30 October 2017

The AAS Strategic Assembly: Gearing Up for Strategy

Kevin Marvel

Kevin Marvel, American Astronomical Society (AAS)

The new AAS Governance structure includes both a Board of Trustees and a Strategic Assembly (SA). While the Board has responsibility for the oversight of the organization as a corporation, the Strategic Assembly’s role is to worry about the long-term strategic direction for the Society. Composed of the Board, the Chairs of our Divisions and the Chairs of our Committees, the Strategic Assembly is positioned to really drive our strategic planning to new levels of impact.

The Strategic Assembly met this October for its first meeting to understand its role and discuss how it will undertake its work. Beginning with its second gathering at the January AAS meeting, the Strategic Assembly will then meet just prior to each meeting of the Society for one day of focused discussion. It has taken on three key tasks going forward. First, it will establish and update over time our strategic plan. Second, it will monitor progress of the Society toward specific goals included in the strategic plan. Third, it will review the projects and programs of the Society to ensure they are aligned with and supportive of our strategic goals and mission.

This last responsibility received a fair bit of focus at the first meeting of the Strategic Assembly. The members of the SA broke up into groups for almost two hours to expand on a basic list of Society activities with the intention of developing a truly comprehensive list of those activities worth tracking and analyzing in greater detail. Prior to the January 2018 meeting of the SA, the members will gauge the impact of each of the 60 or so projects or programs they identified against seven important factors that measure programmatic impact. First, whether the program is aligned with our core mission. Second, whether we execute the program with excellence. Third, whether the program has a broad impact and reaches many people or just a small number. Fourth, whether the program has a deep and significant impact on the people it is meant to serve, no matter how few. Fifth, whether the program fills an important gap for the community the AAS serves that would not be filled or be filled poorly by others. Sixth, whether the program helps build the community we serve as an organization. And finally, whether the program provides leverage in some way, shape, or form to increase the impact of other programs.

After assembling the individual scores from each member of the Strategic Assembly, we will plot the scores against each program's profitability. The resulting two-axis graph allows us to see all of our programs and their relationship to the classic "double bottom line" of non-profit organizations… mission impact and financial impact. Review of the programs in this space will allow the Strategic Assembly to gauge, in a general way, whether a program should be stopped or changed (low impact, low profitability), improved from a financial perspective (high impact, low profitability), improved from an impact perspective (low impact, high profitability), or lauded as a tremendous success (high impact, high profitability). This simple analytical graph, sourced in the well-received book Nonprofit Sustainability, will allow us, over time, to truly understand the scope and interplay of our programs and their alignment with our strategic goals. Unfortunately, although we are a non-profit, we cannot ignore the financial aspects and only look at the impact of our programs. Likewise, we cannot operate as a for-profit business and only pay attention to the financial bottom line. This tool allows us to look at both and discuss each project and program relative to the others in a new way.

As the Strategic Assembly begins its work this January on this programmatic assessment, we will be sure to share with you some of the figures and discussion about our wide array of activities. Over time, such analysis will help us be more efficient and intentional with our expenditures and ensure all we do connects with our goals.

It is an exciting time to be serving the Society and the new governance structure has already revitalized our volunteer leaders and engaged them in new ways, as well as our Executive Office team. We look forward to the ongoing positive impacts of the Governance Task Force’s recommended changes to how we operate and the engaged participation of everyone in our volunteer leadership, from our Committees to our Divisions to the Board of Trustees itself. Everyone has a role to play, and our new system has the potential to help move us to a new level of impact. Stay tuned for the results and, as always, let me know if you have any comments, questions, or suggestions. I welcome all input and promise to respond quickly and completely.