Inside an Association’s Long-Term Strategy

When the American Society of Landscape Architects decided to look ten years ahead, it asked: What will it look like when it reaches its goals?

“Begin with the end in mind” is a common catchphrase in boardrooms and offices—as one of Stephen Covey’s famous seven habits, it’s meant as a prompt to figure out your destination before setting to work. But when it comes to strategy-setting, the end isn’t always a consideration. Strategic planning is often a function of thinking about this current headwind, or that current membership trend. A plan tries to set a goal for the future, but it often doesn’t look far beyond the present.

For a few years now, the American Society of Landscape Architects has been operating under a plan that’s more determinedly future-focused. In 2020, ASLA developed a strategic plan that set a vision for where the organization would be in ten years. Lots of organizations do that, but ASLA’s vision was distinctive in that it was introduced as a narrative from the future the organization intended to live in. That rhetorical tweak made a big difference when it came to buy-in and keeping the plan active, says ASLA CEO Torey Carter-Conneen.

In 2020, when the plan was under development, the association’s needs were urgent. “We had declining membership and lack of membership with the organization,” he says. “We were trying to be all things to different type of members who are passionate about different things…. We didn’t have enough information about our membership and makeup.”

Through a three-month process, ASLA convened various stakeholders about their concerns for the organization. “We met on-on-one to get their feedback in a very disciplined way,” says Tom McCrary, Partner and CMO of Chief Outsiders, the consultancy that assisted ASLA in the process. “We asked four questions: What excites you? What makes you nervous? What’s missing? And what don’t you understand?” 

Everybody is getting aligned behind the story about where the organization is going.

Tom McCrary, Chief Outsiders

Through that process, ASLA devised a ten-year plan for the association, which Carter-Conneen presented at its annual meeting. The video of his presentation is worth a look, because it’s framed as an explanation of where the organization will be—how ASLA sits in relation to climate change, governance, education structure, volunteer relations, and more. 

“One thing about starting with the future and having a story you tell about where you’re going to go is that everyone knows where you’re going,” McCrary says. “People aren’t constantly guessing.”

Practically speaking, the process breaks down the ten-year vision into three multiyear chunks. Carter-Conneen says the organization is on schedule—in some cases ahead of schedule—and that clarity in the first year of the process has helped set the table for substantive improvements in its AMS and website. “Membership is up year over year between five and seven percent, and our net promoter score has tripled in three years,” he says. “We have more strategic partners than ever before, from student organizations to our allied organizations, and we’re working much more closely with them. We’ve expanded the organization’s footprint substantially.”

McCrary says the chief virtue of this approach is the storytelling element—presenting the vision as a narrative instead of as bullet points offers clarity and more opportunities for emotional engagement.

“[Bullet points] leave too much to chance, and too much room for interpretation inside the organization,” he says. “You might start heading generally in the same direction, but people can end up in very different places, because it gives everybody permission to write their own story about where the organization is going. Here, everybody is getting aligned behind the story about where the organization is going.”

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