Beyond Reputation and Competency: Valuing Associations for Character Development

Professional and trade associations could find their members are becoming less dependent on their credentials and continuing education to establish who they are and what they know, yet surprisingly they could become even more dependent on associations to shape their character.

Through affiliation, associations help their members develop an identity in at least three ways: reputation, competency and character.  When we talk about the value associations provide, we rarely analyze that value in terms of these aspects of identity.  

Members can build reputation through networking, volunteering, listings in directories and referrals. They expect their associations to work on their collective behalf in establishing, protecting and polishing a public image. But in our multi-channel digital world, they have lots of marketing and social media alternatives to get these same jobs done.  And associations that can’t perform these jobs as well as the alternatives are sweating social media as a threat. Helping members secure their reputation no longer delivers enough uncontested value to create a lifetime member.

Almost all professional membership associations and many trade associations build their value around helping members gain competency through knowledge and learning. Associations credential individuals and businesses as fit for service.  An American Society of Association Executives Foundation 2011 research survey into credentialing confirmed what many of us suspected. Credentialing programs increase member loyalty, provide a sense of achievement, and serve as recognition and reward for performing to standards, among other benefits.

Yet competency as a member value is being challenged. No association is the only source of continuing education for its field;  among the new competitors for mindshare are businesses who are practicing content marketing, and universities and others who are experimenting with MOOCs. And microcredentialing or badging, especially when it is backed up by valid proof of completion, could undermine the sanctity of long-established and prestigious credentials. When it becomes as simple as linking from someone’s LinkedIn profile to a full accounting of what a badge represents, employers could decide these alternatives are good enough solutions.  Employers have never been as sold on credentials as proof of competency as associations are.

This brings us to character, and this forecast that this might offer associations a more promising future.   We develop our character through interaction with others in our families and communities.   When veteran association leaders talk about developing more leaders in their profession or industry, they are really longing for people who have the judgment and integrity to practice at the highest levels of their discipline. They want more people who exemplify the highest calling in their codes of ethics, who are willing to go beyond compliance and self-interest to act in truly noble ways.   

What would an association do and how would its volunteers act if building character became their business?  What kind of authentic learning experiences would they offer that could deepen the sense of community and connection for a lifetime?  Now this is a membership business model for the future worth contemplating.