Plan to Plan
Question: Q: A member of my association’s board has been arguing for some time that we should develop a strategic plan for our community. The board is split. Some think it’s a good idea while others think it’s a waste of time and resources. Can you give us some advice? Do community associations need a strategic plan? If so, what should it cover and how should we go about developing it? Is this something we can do ourselves?
Answer: A: If you walked into a restaurant with a table reserved for community associations that have strategic plans, you wouldn’t have much trouble finding a seat. Very few boards have made strategic planning a priority, which is unfortunate, because most would probably benefit from it.
Pat Brawley, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, owner of Central Management & Consulting Services LLC, has been preaching the importance of strategic planning for years. And she understands why so few boards are willing to undertake it.
“They have a hard time getting out of the trenches so they can step back and think about their communities in a more global way,” she says. Strategic planning requires board members to get out of their firefighting mode and think more broadly and longer term about the community and its needs. That’s not easy, Brawley acknowledges, but she thinks it’s well worth the effort.
A major benefit of the planning process, Brawley believes, is the focus and discipline it creates. A well-conceived strategic plan will identify the board’s priorities and create a checklist against which to measure its performance. This can help the board focus on its goals so it doesn’t get bogged down in what she terms the “miscellany” that might distract them.
The board can probably develop a plan on its own (CAI’s “Best Practices Guide to Strategic Planning” provides a detailed description of the process), but if you’ve never gone through a strategic planning exercise, you’d be well advised to hire someone (with expertise in community association planning) to facilitate the process. And if you have developed a strategic plan in the past, you will understand why you need someone to help you.
You should start by developing a mission statement defining the board’s purpose and a vision statement describing where the board wants the community to be in the future, Brawley suggests. The two statements combined should specify “who we are, what we do, where we are as a community, where we want to be, and how we’re going to get there,” she explains.
The next step in the planning process is a SWOT analysis, which identifies the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats the association is facing. This analysis will highlight the issues the board needs to focus on and help define the goals and priorities it wants to set.
Strategic planning isn’t the same as reserve planning, Brawley emphasizes, although they’re related. For example, where the reserve plan may indicate the roof will have to be replaced within the next 10-15 years, a strategic plan would determine well in advance how that project will be funded, creating a blueprint the board would use to guide the budget process to achieve the funding goal.
Your plan should have both short- and long-term components, Brawley says. But you don’t want to try to project too far into the future. Three to five years is probably about as far ahead as you want to try to see.
You can begin the strategic planning process any time, but a major transition — the election of new board members or the replacement of a management company — is ideal, Brawley believes. New board members (as well as existing ones) will benefit from the group discussion of priorities, while the planning exercise will force a board seeking a new manager to think carefully about the community’s management needs.
You indicated that board members are divided on the merits of strategic planning, and that could be cause for some concern. For the planning process to be successful, Brawley cautions, most board members, and preferably all of them, must buy into it, and they must be committed to implementing and updating the plan they create.
A strategic plan that gathers dust on a shelf will turn out to be the waste of time the board members who oppose your plan are contending that it will be.