Association Insights

Building Growth-Oriented Associations

Building Growth-Oriented Associations

Nov 21 2017

By: Matt Bradford

The secrets to association growth aren't really secrets at all. Hang around successfully growing organizations long enough and you'll find they share an eagerness to innovate, a willingness to take risks, and the skills to keep pace with today's speed of change.

These attributes, however, are all driven by a mindset of growth. And for that to take root, it must begin from the top. That means stacking your team with leaders who aren't afraid to explore new and innovative ideas for member recruitment and retention, staff who are equipped to lead the charge on innovative initiatives, and an overall team of people who feel empowered to take risks because they know making mistakes is a normal part of growth.

“When I'm consulting with associations who are telling us that they need to grow membership, the first thing I assess is their overall cultural mindset, then the mindset of the departmental head and then the mindset of the staff who are supposed to participate in the project,” adds Suzanne Carawan, Chief Marketing Officer with HighRoad Solution. “If this growth mindset is not apparent at all three levels, you can instantly understand that the project will inevitably hit bumps and roadblocks and take much longer than anticipated.”

Certainly, associations are notorious for dragging their heels when it comes to taking bold steps such as launching a new website, creating a social media campaign, or implementing a digital marketing system. And while their first instinct is to blame external partners for their lack of speed, the more common causes of delays are issues at the staff level such as a resistance to change, lack of stakeholder buy-in, misallocated resources, and lack of fundamental subject matter knowledge and skills.

Therefore, in addition to building a culture of growth, associations must also foster a team that not only loves to grow, but has the skills and knowledge to pursue that passion. 

Drawing from her own experience, Carawan offers: “With every new marketing technology project, we first provide a level set on what the project truly entails and what the changes mean, and then we go through the underlying theories of the software that we're trying to implement. That being said, the level of educational time needed to really do platform adoption is typically not accounted for and is really not offered by the software makers themselves. That's why it's something ideally suited for agencies that are industry experts.

Herein lies the other not-so-secret to success: an openness to working with outside partners who know how to grow in the digital age. Fortunately, the association market is changing from a do-it-yourself mindset (aka a 'fixed' mindset) to a mindset that recognizes the need for continuous change and the advantages of working with outside agencies who can provide the insights, expertise, and information to do just that.

It's a different approach than what's been done in the past, notes Carawan, but a move in the right direction: “Associations have for far too long been limiting their capabilities by relying only on the knowledge and skills of their staff while viewing their technology providers as 'vendors' instead of partners. We need the association versus vendor culture to end and we need to instead, see associations and providers-to-associations as components of a healthy marketplace.”

In the end, it doesn't take big budgets and an army of consultants to build a growth-oriented association. What it does take, however, is a team who genuinely want to grow and who are supported not only by their leaders, but also by industry partners who can supply the training, knowledge, and technologies to their journey.

Suzanne Carawan is Chief Marketing Officer with HighRoad Solution. For a copy of the 2017 State of Digital Marketing in Associations Research Report, visit