What Does Strategy Mean for Rowing Organizations?

Rowing organizations are like any other organization. They want to thrive and be successful. They want to enhance the experience of their membership. They want to keep their facilities and equipment up to date. At the very least, they want to ensure that new membership occurs at the same rate that old members move on. The sustainability of this effort requires a long term strategy, thinking 5, 10, 20 even 50 years ahead of what might become of the organization long after the current constituents are all gone. Does your rowing organization have a long term strategy in place? If no, why not?

Why not can often be answered by examining the organizational structure. Most rowing organizations are non-profit, so they are frequently led by an all-volunteer board of directors. If even involved beyond minimal oversight of the checkbook, directors typically have one or two year terms, at which point they either shift roles or turn over entirely. This often makes it challenging to maintain consistency on mission, policy, and long term strategy. Organizations are also typically staffed by part time (and transient) coaches and administrators. Transient staff invariably are looking to make a substantial but short-term impact. These tactical actions function as a regular destabilizing force to the organization.

A third destabilizing aspect of many rowing organizations are the members themselves: they keep leaving. They grow up and move out, move on, graduate, get tired, find another activity, change jobs, etc. When they do leave, they take a small part of the organization with them. Turn over enough members, the culture can shift dramatically. While it can’t be helped if someone graduates or moves out of town, not considering retention as a strategic priority is a significant oversight. Not only do organizations spend little effort or consideration of retention, but they do little to maintain contact with those they have lost. Show me a rowing organization without an endowment, and I’ll show you a group of disconnected alumni/past members that still retain fond memories and a passion to relive just a single moment of it.

What pervades most rowing organizations then is an inconsistency of policies, prosperity, leadership and vision. It leans into a self-perpetuated cycle of short sighted decision-making. It is akin to planning a 2000 meter race by stopping after every 100 meters, considering what to do for the next 11-12 strokes, and starting again. If you consider however, that the competition is running the exact same kind of stop-start race plan, it doesn’t stand out so much. It begs the question then, could a long term strategy be a competitive differentiator?

Even more importantly, it shines a light on yet another reason why rowing lags so far behind other sports in awareness and marketability.

How then, would a rowing organization move to build and implement a strategic vision, given all these constraints? It doesn’t require a major infrastructure shift, and you do not need to come up with a million dollar plus endowment to ensure coach and staff retention. Nor do you need to lock in your members for life to ensure they never leave. The organization simply needs to have the self-awareness that their infrastructure is dynamic, that people are going to turn over, and the organizational environment 50 years from now will not be the same as is today.

Here are five suggested assumptions for considering a long term strategy for your rowing organization:

  1. Assume 50% turnover of all constituents and principals every five years, 60% every ten years, and 90% every 20 years.

  2. Assume no coach is going to stay longer than 2 years, no matter how much you pay them. That tenure can extend when you get within the 90th percentile of compensation packages.

  3. A “winning all the time” strategy is neither sustainable nor is it in the best long term interest of the club.

  4. The longest surviving policies are those that 100% of the membership agrees on from the onset.

  5. Traditions can evolve and be enhanced. The membership to come does not have to have the EXACT same kind of experience as your current membership.

  6. Your SWOTs (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) today may not be your SWOTs next year or even tomorrow.

Notice that I did not suggest what the long term goals of the club should be. Some collegiate programs have an obvious mandate to win championships. A new, local club may have a simple mission to get more people out on the water. A large club may have the goal to provide the best community experience for rowing in the area. Regardless of the goal, the preceding assumptions will help define your strategy.

Looking for further insight into how to start planning your organization’s long term strategy? I can help you set goals, and put together a strategic plan to implement them. Reach out to and let's have a conversation!

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