AUX Blog

A Comprehensive Guide to Strategic Planning for CUs, with Partner Kathy Darwin

October 23, 2019

Has strategic planning been on your mind lately? Maybe you’ve already begun your planning process (lucky!) We wanted to share this in-depth, complimentary resource from our strategic planning partner, Kathy Darwin. As the only credit union-centric planner in the country, Darwin knows a thing or two about making your planning process as smooth and successful as possible. Combine her knowledge with Malcolm Badridge Judge and long-time CU facilitator John Molenda – who is also featured in the paper – and you have quite the strategic planning resource. Together, Darwin and Molenda have facilitated and moderated nearly 100 credit union strategic planning sessions!\

Darwin tells me that strategic planning is often considered a 4th quarter activity and yet some of the most successful planning is done 1st and 2nd quarter in the year.  “Imagine conducting a planning session that is not driven by the development of next year’s budget but rather open, innovative conversation. I encourage my clients to mix-up their dates for annual strategic planning – if you have always held your planning session the 4th quarter move it to the 2nd quarter,” suggests Darwin. “The other advantage to 1st and 2nd quarterbacked planning is your team will be in the planning mode – we tend to be more energized early in the year and a planning session is a great way to channel that energy.”

Below is a preview of the paper. If you like what you see, feel free to download the full guide via the button at the bottom. Happy Planning Season!

Strategic planning can be challenging for even the most seasoned of credit union executives. So many moving parts and unique personalities create a truly consuming process, often producing murky results, grumbling staff, and goals that fizzle by mid-year. This whitepaper dives deeply into 10 specific tips on how to improve your planning process, complete with questions and real-world examples, from two vastly experienced credit union veterans. The goal of this whitepaper is to provide a thorough resource on how to make your credit union’s planning session successful, your goals lasting, and your organization stronger.

In this whitepaper, we cover many topics, including:

1. Understanding the real results of your planning sessions
2. Interacting with the right people during the planning process
3. Setting the right amount of goals and action items
4. Utilizing an outside planner
5. Allowing everyone in the room to have a voice


Known as one of the nation’s top credit union strategic planners, Kathy Darwin has been helping organizations with their strategic planning processes for over 17 years. For this whitepaper, Darwin sat down with good friend John Molenda, Chief Administrative Officer at HawaiiUSA Credit Union and former Executive Vice President of Del Norte Credit Union. Molenda transformed Del Norte into one of the best financial institutions in the region. Along with his credit union experience, Molenda is one of just 12 Malcolm Baldridge Award judges in the nation. The prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award recognizes U.S. organizations in the business, health care, education, nonprofit, and cybersecurity sectors for performance excellence, administered through the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Phase One: General Tips for Your Strategic Planning Process


Credit unions often go through a strategic planning process with a document that merely dictates what they are supposed to do during the year, with no measurement of the improvements gained by working through objectives. Molenda explained, “We tend to measure the results of a strategic plan by whether we get action items done. The results of your strategic plan have more to do with measuring whether you improved those big picture strategic initiatives/objectives that you identified through the planning process.”

Darwin recommends that prior to your strategic planning workshop, take time to think about:

1. What sets you apart from your competition and why?
2. How do you get better at what sets you apart?
3. What motivates you to be better?
4. Is your desired future state still relevant? Is it big enough?

Look at your plan with an inquisitive lens. If one of your strategic objectives is to improve the culture of the organization, then what are those associated results? Were you actually effective in improving the culture of your organization? Molenda said, “It’s not just about ticking off action items. It’s about moving the results associated with those strategic objectives. Let’s say my credit union had 10 action items to improve the culture of the organization. If we completed all ten items, but we didn’t move the culture forward, then the process needs to be revamped.”

Ask yourself these questions:
1. What results did we achieve?
2. How do those results relate to culture?
3. What can I learn from the results I did achieve?
4. How do we prioritize the action items we have for the next year?


Molenda cautions against change with no real purpose and warned that, “Changes are not necessarily improvements.” First, take a look at all results and ask how you can make them even better. Then head back into the process improvements that you believe will drive better results. This technique leads to

changes that can have a bigger chance to be real improvements. Continue to ask yourself, “What can we do differently?” and take action. This can yield different results as you iterate.

Darwin sees the process of strategic planning is an invitation to visualize where you want your organization to go and what you can do better to allow yourself to get there. Planning is not about change. Planning requires that you use your current results as a source of truth for improvement and growth. Look at your trends over the last three to five years and evaluate how you can improve on your greatest successes. Pick a timeframe in the future and prepare for your next planning workshop by visualizing that future.

Ask yourself these questions:
1. What will that future look like, including things like products, assets, and demographics?
2. Who will you be working with?
3. When will you know you’ve reached future goals successfully?
4. How will you feel when you have achieved these goals?

Molenda discussed his credit union’s frustrating and inconsistent experience in receiving recognition such as the coveted Best of Santa Fe and Best Places to Work. “We thought we were great. The next year, we didn’t get it. The year after that, we didn’t get it. Why? We were just doing things differently with no real reason and we thought we were better than we really were. There was no focus on consistency early on and consequently, our results were random,” explained Molenda. Del Norte CU shifted their focus to the culture of the organization, and have received Best Place to Work and many different Best of Santa Fe Awards consistently in recent years. In fact, Del Norte was the only organization to have ever received three #1 Best of Santa Fe in different categories in a single year. Molenda says, “The consistency of our results is an outcome of the work that we’ve done with Kathy and being able to go through a solid strategic planning process.

Interested in reading the whole paper? (it’s free of course!) Click below to go to the download page.

We want to know! What topics do you want to see in newsletter? What would you like to learn more about? What resources do you wish you had? Email your marketing friend Alicia at to let her know what resources/topics you want in 2020!

Related Blog Posts