Have associations ever have faced such a challenging and confusing landscape? Each day we are greeted with a bleak macro-economic picture, confusion about how to capitalize on emerging technologies and continued angst about generational and cultural differences. These concerns, and a host of others, serve to erode our confidence about the future viability of associations. There are also tangible examples from within our community. Major trade shows and expositions have vanished, seemingly overnight. Some association publishers are concerned that their entire economic model is at risk. Until recently, many reserve funds had lost nearly half of their value. We even hear talk that the IRS is considering taking a hard look at just which types of organizations should be tax exempt.
The concern is also made evident in our latest Economic Impact Study:
- 85% of participants have experienced budget cuts this year
- Over half have seen decreases in recruitment and retention
- Nearly one-third have experienced layoffs
Several conversations I’ve had with association executives recently suggest that we may be in for more of the same in 2010. So, with all this concern, how do we muster up the courage to face our challenges head on? Because, in my view, our current environment creates just as much opportunity as concern.
Here are three reasons I think you should be excited about the immediate future.
1. The downturn has given us license to innovate and fast-track ideas. While we are all too often constrained by our decision-making and approval processes, the severity of the recession mandates immediate action. A close look at the open-ended results our Economic Impact Study reveals wonderful examples of how associations are responding to these unprecedented challenges in meaningful ways. For example, here are just a few of the new approaches respondents cited when they were asked how they are dealing with the recession:
- “We are spending $25 million [from reserves] in free education courses, education conferences, products, services, programs for our members who have suffered tremendously in the housing market downturn. Members are thrilled to receive the free education, tools, and programs that can help get them back on their feet.”
- “Tripled travel grants for members attending conference, provided more free luncheons, held dues and registration fees constant.”
- “We’re offering more ’a la carte‘ options for our meetings, which seems to be very appealing to our members to have a choice. Our income was slightly reduced, but the positive feedback we received was worth it.”
Seeing these responses reassures me that the innovative spirit is alive in well in our community and that we will not be deterred from advancing our missions. I just hope we do not become complacent when the overall picture improves.
2. We can tap into customer insight in so many ways. Contemporary marketing and communications is being revolutionized by the real-time dialogue that takes place every day among customers and their brands of choice. Savvy associations can use a range of formal and informal methods to tap into customer and member insight to improve service, extend value and strengthen brand equity. A host of companies are pushing the envelope in this new discipline (called “collaborative marketing” in some circles) by inviting their customers in to their organizations, listening intently to them and engaging in an honest, two-way conversation. They are also realizing tremendous gains in their businesses as a result of this more authentic approach to communication.
3. Some things will not change. Even though we wake up to a new business landscape almost every day, there are still fundamental needs that our members and customers will always have – and therefore a lasting opportunity for us to provide solutions that meet those needs. It seems to me that these days, our lens has become far too narrow, and we have therefore lost track of the fundamental elements that define what Peter Drucker called our “theory of business.” Technological advancements, emerging competition and changing customer needs are givens. They are, at least to some degree, out of our control. We can remain relevant to our members and customers by focusing on what we can control – namely developing offerings that satisfy the short list of behavioral drivers that will not change. For example:
- The fundamental desire we have as people to associate with others who share our common belief systems and goals
- The joy that we experience from spending time with friends and colleagues
- The quest for knowledge which propels us to seek out new skills and abilities
- The desire we have to seek answers to pressing societal, economic and civic challenges
- The necessity to create lasting business relationships
So, at the end of the day should we “hunker down” while economic conditions slowly return to normal? Of course not. Nor should we continue “business as usual,” wearing blinders that obscure the reality of the recession. The fact is that the downturn provides us all with an opportunity to do our best work – and make things better in the process for our members. Indeed, even though times are tough, there is indeed a bright side to be perceived and realized. As long as we can remember to look up at the forest once in a while, then it’s likely we’ll all come out a little stronger on the other side.