board members and execs look forward to their next board meeting with either a feeling of dread or bored resignation. The dread comes in anticipation of endless haggling over internal politics that are of little value to the members. The bored resignation results from a feeling of inevitability that the time will be wasted as members drone on reading useless reports while nothing of real consequence gets done. Staff looks upon these meetings as an unwelcome interruption of more meaningful tasks. Board members cast around for some way to feel they have made a meaningful contribution, and often satisfy this need by meddling in what should be staff work.

This is changing. Increasingly, nonprofit boards are starting to emulate the dynamic changes taking place in corporate board rooms across the country. In a difficult and highly competitive age when the very survival of the organization is often at issue, boards are casting aside the irrelevant and concentrating on the one responsibility that is uniquely theirs: creating a future for the organization. That's the one task that can't be delegated; only the board has been elected to represent all the members and see to it that their destiny is safeguarded.

Historically, however, this has rarely been the focus of most boards. Their vision has generally been bounded by the horizons of a one-year budget. Newly-elected presidents have often concentrated on building a monument to themselves during their brief term in office. This frequently is very disruptive, for by the time the staff finally gets geared up to carry out the president's ideas, he or she is out of office, and a new president comes in with a new agenda. Boards have tended to play a passive role, deferring the president's program.

How can a board go about creating a future for its members and for the organization? That presupposes anticipating future trends, and so far as we know, it is impossible to predict the future. Many organizations do, indeed make an attempt to predict the future by extrapolating current trends into the future when making budgeting decisions. The rationale here is that this is the most likely scenario. A dangerous assumption.

If straight-line projections had been followed in recent years, the old communist block would still be firmly in the grip of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia would still be united, the hero of the Gulf War, George Bush, would still be in the White House, the defense industry would be employing hundreds of thousands of now unemployed workers, the budget deficit would be vastly larger, and no one would be seriously talking about health care reform. Because no one could predict these eventualities, the lives of hundreds of millions of people and the agendas of most associations have been vastly changed.

If it is indeed impossible to predict the future, what can a board do to create a future for the organization and the constituency it serves? The answer is learning to think strategically. This doesn't imply stargazing or drawing up the traditional long-range plan (which is generally neither long-range or a true plan). Strategic thinking is the first step in a systematic, organic way of operating called strategic quality management. Here is a set of guidelines for establishing a process of strategic thinking for your board.

Step 1: Environmental Scanning

Decisions are only as good as the information on which they are based. Environmental scanning is a disciplined way to examine where the world is going and extracting those trends that will affect you or your constituency. It involves breaking down the world into what I like to call the "five spheres:" the econosphere (all issues related to economic influences), the politisphere (political and legal trends), the sociosphere (demographic and sociological changes), the technosphere (technological advances) and the biosphere (influences of the natural environment). Environmental scanning can be done in a number of ways and in varying degrees of depth and sophistication, depending on your needs and your budget. The scan is the baseline of information on which your board depends when it considers what to do about the future.

Step 2: Alternative Futures

Environmental scanning will provide you with many inputs from many different perspectives. There will be conflicting predictions of opportunities and threats from respected experts. This is no time to flip a coin or to choose the predictions made by your favorite politician or pundit. Instead, identify the alternative futures -- the range of possible outcomes -- and arrange them on a line ranging from most desirable outcome to least desirable outcome. Select three or four of the most representative futures and identify the opportunities or threats posed by each of them.

Step 3. Internal Scan

Once you have identified the opportunities and threats that loom in your external environment, it is important to take a hard look at your association's internal environment. You need to determine whether your organizational structure, culture and resources are what they need to be if you are to take advantage of the emerging opportunities and deal with the developing threats.

Step 4: Contingency Planning

Once you have identified the alternative futures and the opportunities and threats they pose to your organization and its members, the next step is to consider how best to address each outcome if it came about. This is not a time to draft detailed plans, but to consider broad alternative strategies to turn threats into opportunities, should the occasion arise, and to beat the competition to the punch in taking advantage of emerging opportunities. Then, by regularly monitoring events as they continue to develop over the years, you can continue to fine-tune your contingency plans until the actual unfolding of events becomes clear. The contingency plan for that development then is fleshed out and becomes part of your strategic plan.

Step 5: Vision and Mission

Once you have a clear picture of the possible path of future developments in the five spheres, it will be much easier to develop the right kind of vision and mission for your organization. Don't look at your vision and mission statements as immutable and only to be revisited once in many years; they should be driven directly by the course of events. When the course of alternative futures becomes clear, it is time to reexamine your vision and mission in light of changed developments. Think of what probably happened to associations in the defense and health care fields if they were blindsided by the end of the Cold War and the election of President Clinton. Don't let it happen to you.

Thinking the big thoughts and cycling through these five steps should be the major responsibility of your board of directors. Running day-to-day operations is the role of staff. Finding lots of volunteer offices for members to fill is not the purpose of the association. Those who are looking to socialize or to satisfy egos should join a fraternal organization. Their association or professional society has a responsibility to advance its members' vital interests. Only when boards keep their eye on the future and let the nitpicking stuff go will they be effective in helping their members to steer their way successfully through an uncertain and rapidly changing world.

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