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November 14, 2017

Looking Forward: Five Major Drivers of Change in Associations

One of the highlights of my year is attending the annual ASAE Leaders Retreat. I always look forward to the opportunity to reconnect with long-time clients, colleagues and meet some new friends in a relatively intimate gathering of ASAE’s committed volunteers. This year, the focus of the retreat was on the future, as the ASAE Foundation has recently begun to disseminate work from its ForesightWorks initiative, which outlines 41 “drivers of change” that may impact the future of our profession. In addition to this foresight, much of the discussion over the retreat also included some sensemaking about the world we’re living in today and the near-term drivers that are impacting our day-to-day work. Given that we’re approaching the end of another year, here’s a synopsis of some of the major drivers of change that we have seen this year in the association sector.


Next year marks the ten-year anniversary of the “great recession” and, overall, the association sector has proven (again) to be quite resilient. Despite challenges and headwinds in some areas of the market, we see ample evidence across the association sector of sustained growth, particularly among healthcare associations, which continue to perform above trend in terms of membership and financial indicators.


Perhaps the most persistent challenge we face in the association sector is effectively communicating our priority messages. In fact, a long-term CEO friend and colleague at the ASAE Leaders Retreat commented that a couple members of his board recently asked him to please reduce the emails that they were getting from the association – a sign that even our most ardent supporters seek a refuge from the deluge!  In a world that is seemingly constantly “switched on,” it is imperative that associations continue to refine approaches to reduce the “signal to noise” ratio that our members experience in our communications.

Pace of Change

As Thomas Friedman has written in his recent book, Thank you for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, the pace of change in our world, particularly in the areas of technology and communication, has dramatically outpaced the ability of humans to learn and adapt to those changes. To say the least, this pace of change can be exhausting, threatening our capacity to sustain the energy, creativity and clarity we need to lead and manage the important programs and initiatives that will drive our missions forward.


Certainly, the largest shift from a year ago is how associations are adapting (or not) to a dramatically different political, legislative and regulatory environment. Some organizations have found interest in their missions expanding dramatically, while others are being asked to provide clear answers to fundamental questions: What does our organization stand for? What do we stand against? What are our core values? While the landscape is dynamic and unpredictable, these conditions provide an extraordinary opportunity for associations to become more resonant in the hearts and minds of their members.

Membership Models

Many associations continue to consider changes to their categories, dues levels and benefits packages. These changes are designed to unlock new value for current and prospective members, strengthen national/chapter relationships and create more accessible options for both individuals and the organizations. We would expect this period of experimentation to continue into the next several years as associations continue to confront fundamental shifts in their markets driven by changing demographics and consumer preferences.

So, what does all of this mean for associations? Here are four focus areas for the year ahead that we think make sense to consider in this environment:

Ground your work in the mission: It sounds obvious, but now more than ever associations must ensure that their “reason for being” is relevant and resonant with the key audiences they serve.

Adopt a “prototype” mindset: Get active in product development by piloting new concepts and approaches, then work to iterate, refine and adapt these offerings based on real-time market feedback.

Get to know your members of the future: The association sector has devoted an extraordinary amount of time and energy discussing the millennial generation but hardly any of these conversations actually involve these members. Turn conversations into action: Develop advisory panels. Actively engage in social media. Establish listening tours. Invite younger members to participate in a discussion with your board. In other words, stop talking and start listening.

Sharpen your tools on performance measurement: Ensure that clarity exists around your organization’s measures of success, including process, output and outcome metrics, as well as lead and lag indicators that can be used to discern which key efforts are on track and which are not.

Questions on how to get started in 2018? Give me a call or reach out to our team at


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