Monday, September 10, 2018

Growth for Growth's Sake

A shout out this week to Jeffrey Cufaude at the Idea Architects blog, who recently offered this piece of wisdom regarding the growth goals set by many an association board in many a strategic planning session:

Double our membership. Increase conference attendance by 50%. Triple non-dues revenue in five years.

These are a few of the growth goals I have heard tossed about in strategy conversations over the years. If there is one common interest or goal of organizations it is getting more people or more money.

But to what end? And at what potential cost? Amazingly, organizations often fail to explore the short- and long-term consequences (positive and negative) of having more.

People often have strong mental models about growth. Mine is simple: growth should enable accelerated progress on an organization’s mission and vision. Simply getting bigger to be bigger is not strategic enough in my eyes.

I agree. And I've tried to defend that point of view at my association's last two strategic planning sessions. I use the word defend because in both cases there were voices on our Board who seemed to advocate a "getting bigger to be bigger" strategy.

Part of me gets it. The people on my Board are smart and entrepreneurial. They lead successful businesses in a highly competitive market, and growth is one of the core underlying strategies for that success. Those that are publicly-traded have to keep growing or the Street will turn against them. Those that are privately-held have to keep growing to maintain their value and competitive position. And in their world, growth is always technically possible. There are always more customers to get and more products to sell them.

But another part of me doesn't get it. Our association is not a company selling products to a hungry marketplace -- and any analogy to the day-to-day decisions that my Board members would make for their companies will be an imprecise one and will, if stretched, ultimately fail. Recruiting and retaining members is of critical importance to the association, but there is a place where the law of diminishing returns takes over.

Let's take a look at an extreme example. Say we're the National Monopoly Board Properties Association, and right now, everyone is a member except Marvin Gardens. Honestly, all the other properties, from Mediterranean Avenue all the way around to Boardwalk, are members -- and most of them come to our Annual Conference and buy our real estate reports. Furthermore, member satisfaction is high and our retention rate is near 100%.

In this situation, how much time, energy, and resource should we spend on recruiting Marvin Gardens into our membership?

There are those on the NMBPA Board who say that we won't really represent the Monopoly Board until everyone eligible for membership is a member, but that's not really true is it? The existing members are satisfied and there is no other association out there claiming to represent them. When we go to Washington to advocate on behalf of our members, we're not met with any skepticism because we only have 96% of the industry in our membership.

There are others on the NMBPA Board who say that we're not trying hard enough to recruit Marvin Gardens into the membership, but that's not really true, either, is it? We've talked with their President many times (he sometimes attends our Annual Conference as a non-member) and he consistently rebuffs our recruitment efforts. He's not a joiner. He doesn't support many of the things our organization does. He doesn't want his people fraternizing with their competitors at Atlantic or Ventnor Avenue.

This, I think, is a situation, where there is no value in continuing to pursue Marvin Gardens, especially if that pursuit takes needed resources away from delivering the best possible services to the existing members. For the imaginary NMBPA, member retention, not recruitment, is its compelling strategic need.

And for those NMBPA Board members who are still thinking about growth for growth's sake, the best strategy may be to turn that vision inward, and define growth not as acquiring new members, but as increasing participation and satisfaction rates among existing members.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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