Monday, February 25, 2013

What is the Association Value Proposition?

Lego Value Meal
Another subject we tackled at the dinner I mentioned in a previous post was the much-reported sickness of the association value proposition.

We had both association executives and consultants to the association community present at this dinner, and I couldn't help but notice that the battle line seemed to be drawn between those two camps and the perspectives they each brought to the table.

Most consultants I know are definitely in "proposition is broken" camp, a position I believe they sincerely hold. Even though they are in the business of selling a solution--and therefore need the problem to exist--the ones I interact with speak with honesty and not obfuscation. They, after all, have typically seen the worst of the worst, often getting called in to help associations in the most dire of circumstances.

But I argued that these experiences may have skewed their perspective. Although they represent some of the loudest voices in our community, and many of them seem intent on demolishing the value proposition that still serves many organizations well, I'm still not convinced they have correctly diagnosed the problem.

Just what is the association value proposition that is so besieged? Ask the consultants and they'll respond with discussions about revenue streams and social objectives. Associations are organizations, they'll say, that center on membership, delivering the goods and services the members need and want. And that's no longer a business your antiquated governance and management methods can compete in.

That's true as far as it goes. But I don't think they're thinking high enough. I say associations are organizations that manifest the collective will of a constituency that feels a sense of shared purpose. Period. It's not about dues or advocacy or continuing education. Those are activities many associations engage in, but none of them are necessarily required for an association to function at a high level. What's needed is that special set of skills that harnesses the passion of others and applies it to a shared vision.

That's the value proposition that the best associations bring to the table, and if there is any threat to it at all it is coming from other forms and methods of community that are proliferating in our society.

But that doesn't mean there is anything wrong with our value proposition. Indeed, it validates that the proposition has real value, and that people will seek it from any organization or business that is exceptional at providing it. To succeed, an association shouldn't run from this proposition--it should find ways to become better at delivering it.

This post written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at


  1. And isn't this exactly what was discovered in the Decision to Join research? That prospects value joining a community committed to a greater purpose and not just the laundry list of possibly commoditized benefits?

    And that was previously highlighted in the Seven Strategic Conversations that Could Transform Your Association back in 2001 which identified that Meaning Matters to members: meaningful purpose, meaningful relationships, meaningful contributions, and meaningful stories.

    Why some so quickly dismiss what has proven to be true time and time again is beyond me. The business model around meaning in associations may indeed need refreshing or reinventing depending on your organization's stakeholders, but an association's ultimate value proposition most definitely does not ... or at least not as much as some seem to assert.

    1. Thanks, Jeffrey. You're more widely read than I am, so I'll take your word for it on what those earlier sources said. But if they agree with me, they must've known what they were talking about .

  2. Totally agree. Without that shared meaning, it really doesn't matter what your business model is today or tomorrow. You will fade away. Nothing kills the status quo faster than setting a goal of maintaining the status quo.

    1. Well said, David. Next time we're setting goals for our organization, let;s be sure we state them in terms of meaningful outcomes, not program objectives.

  3. So therin lies one of the profession's challenges. You probably read more than a fair share of execs, yet these two major ASAE studies somehow didn't get on your radar. And for others (myself included) important info from the past has been buried under the next shiny new study. How do we make sure what appear to be timeless truths continue to be talked about?

    P.S. You can download free PDFs of the Seven Conversations from ASAE's website. Worth a quick skim.

    1. I've heard of the Decision to Join study--vaguely recollect Seven Strategic Conversations now that you mention it. Appreciate the tip on downloading the PDF.

      I agree, it is an on-going challenge. Maybe we need a blog called Timeless Truths of Association Management? That, like my comment on the studies being right if they agree with me, is meant to be tongue-in-cheek.

  4. Eric -

    Hear, hear....Collective action is the driver and epic vision is the key...

    And Jeffrey - indeed - there are timeless truths that occupy our space that we keep losing sight of...I agree with you that the ways in which we do things have to evolve and adapt, but I am not at all convinced that the best days of associations are behind them.

    I'm also done feeling like I need to be apologetic for being positive about the future of associations. There is value in what we do - we know it because we've seen it. Now, we just have to take it to the next level....


    1. Thanks, Shelly. The epiphany for me was when I realized we need to interpret the rise of for-profit and self-organizing communities as less of a threat and more of a validation of our essential value proposition. We do need to improve, and many of us need to radically change our governance and management practices, but none of us need to change our fundamental purposes.