Monday, March 12, 2012

Provocative Proposals for Change

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I just finished reading an advance copy of Shelly Alcorn's "Provocative Proposals for Change," a report she authored based on Appreciative Inquiry interviews she conducted with more than 200 association executives (including me). It's chock full of ideas that are well worth your attention, especially if you have an interest in helping to shape the future of the association management profession and the overall role of associations in society. Keep an eye on Shelly's Association Subculture blog for announcements on when and where the report will be launched.

Several of the report's ideas resonated with me, but I'm going to focus on just one of them. I think it's key to determining where associations are going and how they will function in the future. Here's how Shelly introduces it:

During the course of conducting this project, we became convinced that associations are losing their ability to differentiate themselves in the marketplace, not because of a lack of innovation and creative capacity, but through a wholesale adoption of language and management techniques more suited to the purely corporate goal of product production, not experience creation.

This really hit close to home. You see, five years ago I moved into my current position as CEO of a 501(c)(6) trade association. Prior to that I had spent 13 years with an association management firm servicing 501(c)(3) professional societies. The switch to the trade association environment, and especially to the corporate cultures of my association members, has helped me engage with a new set of organizational structures and practices. A lot of the recent initiatives I've participated in, including my work with the WSAE Innovation Task Force and establishing a new policy governance model for the association that employs me, have been based on this on-the-the ground experience. Associations stand to learn a lot about organizational effectiveness from the for-profit sector.

And I'm not going to back away from that. Admittedly, I'm still on a journey of learning, but everything I've experienced in the past five years has led me towards and not away from that conclusion. A lot of success can be derived from exploring the synergistic connections between innovative strategy and management practices of the for-profit sector and the commitments to vision and collective value creation of the association sector.

But what I am going to state, and what Shelly's paper has helped me more clearly define, is that a line does and must continue to exist between the for-profit and the association worlds. Turning associations into pseudo-for-profit enterprises, eschewing members in favor of customers and experiences in favor of products, is to abandon the central purpose and contribution that associations are uniquely positioned to offer.

Today's associations are clearly confronted with a number of difficult challenges. Declining members, declining member engagement, declining leadership capacity--just about every association is dealing with one or more of these issues. And there are voices in our community that, in response to these trends and others, are calling for self-described radical changes to our practices and business models.

Some of these changes call for a diminished role for volunteer leadership. Others for putting professional staff squarely in charge of not just program execution, but program development as well. And still others for the outright abandonment of membership as the core transactional support system of the organization.

Shelly describes a different approach, one that appealingly doubles down on these very elements of the association model's core strength. Rather than reinventing what associations are, she talks about reframing them in the eyes of a broader constituency than the ones they currently serve.

Her idea, if I can paraphrase it accurately, is to establish (or perhaps re-establish) associations as a fundamental component of our functioning democracy. Her suggested tactics include students being taught about the role of associations in school, broad civilian training academies for association participation and leadership, and associations providing meaningful services and information to public constituencies outside their core memberships. All are necessary if the public is to recognize associations as something other than the currently pejorative "special interests." In this envisioned future...

...the ability to achieve and maintain the title of association executive and to practice association management should be subject to the same rigorous rules required of attorneys or medical practitioners. Those who stray outside of them could be subject to disciplinary action and removal from practice.

This is a much different and a much more aspirational state of affairs than what exists today. It is associations and association executives as holders of the public trust. From a tactical perspective, many of Shelly's detailed suggestions lie outside my areas of expertise. But what I like best about her proposal is the way it keeps the association as something unique and beneficial in our society.

Improving our ability to identify market needs and marshal resources to meet them is important, and something we can learn gobs about from the for-profit sector. But it is only one piece of the puzzle, albeit the one seemingly most prized by the other provocative proposals now being discussed in our community. Shelly may not have the perfect answer, but I believe she has hit on something that will keep the association model more productively alive now and in the future.


  1. Thank you so much Eric....I am glad you were happy with the results and I appreciate the mention on your blog....

  2. No problem, Shelly. Congratulations on a great job!

  3. Thanks for sharing Shelly’s work! I admire her for actually approaching association executives to find answers, rather than just making assumptions. Shelly talks about how associations need to break the stigma of being nice, but not necessary. Associations that are successful have two traits: One is that they serve a useful purpose, as with realtor associations. Realtors need to have access to MLS listings in order to work, which means, if you are a realtor, you absolutely need to join that association. The second trait is having powerful, sophisticated and innovative leaders. Take the farmers groups or the retail trades, especially at the national level: they have extremely strong leaders who are keeping the members involved. Being relevant, by directly addressing issues like our current economic climate, is what an association is obligated to do for its members - and ultimately what makes an association successful.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Annie. I don't disagree that successful associations are good at serving a core purpose and at demonstrating strong leadership. But both of the examples you offer are focused on leveraging those traits for the direct benefit of the association's members. That's good, of course, but I think Shelly is suggesting a role for associations that is more broadly useful to society in general.

  5. Agreed Eric. Shelly's work is much more profound and purposeful. When I joined an association staff I was given no orientation into what it means to be an association, how we are to act different, and how we can/do contribute to the greater good. I did learn a lot about nonprofit tax issues though.

  6. I wonder how many association staffers have the same introduction, Jeffrey. In my own situation, the concept that we were serving a broader community was present from the beginning.