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One thing we find with associations is that the leadership doesn’t necessarily view the association as a business. At SBI, we believe that associations should have a business perspective.

Traditionally, professional associations are established as nonprofits. That doesn’t mean they (a) are mandated to do charitable work or (b) they have to spend all their money by year-end. Neither is the case.

“We want to make the best use of clients’ money so that their resources generate the best ROI,” says SBI Association Executive Andrew Estep. “Sustaining the long-term life of an association requires business strategies like standardized, efficient systems and processes that take care of the daily business and make sure the finances, membership, events, and other key agendas are addressed.”

Here are ways you can infuse a nonprofit association with for-profit business practices:

  • Prioritize and Focus: If you have a strategic plan, choose three top goals on which to work, allowing the others to become secondary goals. For example: Invest in staff resources that align with your best revenue-generating activities, such as event planning, marketing, and member recruitment.
  • Generate Profits: Making a profit at the end of the year is not to be avoided. That profit can be deployed to build healthy, rainy-day reserves. It can fill your organization’s pockets to be reinvested in programs and initiatives that benefit members. Curbing expenses is not the only way to generate profit. Rather, you can achieve profit through revenue growth, which is healthier.
  • Define Growth: There are several ways to measure growth in an organization – through membership, revenue, programming, and other initiatives. But the bottom line is that growing through financial stability will ultimately allow growth in other areas, including achieving an association’s mission.


Strategic Plans and Business Plans are different. Both are useful tools, and we’ll define SBI’s interpretation of them here:

Business Plans are usually written around market goals, finances, or securing capital. They can be “living documents” that evolve and change as your organization matures.

Strategic Plans are designed to advance the organization’s purpose. Within the Strategic Plan are individual, manageable pieces that can be addressed with specific tasks and activities over a finite time period.

According to Michele Reeder, an SBI Association Executive, “the hardest part of a strategic plan is to figure out what you want the world to look like by a certain date, say in 24 months. Boards can flip so your new board is likely to have a new executive committee, so that 24 month period is a good timeline for a strategic plan.”

Reeder advises boards working on strategic plans to identify metrics associated with each initiative. “That way you know whether you’ve reached the goal line or not,” she says.

“For example, how do you know an event is a success? Some members might say, ‘people loved it; the food was great.’ But, the real measure of success is if you have a defined goal, such as target attendance or revenue.”

METRIC MEASURES (Strategic and Tactical)

Strategic Plans can be overly ambitious, with lofty goals that are impossible to achieve, given the organization’s time, resources, and personnel.

“When a president comes in, he or she probably has 10 goals to achieve. I suggest choosing two of the top issues you’re most passionate about and driving as hard as possible to achieve them. “I call this the ‘rational, reasonable, and attainable’ approach,” Reeder says.

Each Strategic Plan is supported by a Tactical Plan. For example, if the Strategic Plans’ goal is membership retention, create a one-year initiative that is measured by performing better than the association average for membership retention. “Let’s say we want to achieve 95% retention,” she explains. “We know if we blow it, we’ll still do better than the 70% we have now.”

The Tactical Plan has related owners and tasks. For the membership goal noted above, the tactic may be to deploy each board member to make personal phone calls to 30 members.

Tactical Plans can also be assigned to committees. Staff or the Executive Director can provide support, Reeder adds. “For example, we monitor and track membership trends to make sure everyone has renewed. And we can work with committee chairs and the board to make sure they have the member lists and other information they need to make those calls.”

Remember, all organizations have finite resources. Once a Strategic Plan’s goal is met for the year, it’s okay to cease devoting time or energy to it and shift instead to another goal in the plan.

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