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Association Change in the 21st Century: Not the 'What' but the 'How'

Association Change in the 21st Century: Not the 'What' but the 'How'

Do any of the following sound familiar?


  • Struggling to stand apart in a marketplace where similar associations, not to mention private and public-sector providers are encroaching on your turf by offering competing products and services
  • Decline in revenues due to membership 'bleed,' and decreased attendance at conferences and trade shows, which are your two most significant sources of revenue
  • Members not using -- and, in many cases not aware of -- programs, services, and events you offer them
  • Challenges keeping ahead of the curve as disruptive innovation becomes the norm
  • Your biggest member no longer engaging because they now have in-house services like government relations and employee training -- services you previously provided to them
  • Not being on the radar of or providing value to young professionals or students


The list goes on and on, and it is dizzying. The struggle is real. If I were a betting sort, I would wager that many of you identify with at least half of these issues.


The Tipping Point and What Needs to Change

The bottom line is today's associations are likely somewhere on a trajectory toward that magic 'tipping point' so beautifully described by Malcolm Gladwell:


"The Tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire. Just as a single sick person can start an epidemic of the flu, so too can a small but precisely targeted push cause a fashion trend, the popularity of a new product, or a drop in the crime rate."
-- Malcolm Gladwell


Increasingly more associations we work with and talk to are sitting up and paying attention. This is because they are inching precipitously close to this tipping point in their organization's history. What kind of change is needed?

Some of the significant changes being explored by associations we know of include the following:


  • Reducing the layers and increasing the linkages in their governance model
  • Opening the doors to new stakeholder communities
  • Reducing or removing membership 'walls’ around access to content, programs, and events
  • Re-envisioning how associations deliver value beyond the traditional program and services mix


Not Just the 'What' but the 'How'

Many of us already know -- or at least have a sense of -- what changes our associations require. I think the root of the issue is less about what associations need to change and more about how to do so.

Associations are fascinating examples of organizational development. They are by nature traditional, hierarchical, and democratic. They have deep respect and reverence for history. Because of these things, many are highly resistant to change.

I think the successful associations of the future will look radically different than what is typical today. The chances are that you do, too. However, in many cases, the changes needed -- to value, structure, and power and decision-making -- are significant.

In addition to collecting the right information and feedback to help build the case for change, sometimes the missing ingredient is courage. As a colleague once said, "You can gather all the information you want, but at a certain point sometimes you have to hold hands and jump."

The first and most important step is to re-frame everything -- the organization and value delivered. Also, re-frame the mix of program and services intended to help members and stakeholders solve problems. Doing so could mean significant changes for your association and will require courage and community to succeed.


An Example of Future-Thinking Change

After seven decades serving the library community, the Canadian Library Association (CLA) had the courage to undergo radical change. They took a hard look at the current and future reality of librarians and their place as one of the hundreds of similar associations across the nation (there is a standing joke that if you put two librarians in an elevator, they will come out having created three associations). The result was the courageous decision to shut its doors so they could re-create a new national organization aligned to their market's realities. Doing so presented a new value offering, a new structure to support this value and, importantly, a more united community to engage in building this new association.

Valoree McKay helped guide the process as CLA executive director and will share some of the lessons she learned throughout and following that process as part of CSAE's Associations 2025 event in Vancouver. She will be in the company of several other great speakers who will share their stories about change -- not just the 'what' but the 'how.'



Associations 2025 is an upcoming event presented by CSAE and the Portage Group. It will address issues organizations will face over the next decade or so, such as the need for associations to adapt and change.




Carol-Anne Moutinho, Associations, Strategic Planning, Leadership


Events, Op-Ed, Guest Contributor



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