Driven by consumers and government regulators, the Washington State tree fruit industry is adapting and responding to market and nonmarket forces. As a result, the Washington State Horticultural Association must also be proactive in order to be effective in representing the tree fruit industry. Even after 100 years of representing growers and shippers, the association has to plan ahead to ensure that it meets the needs of a diverse and productive industry.

The Hort Association manages its course of action, like many for-profit businesses, based on a strategic plan. Strategic planning is one business practice that is necessary to ensure that an organization remains dynamic, productive, and successful. For a nonprofit organization that relies on voluntary dues, there is no substitute for strategic planning, providing a solid foundation and a sense of purpose.

With that in mind, the board of directors is updating the association’s five-year strategic plan. The last update was seven years ago. In that time span, the board and staff have used the plan to guide activities and decisions. The framework of the 2000 Strategic Plan led to development and implementation of a number of key industry initiatives:

• Improve and enhance communication to association members and other key groups.

Based on this objective, the organization launched two electronic communication tools for the industry: Hort Headlines and Capitol View. Today, the reach of Hort Headlines and Capitol View extends beyond the tree fruit industry, reaching key legislators, state agency officials, and even the media.

• Continue to strengthen the educational component of the annual meeting, targeting key issues such as profitability and technology.

The annual meeting serves a number of key functions for the industry and the organization. For the association, it remains a critical fundraising mechanism, driving revenues from memberships, registrations, and corporate sponsorships. The annual meeting also serves as a valuable educational tool for the industry, keeping the industry competitive. The annual meeting planning committee continues to develop a diverse and meaningful program. The association has stretched its resources to tap a broad and diverse group of speakers to stimulate discussion and opportunities for economic growth.

• Streamline and enhance the association’s government affairs program as it pertains to statewide issues.

The Hort Association has invested a considerable amount of time and energy to develop an effective government affairs program. Over the last five years, it has focused on expanding the scope of its program to fill gaps in key statewide areas and issues, specifically labor issues and agency regulations. The funding for this new effort was generated by industry investors who saw the value of such work and were willing to write checks to fund this work directly. The so-called "pay-to-play" program, though only a few years old, has had a huge impact on a number of labor-related issues, including the development of a workable heat stress rule and protecting industry access to farm labor contractors. The association’s government affairs program—both the legislative and regulatory work—is successful due to industry partnerships that include Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association, Wenatchee Valley Traffic Association, Washington Growers Clearing House Association, and a number of grower-shipper companies.

To date, development of the 2007 strategic plan has involved a thorough review and discussion of the organization’s strengths and weaknesses. Over the next two months, the board will outline a new strategic plan to address the next five-year period.

One critical area for the organization to tackle is identifying the right mix of membership categories to better stabilize the organization’s revenue stream from year to year. The association generates most of its funding from voluntary membership dues. It remains the largest tree fruit organization with the greatest diversity of membership, from the largest grower-packer-marketer to the smallest producer. Nevertheless, the voluntary dues-based system has its limiting factors. Borrowing from Winston Churchill’s take on democracy, the voluntary
dues-based system is the worst form except for all of the others that have been tried.

Still, the Hort Association is committed to the voluntary dues-based system. This commitment is not based solely on tradition. The system keeps the organization lean and responsive to immediate industry needs. The restructuring, in part, will be an attempt to provide greater consistency in generating revenues from year to year to improve project planning and more responsive implementation. In the end, the system must provide consistent revenues while strengthening the association’s diverse membership base.

A common complaint about strategic plans is the dust that most plans collect from resting on a shelf. In the end, a strategic plan is only as effective as the effort made to implement its objectives. The Hort board has a strong track record of developing thoughtful strategic plans and then putting them to work on behalf of the industry.