Finding Association Profitability in Future Markets

Corporations practicing foresight are better able to identify markets of the future that improve their profitability and sustainability amid changing industry conditions.

This conclusion from a 2018 longitudinal study of multinational corporations (Rohrbeck and Gordon) also has relevance for associations and nonprofits.  As one association executive told me, all associations are looking for “the Holy Grail of revenue and it sits out there somewhere in a combination of factors in the future”. 

Vigilant organizations, as defined in this research, “achieve superior positions in markets of the future.”  Key findings in this corporate foresight research are instructive for associations working to establish a culture of foresight.

  • 77% of the study firms had mature scanning functions BUT…”Paradoxically, we see at the same time a decreased ability to interpret and understand key drivers of change.” Do we need additional evidence that trends reports are insufficient for understanding the future? You need deep analysis of the implications and careful study of key uncertainties and alternative futures to set strategy and make informed decisions. This insight is central to the design of ASAE ForesightWorks.
  • Organizations should “prospect systematically to anticipate tipping points of important or revolutionary change in their industry”.  Rate of change and tipping points do matter. Associations that pursue ideas too far ahead of their time can leave essential members and customers behind and lose money on the bleeding edge. However, failing to anticipate revolutionary change may be the quickest way to become irrelevant.
  • Outperfomers “probe into new markets with dedicated budgets and accelerator units to learn, and where possibly, shape the rules of the game in future industries”. Associations that innovate and experiment are more likely to create their own markets of the future. This requires dedicated funding and initiatives to test potential opportunities. 
  • Build “a shared futures outlook among the decision makers which permits unified strategic action”. The researchers explain why strategy development informed by foresight works better for corporations. Likewise, foresight helps association decision makers develop a multidimensional awareness of changing conditions that empowers them to be quick and flexible in pursuing opportunities.  When the volunteer leaders and staff understand important change drivers and their implications, they are better prepared to act as one organization. 

While we don’t yet have similar research to determine whether associations that practice foresight are more profitable, this corporate research does point to what effective foresight practices can accomplish: deeper analysis and understanding of the drivers of change; better timed and more effective innovation efforts; and greater readiness to take unified strategic action. These are outcomes every association can value however reluctant they may be to emulate businesses in seeking profitability.