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January 26, 2022

Four Keys for Associations to Ride the Waves in 2022 and Beyond

As 2022 is off to a challenging start, with Omicron tipping the scales yet again, it is apparent that there will be no normal—not even a new normal. The context in which associations operate has changed for good. The pandemic, racial and political tensions, and environmental devastation have accelerated many changes that were already building up.

My colleagues Jon HockmanMegan CruzAnkur Ponda and I came together to discuss the shifting landscape and outline the approaches that will position associations for enduring success, in McKinley Advisors’ webinar, How Your Association Can Ride the Waves in 2022 and Beyond. We identified four keys to success—strategic planning driven by innovation, achieving organizational excellence with new thinking, focusing on member value and being a force for change.

Strategy and Innovation Demand Flexibility

Despite the uncertainties of the times, having a strategic plan is critical for associations. The times we live in call for a transformative strategic plan that emphasizes innovation to cater to changing customer preferences.

The strategic plan should be based on a solid market scan and situation assessment. It has to factor in current realities and be focused on delivering concrete solutions to the pressing problems members face. The strategic plan must acknowledge the competition and address how the association can stand up to other players in the field and deliver unique value. All this requires leadership and governance that is visionary, innovative, inclusive and focused on mission as well as margin. And associations must be willing to take risks informed by metrics and market intelligence.

Most importantly, the strategic planning process needs to be flexible. It can no longer be an endeavor undertaken once in three or five years. Leaders need to consider how to develop a living, breathing strategic plan that continuously evolves. They must focus not just on today’s problems but prepare their members and stakeholders for what is likely to happen five to ten years down the line.

Organizational Excellence Requires Realignment and Inclusion

Moving from strategic planning to strategic implementation, associations must reexamine business models to see if they align with changing consumer needs and preferences. Organizational excellence requires a data-driven approach to decision making. And it will most likely require reallocation of key resources — talent, time and money. For example, investing in the technology infrastructure to enhance customer service may require dipping into reserves or hiring new talent with non-association experience.

From product and service portfolios to membership and transactional models, it’s important to ask what stays and what needs to change. Sustaining a program just because “we’ve done it for decades” is not conducive to sustainability.

In today’s environment, no association can remain relevant or responsive to member and stakeholder needs without an intense focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). DEI can’t just be a checkbox or a statement on the association website. It has to be pervasive and factored into every aspect of how an association does business—from hiring and retention to program development, member empowerment and public communication.

Member Engagement Needs the Value Focus

Associations have to work harder than ever to define and enhance the member value proposition and to develop membership models that factor in the cost to serve. Tiered membership dues which don’t create barriers to entry at any level should be a key consideration. Dues structures that provide access to all benefits, including meetings (especially with virtual and hybrid offerings in the fray) can be explored.

Associations should also be laser-focused on aligning with how members live their lives and meeting them wherever they are—on any channel or at any level of tech sophistication. Enabling quick and easy transactions — mobile and app-based access to benefits, auto-renewals, automated marketing or personalized web content repositories — is important in 2022.

Better member engagement comes from better listening. Whether it’s for product development or strategic planning, you can invite proactive meaningful member input. Ask members what’s keeping them up at night and what issues they are passionate about. Recognizing members, giving them a voice and nurturing the community are all advantages associations can offer over the competition.

Being a Force for Change Requires Thinking Beyond Members

The consumer-driven economy we live in has reinforced the importance of thinking beyond members—to engage and leverage customers who may only want a transactional relationship with the association. Nurturing non-members is important to build value in a competitive market.

Look outside your typical playing fields at the world around you and consider how you can be part of the solution to the all-pervasive issues that every industry and profession faces today—workforce shortages, supply chain issues, climate change and more. Solving these problems requires significant thought leadership as well as new partnerships and collaborations. Associations are well-positioned to engage and invest in making their expertise more visible so they will have a seat at the table in any discussion on the big issues.

Next Steps

Contact us to see how McKinley Advisors can help with your strategic planning, business model evaluation, membership structures and marketing and engagement initiatives.

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