Assuring the Resilience of the Association Model

The association model is resilient only if and when associations continuously adapt to changing requirements. 

Jay Younger, FASAE, managing partner of McKinley Advisors, declared the association model resilient at the American Society of Association Executives Volunteer Leadership Retreat Nov. 19 in Baltimore after recounting past competitive threats. I am sure he would accept my friendly amendment that this is true only if they change. He was sharing data from a recent in-depth analysis of ASAE’s members and future opportunities to grow membership.

ASAE tries to be alert to emerging association priorities to act as an incubator for strategies and solutions. When 125 ASAE volunteer leaders gather it is like a super-charged focus group for discerning the challenges all associations face.  Here are three growing challenges I heard and my next-day reflections on what associations might do.

  1. Volunteer management because volunteers give associations their people power. It was kind of amusing how well our assembly of volunteer leaders confirmed that today’s volunteers are too antsy for outdated structures and expectations. Use our time well, give us meaningful and purposeful work and don’t patronize us with thanks for just showing up.  Volunteer culture is changing. Enough said.
  2. Diversity and inclusion to reflect and benefit from society’s changing demographics. Earlier this month the ASAE listserv community ignited over whether confronting white privilege was an appropriate topic for association discussion.  I can name many associations that have made diversity and inclusion a priority in their visions and strategic plans.  They are willing to confront their current membership’s lack of diversity and work to evolve with the fast-changing face of their profession or field’s workforce. I applaud the eagerness of the ASAE Diversity Executive Leadership Program (DELP) scholars to be full and active partners in helping the rest of us navigate this societal transition. They believe in associations and what they offer everyone’s future.
  3. Anticipatory foresight to plan for and execute change.  Association executives are scrambling to adjust to the changing environments of their members—the jobs they do, even who employs them and wherever their work takes them globally. Associations are paying closer attention to changing knowledge needs and struggling to accelerate how they develop new content and products.  They are real frustrated with their lagging ability to use business analytics and acquire the data systems and mobile technologies to deliver great member experiences anytime, anywhere.

As ASAE reviewed the market research to support a growth strategy, it was easy to default to framing growth in terms of market share. However, I heard volunteers voicing interests that go well beyond how many members ASAE could and should have.  Connecting their various comments, I also heard a desire to succeed in at least two other dimensions of a growth strategy:

What mindshare should we have? Mindshare speaks to the quality and depth of the relationships we have with members and their reliance on us for professional development, knowledge and other services.   

What share of influence do we need to achieve our mission?  Associations advocate for their members’ interests with policymakers and all manner of stakeholders.  In the complex political and market systems we have, individuals and companies count on collective power to be heard. 

There was one more insight from the leadership retreat that still resonates with me. Sheri Jacobs, Avenue M Group and author of the soon-to-be published Art of Membership said associations have to be problem solvers. 

Yes, the association model will remain resilient if we are solving our members’ problems as quickly as they are changing.