A strategic plan for your chamber sounds like an important thing. Yet many chambers don’t have one–or don’t have an adequate one that positions them for success.
If you’re wondering how to go about creating one for your chamber–or if you’re concerned that your chamber’s strategic plan may not be the best it can be–read further.
In this article we answer the most important questions about strategic planning for the chamber (and the ones we get asked most often) including:
- Why does a chamber need a strategic plan?
- How do you create an effective strategic plan?
- Should the strategic plan be public?
- What’s the implementation and strategic planning process?
- What’s the difference between a strategic plan and a business plan?
First of all, if you don’t have a strategic plan, you’re not alone. We estimate that 30-40% of chambers either don’t have a plan or don’t have an effective one.
Why Don’t Chambers Have Strategic Plans?
There are many reasons a chamber may not have a strategic plan. Common reasons include:
- lack of knowledge (on the staff’s or board’s part) on how to create one. “I don’t know how to create one.”
- desire to not have the structure of one. “I kinda like to do my own thing.”
- no time. “Plans are for people who have extra time. When I have time…”
- never had one. “We’ve survived 50 years without one. We’re doing just fine.”
- fear of change. “Creating a plan means I might be assigned things I don’t know how to do. Then I will fail.”
- distrust. “I don’t trust what these people would come up with.”
- lack of priority. “I have other things that are more important than typing out what I’m already doing.”
Do any of these reasons sound familiar?
We’re not here to cast blame. Planning is easy to overlook when you are in the thick of things. But a good plan isn’t about being more organized. Yes, that’s important. But there’s something much bigger at stake.
Why Chambers Need Strategic Planning
Fiduciary Responsibilities of the Board
The chamber board has the duty of care to oversee the chamber. It is expected to show prudence and good business judgment. Being on the board is not a club role. There are legal implications to actions and decisions made on behalf of the chamber.
It’s difficult to believe the board is keeping up with its fiduciary responsibilities if it’s failing to plan just as it is hard to believe someone is fiscally responsible if they do not balance their bank account in some way. If they never look at it, how do they know what’s going on?
Without a strategic plan, it’s a free-for-all and erodes into chaos. The chamber can become the victim of vanity, greed, or neglect. A strategic plan encapsulates the mission, vision, expectations, and direction. It will help you make decisions, guide staff, and create a budget. It is the foundation for all chamber structure and goings-on.
Sets Expectations for Staff
Imagine having a job where you did not know what is expected of you. You had no direction as to what you should prioritize. It would be impossible to know if you were doing a good job if you didn’t have any expectations laid out for you. That would make your job much more difficult than it needs to be.
On the other hand, if you knew exactly what was expected and important, you could prioritize your daily activities to achieve your goals. That’s why a strategic plan is so valuable. With a strategic plan, the staff knows what the board wants and what it has designated as important.
Becomes the Foundation for the Budget
The chamber’s strategic plan is also essential to the creation of a budget. It is impossible to know what you should spend your resources on if you don’t know where you’re going, just like planning for a personal vacation. Going to the nearby town and spending a weekend requires a different budget than going to Europe for a month. You have to know where you’re going and how you’ll get there in order to estimate what you’ll need and how you’ll allocate it.
Your strategic plan tells you where you’re going and what’s needed to get there. You will use the plan to draft your budget. The budget cannot be drafted prior to the plan.
How to Implement Strategic Planning in Your Chamber
In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.~Dwight D. Eisenhower
One of the most critical parts of the strategic plan is the planning itself. Putting together a plan causes the chamber staff and board to take time to think about the chamber proactively. Strategic planning requires deliberate consideration for the chamber’s future and talking through the vision everyone has for it.
But how do you go about putting together a strategic plan?
It’s probably less expensive and cumbersome than you might think but it does require board and staff participation. The planning session will take the better part of a day, plus the write up, and voting on the document.
Bring in a Seasoned Outsider
It is imperative that you bring someone in from the outside to facilitate your strategic planning session. Select a seasoned professional with chamber industry knowledge, not just a non-profit professional.
An outside planner will:
- run the planning session without a conflict of interest or previous personality clash with a board member
- help with the fleshing out of the plan without a hidden agenda or personal benefit
- bring years of experience and industry knowledge
- provide chamber-specific metrics and benchmarks to ensure adequate operations
- make sure everyone’s voice is heard without giving them their way
- be above the political infighting or office politics
Components of a Successful Strategic Planning Session
With your facilitator in place, they’ll lead you through a strategic planning session. You’ll likely want to allot the better part of a day for the planning session alone. Frank Kenny, author, chamber-industry consultant and seasoned strategic planning professional, suggests the following for an effective strategic planning session:
- Visioning Session. Everyone participating in the process will share their vision (or what they believe is possible) for the chamber and community. This vision session will create buy-in for the final plan. People get excited when talking about the future and it’s a great way to energize the audience. They start thinking big.
- Break. Breaks are important throughout the day. They allow people to think and talk about the concepts being discussed in the sessions. Plus, breaks help those involved build relationships. This is important for a board. They must trust each other if they are going to do big things for the chamber and community.
- SWOT Analysis. A SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) discussion can help everyone see the environment for what it is and what the chamber can become. This conversation will help shape the chamber’s unique strategic plan.
- Break. After the SWOT analysis it’s a great time for a break. Again valuable discussion occurs but participants also need time to absorb and think about the SWOT discussion because those points will soon become the foundation for the next step.
- Drafting Strategic Objectives. Effective strategic plans usually contain a limited number (about 3-5) of strategic objectives that will be the basis of chamber decisions and actions over the next 1-3 years. Go through the opportunities compiled in the SWOT analysis and discuss them. Decide which ones align with chamber strengths and weaknesses and have support of the board. Discuss if the threats need to be dealt with. When you have 3-5 strategic objectives, you have the basis of your plan, straight from the board itself (so you are not guessing what each board member wants you to be focused on).
After the strategic planning session, the chamber CEO will take the agreed upon objectives back to the office and flesh out how they will be met. This final document should only be 1-2 pages.
Keep it simple and achievable. It will be presented to the board and the board will vote on it or suggest changes/edits. Finally, it will be up to the staff (and committees) to implement the strategic plan with the board’s high-level oversight.
Share Your Strategic Plan
Your strategic plan should be a forward-facing document. It allows your community to understand the priorities of the chamber. Share it on your website, in your newsletter, as part of your membership materials. Get creative for how you tell people what’s important to the chamber and what contributions you’re making to the community over the next few years.
How is a Strategic Plan Different than a Business Plan?
A strategic plan outlines the chamber’s priorities for the near future. It can cause a community to get excited about what the chamber will accomplish. But it is not the same as a business plan. That’s an internal document created by the CEO that breaks down the strategic plan into concrete and measurable steps.
The board and the chamber staff must work in conjunction to achieve their goals. However, it’s first important to mutually agree on what those goals are. A strategic plan ensures the health of the chamber in meeting its goals in the most efficient way possible.
Here is an example of a well done Chamber Strategic Plan. This chamber used the process discussed above. They created an exceptional public document. Notice that the meat of the document would fit on 2 pages.