Strategic Management Articles

Building Consensus Can Determine The Success Of Association's Strategic Plan

Associations and nonprofits are political organizations. And like it or not, association volunteers and staff must become politicians to survive in such an environment.

Over the years I have found few organizations that are as political as associations (hospitals and universities also come to mind). All the classic components of the political wars are there: conflicting interests, personal ambitions, turf wars, petty fiefdoms, propaganda, conventions, hoopla and all the other accouterments of politics.

In such an atmosphere, little progress is possible without the engineering of consent among the association's different interest groups. Yet, when strategic planning takes place in an association, it is usually done by a small group of leaders with little involvement by others.

Most strategic plans are never implemented, no matter how brilliantly conceived they are, simply because they are viewed with suspicion by those who did not participate in their creation. In any political organization, a majority consensus must be formed before progress is possible.

How can such a consensus be built? It can only be done if continuous two-way communication is built into the annual planning. In particular, it requires "front-loading."

"Front-loading" means reaching out to all constituencies and all shades of opinion before the planning process actually begins. This includes not only the national volunteer leadership and staff, but members and chapter volunteer leaders and staff.

The first step in any good planning process is an environmental scan -- looking ahead to identify possible future scenarios that pose threats and opportunities for the association, and its strengths and weaknesses in addressing them. The environmental scan offers a valuable opportunity to seek the views of all the association's key opinion groups and to start building a consensus among them.

There are many ways to obtain these viewpoints. Personal interviews, focus groups or survey research can be used to gain input from the staff and the volunteer leadership. Survey research and focus groups are also effective ways to solicit opinion from the general membership, as are "town meetings" at conferences and conventions.

The viewpoints of these constituencies can then be compared and contrasted with each other and areas of consensus and difference identified. The results of this research should then be widely disseminated throughout the organization with an explanation of the emerging consensus and how this information will be taken into account by the strategic planning body. A clear linkage should be established between the issues identified by the membership and the ultimate plan.

To build upon the credibility established during the front-loading process, periodic reports should be made back to the volunteer leadership, chapters and members. The final draft that emerges from the process should be circulated with a rationale for its priorities. If any of the areas of consensus that emerged from the front-loading process cannot be addressed in the plan for any reason, a specific explanation should accompany the plan draft. Discussion should be encouraged, and the plan should be modified where required to address valid concerns.

Although the front-loading of the planning process is vital, building political consensus will be difficult unless the planning body itself is seen as representative by the association's important constituencies. Both majority and minority factions should be represented on the planning committee. Institutional groups such as chapters, supplier members and education members, if any, should have a representative on the committee. Include people of various ages and multicultural backgrounds.

The planning group should be a committee of the board, which is charged with responsibility for the future of the association. It should be chaired by the president-elect, who will be responsible for carrying out the plan. The committee should have representation from outside the board to ensure the organization's factions that their views will get a fair hearing.

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