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Best Practice: Strategic Planning for Community Associations

By ARC

, |

No matter how well things are going, you can’t just sit back and hope the situation will continue, and when things are not going well, you need to make sure they get better. Both situations require strategic planning. It’s an essential, ongoing feature of good management.

Strategic planning definition and philosophy

Strategic planning is about projecting where your association expects to be in five, 10 or 15 years – and how your association will get there. It is a systematic process of planning, scenario setting, forecasting, and identifying the impact of occurrences before they happen. It involves a number of phases of thinking and application that identify the current status of the association – including its mission, vision for the future, operating values, needs and goals – and where it is going.

Benefits of the long-range plan

Some of the benefits of strategic or long-range planning are that they:

• stimulate thinking to optimise the use of the association’s resources
• ensure that responsibility and work schedules are assigned to individuals or teams that are best equipped to fulfil that role
• ensure coordination and unification of effort
• facilitate better control and evaluation of the association’s activities and the association’s mandate, thereby ensuring accountability
• create awareness of obstacles that may occur well in advance so that they can be overcome through sound decision making
• identify opportunities
• ensure that creative thinking is used to solve potential problems.

Applying strategies in community associations

Drawing up a strategic plan involves:

• recruiting core leadership and team members including representatives from all stakeholder groups
• training, motivating and empowering the group to see how they will be adding value to the community
• setting objectives, timelines, key roles and success indicators
• understanding the history of the association, how it came into being and why it was established
• imagining and understanding multiple visions of the future, by setting possible scenarios including size, financial position, market expectations and the impact that the political, environmental, social and technological environment will have on the community
• identifying current opportunities and likely changes
• identifying things that the community does well, and what it does badly, and measuring these against the core values of the community
• describing a picture of the vision of the future using strengths and opportunities, and integrating the threats and weaknesses
• describing the plan to all association members, at each phase of the development of the plan, to solicit comments to fill gaps where critical areas may have been missed
• restating the popularised plan, seeking broad-based consensus for it, and soliciting more feedback and involvement
• developing operating plans, budgets and schedules
• prioritising goals and allocating and planning resource utilisation
• monitoring accomplishments, and soliciting and reaffirming consensus on remaining items
• restarting the vision-making process with a new group of interested members.

STRATEGIC PLANNING IN PRACTICE

Strategic planning’s three main components are plan development, plan implementation, and plan monitoring and evaluation.

Plan development

Plan development consists of the following steps:

• Assess the association’s history, significant accomplishments and areas that were weaknesses. List important milestones, and include items where impact occurred in the association’s operations, e.g. hiring additional staff, raising levies, building additional facilities, changing some of the rules, etc.
• Assess the association’s current status, e.g. financial statements, state of the infrastructure, demographics, perception of the external environment, property market, number of complaints and security breaches, traffic load, etc.
• Evaluate the association’s current governance structure.
• Examine policies, procedures, and desk guides available to determine the chain of command within the association’s staff, within the board, and for oversight and communications between the staff or management company and the board of directors.
• Develop mission and vision statements.
• Determine operating values, or guiding principles, that state the association’s intentions and expectations.
• Perform a needs assessment. Determine the needs of the association by analysing the present state of the community, addressing any critical issues.
• Do a SWOT analysis, identifying the association’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.
• Determine key performance indicators (KPI) – five to 10 areas in which the association must be successful in order to accomplish its mission.
• Determine customer expectations, and align them to KPIs.
• Determine critical issues that must be addressed for the association to achieve its mission and vision, based on the SWOT analysis.
• Define the roles of key players who will be responsible for each aspect of the strategic plan. Answer questions such as:
» What level of control will the board have?
» Is the manager going to be a proactive leader or an administrator?
» Are the home owners going to be active as committee members or are they going to be less involved?
• Communicate the plan to all stakeholders. Make sure that every player has the necessary documents and basic knowledge to perform effectively. Also, if the strategic plan calls for specific management participation, make sure it is spelled out in the management contract.
• Listen and take notes to ensure that the plan that is finally executed is, indeed, a strategic one.
• Develop and prioritise long-range goals to address the critical issues identified through the needs assessment and SWOT analysis, and then prioritise those goals.
• Develop short-term goals and specific action plans, along with scheduled completion dates.
• Establish a monitoring process to assess the progress made on both short-term and long-range goals.

Plan implementation

Plan implementation (or execution) is the second phase of strategic planning. In this step, an association puts its plan into action through the allocation of resources. This step has three components:

• Programmes serve as blueprints for converting objectives into realities – according to the agreed-upon strategy. If the plan development phase was put together well, then the plan execution phase is much easier.
• Procedures are the tasks – and sequence of tasks – required to complete the programmes. Many of the previously discussed items such as teamwork, roles, communication, and education are essential elements for ensuring successful implementation.
• Budgets ensure adequate funding of programmes, but it is important that the association be strategy-driven, not budget-driven. The budget must enable the strategy, not drive it.

Lastly, adaptability is crucial to the plan implementation phase since all plans will have flaws. If the team members are not adaptable, there may be simple issues that will not be resolved in a reasonable manner, and the community will suffer.

Using outside consultants

An outside consultant or professional facilitator brings impartiality, pointed questions, and the facilitation skills needed to balance differences of opinion. Associations should be aware that consultants will take different approaches to strategic planning, as no one right way exists. While hiring a consultant can be expensive, he or she will greatly accelerate the association’s learning curve and help to ensure that the strategic planning process will complete a full cycle. If budgetary restraints do not allow for such assistance, associations may want to consider using a consultant for the initial sessions, where an objective assessment of the association’s current position is necessary.

Plan monitoring and evaluation

Plan review is required constantly to improve the plan and ensure its execution. Part of the plan review occurs naturally when there’s board turnover, a new home owner, or changes in the law. In addition, plan review needs to be scheduled to ensure that the plan is meeting the community’s goals. This can be achieved through surveys, management review conferences, or discussions at meetings. If the community fails to update the plan, the plan will eventually fail the community. Industry experts suggest that associations and their managers review their strategic plans annually, and completely overhaul their strategic plans every three to five years.

Pitfalls

Bernard Steiner lists some pitfalls that are easily fallen into but that should be avoided:
• becoming so engrossed in current problems that insufficient time is spent on long-range planning and the process becomes discredited
• failing to assume the necessary involvement in the planning process by other association committees
• failing to use plans as standards for measuring performance
• consistently rejecting the formal planning mechanism by making intuitive decisions that conflict with the formal long-range plan
• failing to develop association goals suitable as a basis for formulating long-range plans.

Steiner, B (1986) A roadmap to the future: The importance of long-range planning. Common Ground 2: 10-–14

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