Recently, NIRSA’s Strategic Planning Task Force came together in Seattle, WA to continue their work assembling the Association’s next strategic plan.

“Arrive curious. Leave inspired.”

In keeping with their commitment to the learning journey and ‘thinking outside the box,’ the group kicked off their time together with a tour of the Seattle Public Library, which has been described as “exhilarating but also functional.” The Task Force continued to leverage the advantages of their meeting location the following day when, over lunch, they toured the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor’s Center. The center, which highlights work being done around the world to help people live healthy, productive lives, made good on its tagline: “Arrive curious. Leave inspired.”

The Task Force took full advantage of not only the local inspiration but also their valuable face-to-face time together. The diverse group didn’t all know each other before embarking on this project; however, the conversations around the meeting room table were greatly enriched by each person bringing their unique lens, questions, and experience to the discussion.

Task force co-chairs led the group in exercises and dialogue on the concept of strategic thinking. The group examined design thinking—how we learn from people, find patterns, define design principles, make those principles tangible, and (the groups’ favorite) iterate relentlessly—and discussed the Harvard Business Review’s steps of know, think, speak, and act in building one’s strategic skills. They discussed what it meant to focus on being better rather than right. Throughout, dialogue among the group was robust.

Consultant Ted Sarvata was also able to join the group in Seattle and facilitated an engaging day of strategic thinking exercises as well as introducing the Task Force members to the procedural nuts and bolts of taking the plan from ideas and imaginings to concrete and executable steps.

In particular, the group focused on defining NIRSA’s ‘core customer’ (although it was agreed this concept was a better fit when articulated as ‘who we serve’) and NIRSA’s brand promise. Brand promise was explained as a promise you cannot yet fulfill but intend to make happen in the future.

Ted will join the group again at their next meeting—to be held November 29 to December 1 in Washington D.C.—where the focus will be drafting the strategic plan.

Listening to the membership

From the beginning of the planning process, the Task Force has carefully considered how to most effectively engage the diverse voices of NIRSA’s membership. A significant amount of time at the Seattle meeting was reserved for discussion of the environmental scanning work that has been completed so far.

Member survey—phase one

As previously announced, NIRSA is working with Association Labs to gather data from NIRSA members by presenting each of them with at least one opportunity to give input during the strategic planning process. Association Labs will also be analyzing that data and providing in-depth, unbiased reports back to the Task Force.

The first phase of the survey was completed just before the Seattle Task Force meeting. A worksheet survey was sent to 26 NIRSA members (who were not already involved in the process as strategic or accountability partners). To reflect the diversity of the Association, those 26 members were spread throughout each region, represented small and large institutions as well as public and private, reported along different departmental lines, and were at different levels of career experience.

In typical NIRSA fashion, those surveyed were ready to lean in and participate. From the 26 surveys sent out, Association Labs reported 22 responses—a response rate far surpassing their benchmark expectations!

The open-ended questions allowed Association Labs to gather qualitative data. That data, discussed in depth with the Task Force, will help shape the questions Association Labs puts into the next survey, which will be sent to all NIRSA members in early November. The all-member survey will provide the quantitative data that Association Labs will analyze and present to the Task Force at their November 29 in-person meeting.

Strategic Partners and Accountability Partners

In an effort to gather in-depth feedback from various key segments of NIRSA’s membership, each Task Force member has been serving as a liaison to one of the Strategic Partner groups. Earlier this fall, each group met via video or teleconference to be introduced to the process and begin the work of environmental scanning.

The liaisons each asked their group for feedback on several of the common questions being used by the Task Force. The common questions ranged from “What challenges do you see coming for the profession?” to “What is the ‘secret sauce’ that sets NIRSA apart?” to “What should NIRSA’s Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) be?”

During the meeting, Task Force members shared their group’s responses to the questions asked, and they also pulled out common themes they heard. The Task Force as a group was then able to compare which themes were coming up most frequently, which themes were heard most loudly among a certain segment of membership, and which themes were unique to one particular subset of members. Before the Task Force’s next face-to-face meeting, they will convene with the groups again and ask them more of these common questions to refine the planning work.

Accountability Partner groups were also asked several of these common questions and their feedback was shared during this meeting as well. These groups’ feedback will continue to be essential as the plan enters its early drafting stage. Their responsibility emphasizes ground-truthing the ideas through the lenses of achievability and fiscal responsibility.

Regional conferences

While the Task Force was meeting in Seattle, NIRSA regional conferences were kicking off in Minneapolis!

Region V members gathered at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and many of them choose to attend a session focused on this strategic planning process. NIRSA Board member David Davenport and Member Network Chair Jess Gentry moderated the process, took questions, and then utilized the rest of the time to ask attendees several of the common, environmental scanning questions.

Each fall regional conference—and many of the state workshops in Region III—will have a similar session facilitated by either a Task Force member or a NIRSA Board member. The hope is that these questions extend in-depth dialogue and surface ideas or concerns that might not have been heard otherwise. We’re excited to capture a uniquely regional perspective at each event as well as to hear from members who might not yet be engaged in the strategic planning process through other avenues.

All of the feedback gathered from the regional conferences will be reviewed by the Task Force at the next face-to-face meeting in Washington D.C. November 29 to December 1. So, seek us out at your regional event—we can’t wait to add your voice to our work!

We want to hear from you!

Continue to watch the NIRSA news and NIRSA social media for updates on the strategic planning process and reminders about how you can take advantage of the feedback opportunities provided. However, you can always share your thoughts and ideas with a member of the Strategic Planning Task Force or our partner groups. We hope to hear from you!

  • For more information on NIRSA’s strategic planning process, please contact NIRSA Director of Advocacy & Strategic Partnerships Erin O’Sullivan.

Leah Hall Dorothy is currently Director of Recreational Sports at Oregon State University and serves as President Elect on the NIRSA Board of Directors. Erin O'Sullivan is currently NIRSA Director of Advocacy & Strategic Partnerships. Don Stenta is currently Director of Student Life Recreational Sports at The Ohio State University. Pam Watts is the Executive Director of NIRSA.