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January 28, 2019

Four Common Traits of Successful Associations

When McKinley Advisors asked Jeff Shields, president and CEO of the National Business Officers Association (NBOA), about the most important strategic professional decision he’s made in his career, he recalled a pivotal moment when he decided to leave a comfortable and stable association position for “basically, a start-up.”

He described his first months at NBOA as “working in my laundry room … mailing paychecks and retirement benefits.” It’s hard to imagine that NBOA — a trade association that today has more than 1,400 members and a budget of over $5M — was once operating from a laundry room, but it is exactly this kind of vision, commitment and grit that defines some of the most successful nonprofit organizations.

After decades of wondering (and being asked), McKinley set out to answer the question: “What differentiates nonprofit organizations and associations that have the strongest records of performance from those that maintain the status quo or even decline?”

We culled through research data and developed key performance indicators based on an organization’s member satisfaction, value and Net Promoter Score. From the analysis, McKinley identified 10 top performing organizations and conducted interviews with CEOs or senior staff to identify what they thought contributed to their success — from internal and external factors that have impacted their organizations to their own ideas on what it takes to lead a top-performing organization.

Of the 10 study participants, most are individual professional member organizations, with two trades and one charitable organization also represented. Three of the organizations serve the healthcare sector, two serve the education sector and the remaining associations serve a variety of sectors. The average tenure of the interviewees is three and a half years, with a range of three months to 28 years.

You can download the full The DNA of Top-Performing Member Organizations report. Here is a sneak peek at four common traits of successful associations:

It’s All About Strategic Planning

The importance of strategic planning is a theme across all 10 organizations, although the exact definition of strategic planning varies. Most of the interviewees emphasized the importance of clear, long-term planning with an eye towards the current, as well as the future, state of the industry, the association, and society.

Leveraging Data and Relationships

Data, strong relationships (e.g. with staff, volunteer leaders and external partners) and investing in the right staff are critical factors to realize an association’s long-term plans. In fact, having a thoughtful approach to collaboration and partnerships is important to many of the 10 top-performing associations.

“Our role is really the convener and the champion – we try to empower the local societies to build their own scientific and educational capacity.”

– Thomas Reiser, executive director of ISTH

Thomas Reiser, executive director of the International Society on Thrombosis and Haemostasis (ISTH), describes his association’s global strategy: “We’re all working together in the same field and we recognize that the power and strength of our global organization doesn’t come from us doing everything ourselves. Our role is really the convener and the champion – we try to empower the local societies to build their own scientific and educational capacity.”

Remember to be ‘Member-Centric’

All 10 associations have a clear vision for their organizations for the next three to five years. Four out of the 10 organizations identified implementing more robust data measurement and benchmarking as one of their major priorities, and three out of 10 identified growing member value as another priority. Not surprisingly, these associations are consistent in their commitment to their members.

“Organize around the member, not the governance structure.”

– Celeste Kirschner, CAE, CEO of LUGPA.

Humility and Authenticity are Key

Through the research and interviewing, each organization’s leadership exhibited two characteristics — humility and authenticity. In fact, each of the 10 interviews revealed how unique each leader is, and how their uniqueness sets a tone and nurtures a culture that is reflected across the organization.

“… to be successful, you need to get out of the way and let the staff do their own things. Let things go.”

– Michael Geary, CAE, CEO of Society for Marketing Professional Services

“When I first started, it was making sure you know everyone and what’s going on. Once you’ve become established and tenured, to be successful you need to get out of the way and let staff do their own things. Let things go,” shares Michael Geary, CAE, CEO of the Society for Marketing Professional Services.

We are excited to release the full report and highlights of our interviews with some of our community’s most high-performing organizations. Subscribe to our emails to make sure you don’t miss it!

Download the full The DNA of Top-Performing Member Organizations


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