You’ve done it: you have just auditioned your a cappella group’s next set of talented voices; you have found a member to volunteer to serve as your group’s treasurer or business manager; you have just released your group’s newest and greatest album. With a plethora of victories and accomplishments in your pocket, the question remains: what next?

It is the ultimate goal of an organization to continually move forward, grow, develop, and stay focused on its path. However, far too often, a cappella groups go through new executive leadership year after year, and it can seem that the ensemble’s trajectory is constantly changing and aimless. One year, you allocate all funding and energy on releasing albums, while the next, you focus solely on developing merch and marketing. While all of these tasks can positively impact the ensemble as a whole, the whiplash of your strategy can leave members of the group divided, confused, and unable to truly decide what initiatives to champion at what time.

While an a cappella group is a performance ensemble, it is oftentimes, too, a business. Many groups are responsible for managing money, budgeting funds for different projects, and looking to expand their activities as a means to grow their reach and exposure. As with any business, the key to keeping an organization afloat, viable, and impactful is strategy. Every move that the organization makes must be carefully orchestrated to slowly inch itself forward towards a set of goals. These goals are supported by budgeting, spending, and time-capital. For example, if the goal of an a cappella group is to release an album by the end of the year, why are we spending $1,500 on new t-shirts? If our goal is to expand our repertoire to include 20 songs this year, why are we accepting four Christmas gigs that completely limit our rehearsal time to four months of holiday songs?

The solution to these problems is a process called strategic planning. Strategic planning is the process of an organization setting long-term goals, defining its overall mission, and working to create achievable steps and plans to accomplish their vision. Strategic planning allows the organization to appropriately respond to opportunities or challenges to consistently keep itself in-line with their overall goals. This prevents the ensemble from getting side-tracked, distracted, aimless, and reckless with its spending. There are four primary steps to successfully executing a strategic plan.

STEP 1: Evaluation and Diagnosing

In order to set goals and problem-solve, an organization must first fully understand their current context. This process involves large-group discussions in which different stakeholders brainstorm and share their current understanding of the group’s needs, strengths, and opportunities for growth. For example, a collegiate group may find that they are repeating the same four songs over and over again at different gigs. A semi-professional group may discover that they are quickly on the trajectory to run out of money by the end of the year, due to massive spending on digital advertising and website fees. A helpful tool that ensembles, businesses, and nonprofits use is the SWOT Analysis. A SWOT Analysis is an internal-external review tool that helps the group examine their strengths and growth areas. (More information about a SWOT Analysis can be found here.) The Evaluation and Diagnosing conversation should also include a time for dreaming and visioning. What do your members see as an ideal and perfect future? What big ideas do your stakeholders see for the group’s future?

STEP 2: Goal-Setting and Visioning

Once your members have had a chance to contribute their thoughts, it is time to consolidate them to paper. Every strategic plan should be guided by the future. To appropriately strategize, the organization must first establish a vision. Based on the input from your members and executive board, ask yourself:

Where do we want the group to be in five years? What is our overall dream for a perfect future for the group?

Use present-tense language and be very clear about what the best version of your group appears to be. For example: “Treble Voices has three albums released to the public. We have at least $10,000 in our savings account, and we have over 3000 likes on our social media page.” The clearer the vision, the better the strategic planning process will be. Remember: start with the end in mind. Take this time to truly dream big and set an exciting train in motion.

STEP 3: Planning and Aligning

Now that you have a clear future on paper, it is time to work backwards. From this point forward, every gig, rehearsal, swipe of the business credit card, and email should directly and clearly support the newly created vision for the group. No more extraneous expenses or wasted events.

To begin the specific planning process, begin to complete the visioning process in reverse. Start with the vision statement created in step two. Then, dream your way back in time:

  • What does our group look like one year from now?
  • What does our group look like six months from now?
  • What does our group look like one month from now?
  • What does our group look like one week from now?

As your visioning gets closer and closer to the present, specific actions, tasks, and goals will reveal themselves. For example, if Treble Voices wants 3,000 likes in five years, then at the one-year mark, the group should have around 500. If Treble Voices only have 100 likes right now, what can they do this year to increase their social media presence? Maybe some of their budget should be allocated to creating a Facebook ad or printing flyers for around campus. If Treble Voices really wants to focus on growing their social media presence, maybe they also need to designate a social media manager and photographer.

From this example, the specific steps needed to propel the group forward emerge naturally from the planning process. At this point, the group can begin developing a specific set of (1) weekly, (2) monthly, and (3) quarterly goals that are supported by SMART tasks assigned to specific people or committees. Remember, SMART goals are specific, measureable, attainable, realistic, and time-sensitive. (More information on setting SMART tasks can be found here.) For example, Treble Voices sets a SMART goal to have thirty social media flyers posted around campus by the 29th of the month. They designate their new marketing manager, Janelle, to be in charge of designing and posting the flyers.

This process is the most tedious and grueling, but it is the single most significant part of strategic planning. This process assures that the group’s money, time, and energy are spent only on tasks that will help them accomplish their overall goals for the future. If Treble Voices have a yearly income of $2,000 from their events, how much should they set aside for social media marketing? Are they over-spending on hiring choreographers for ICCA in proportion to their other goals? Are they accepting too few or too many gigs?

STEP 4: Tracking and Adjusting

Now that your organization has set SMART goals that support a pathway to an ideal future, it is important the ensemble systematically checks, evaluates, tracks, and adjusts these goals as time moves forward. It is recommended that the group formally meets to discuss their progress at least once a quarter, though preferably, once a month. For example, Treble Voices decides to start one rehearsal thirty minutes earlier each month to formally discuss business and evaluate their goals and plans.

At these check-in meetings, the group should first begin by re-examining their overall vision statement; their dream future scenario. Then, working backwards year to month to week, the group should check back in with their goals, tasks, and progress. Do the steps the group first created still seem realistic? Has the overall trajectory of the ensemble changed? Do we need to catch our new President or members up on the group’s vision? This reflection process makes sure that the group does not haphazardly make decisions with their time and money from one month to the next. Additionally, it makes sure that there is continuity in the ensemble’s vision and activities as the group’s membership shifts.

Each meeting should then solely focus on SMART tasks assigned to group members and committees. These follow-ups make sure that group members are held accountable. Did Janelle post the flyers around campus this month? Erika, what’s the status on setting up a GoFundMe for our newest EP? Did we meet the one-month vision we set at our visioning meeting? If we did, what’s our new one-month goal? If we did not, what new tasks or actions should we establish this month to overcome the obstacles from the last? While this process may seem never-ending, it is assuredly a clear, simple, and task-driven journey for group’s to meet their loftiest dreams.

While strategic planning may seem overly business-oriented or foreign to a cappella groups, it is a proven methodology for organizations to be more successful. Countless professional groups and nonprofit arts organizations use yearly and quarterly strategic planning cycles to accomplish new feats within their operations, and I am hopeful that this process will positively benefit your group, as well!