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March 23, 2018

Considering the Future Vitality of Associations

Recently, I attended the annual CEO Meeting organized by the Council of Engineering and Scientific Society Executives (CESSE). The theme of the meeting focused on the concept of how associations will look tomorrow based on today’s decisions. I had a chance to connect with many long-term friends, reflect and examine current narratives, and collectively look forward to what’s beyond the horizon.

A key pattern I observed over the course of the weekend is that associations are, for the most part, asking the same questions about the future:

  • How can associations simultaneously meet the needs of today’s members, while preparing to serve the needs of future members? How can your current operations and product models meet the demands of the moment, while ensuring that you can identify and meet the demands that are not yet on your radar?
  • How do you create the institutional agility to grow with your customers and address the distinct needs of market segments through the adaptation of programs, services and experiences, all while maintaining your identity, brand and, most significantly, your purpose?

The short answer is that your success in addressing these challenges all begins with how you and your board approach them.

Your association stands for something. Let that guide you.

Associations are capital-abundant, resource-rich and inherently driven by values—a significant strength in an era in which brands and businesses that stand for something are outperforming their competition.

Like most things in life, once something is built, the hard work thereafter lies in maintaining its purpose. While you may be succeeding as a pillar in your respective industries, a focus on this purpose must remain consistent. So, before your association can prepare for the future, you must be living and embodying your foundational beliefs as captured in your mission, vision and values. This sends a message to members, current and prospective, that you are an authentic, reliable and credible organization. Reaching members through programs and benefits will only go so far without a distinct foundation for which an association bases such programs and benefits.

The organization’s strategic foundation: mission, vision, and values serve as a guide post during your association’s growth phases and should continue to do so during market changes. It is through these elements that you have the ability to connect with your members on a deeper level.

Create a benefit that lasts

Creating a “forever benefit,” a concept explored by Robbie Kellman Baxter in The Membership Economy, is an effective way for your association to set a benchmark for which to come back to and reevaluate long-term progress as market demand changes.

Once an association establishes an ongoing benefit that has the potential to meet the needs of both longstanding and new members, they can ask, “what’s next?” less frequently and instead put their energy into the necessary challenge of ensuring that this benefit has a high value throughout transformations of the ever-evolving marketplace.

Filter out the signal from the noise

With foundational beliefs and a “forever benefit” in mind, associations must strive to interpret signals from shifting trends and their members’ values while filtering out the noise of the marketplace.

Basing the performance and goals of your association on your member count and the number of attendees at your conferences is beneficial. But focusing too intently on these lag indicators might mean that you are overlooking data that can effectively track your progress and set you on a better path forward. Focusing also on lead indicators, those antecedents of meaningful changes in customer behavior, holds promise for those associations who are able to harness their data to effectively to help inform a preferred future.

With so many different data points available at our fingertips, it’s important to not lose sight of those that are most important to your association and the needs of its members. Working to build your capacity to separate “signal from noise” will help both your staff and elected leadership avoid costly distractions.

Adapt to generational marketplace changes

Once you truly understand your “forever benefit” and how it aligns with your association’s mission and values, you must take steps to stay ahead – or at least on pace with – the change curve. After all, there’s little value in knowing your purpose as an association if you don’t execute it in a way that makes sense in the current marketplace.

To remain relevant, you must actively engage the next generation. One of the best ways to do this is by making them a part of your team. Recruit and hire them into your organization and develop multiple methods to better understand them as member segments. Surveys, focus groups, advisory panels, observations, and task forces all fit the bill. Above all, try to find ways to invite them in and strive to learn and gather as much insight from them as possible.

Keep in mind that when you start this more inclusive path, you will need to continue serving your current members at the same time as reaching out to new audiences. This balancing act is not easy, but you can deliberately reserve time throughout the year to identify potential members and record the goals, challenges and solutions they desire and discover how those align or differ from current members.

Partner with your Board

In order to create and execute on plans that will drive your association’s longevity, one cannot underestimate the importance of effective governance. Board relations is one job that the CEO simply cannot delegate, and instead, should continually monitor and nurture.

After all, your board believes in the same values and benefits that you do. They understand that the future will be different than the past. So, as you take the steps to expand those benefits, focus on aligning with your governance model, your strategy and, of course, the will of your leadership team.

The bottom line

Associations must prepare and plan for new developments and the impact they will have on their businesses. This involves taking key steps that include:

  • Living your mission, vision and values
  • Committing to the idea of a “forever benefit”
  • Learning from data signals
  • Adapting to marketplace change
  • Balancing member outreach
  • Prioritizing Board relations

In committing to these basic understandings and remaining fixed on your core beliefs while adjusting to market trends, your association can keep its identity, offer significant value to traditional members, and consistently capture and captivate emerging audiences – all while ensuring future vitality.

We encourage you to begin the process to ensure your relevance with your board or organizational leadership. Reach out to McKinley Advisors to start the conversation today.


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