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The Emerging Association Renaissance

Associations are at an inflection point. The conditions are in place to drive associations toward a renaissance, a new Golden Era, where associations will have even greater relevance within their fields. But to thrive in this new environment, associations will have to develop new strategies and structures to evolve to the macro changes that are taking place. See below for some of the factors that will transform associations and details how boards can adapt and thrive.


A New Business Model
The current association business model has, for the most part, been in place for the past 100 years, rooted in an era when conditions were different than they are today. The model needs to be reimagined. Associations have to look at the membership structure, the dues structure, and the value proposition through a new lens.


People’s expectations for relationships with organizations are changing, which means that the idea of association membership must change, too. Look at retailers like Costco, BJ’s Wholesale, and Amazon Prime, which are, at their core, membership organizations. With Amazon Prime, for example, members get a personal concierge, same-day shipping, streaming music, and access to video, discounts, and other benefits for a modest membership fee. These commercial membership models are built around a low price of entry, but with enormously high value and à la carte options. Associations could benefit from moving toward a similar model.


It might be a hybrid model where membership dues are different for various levels of involvement. A full membership might be set at one price, while more tailored packages, based on the interests of the individual member, might carry a different fee. There might also be à la carte options, where members can pick and choose the benefits or programs they like. It will also force associations to examine and, in some cases, improve their product offerings to attract more members.


Rethinking What it Means to Belong
Associations provide a sense of community for industry professionals, which has long been a primary draw. They bring together people with similar backgrounds, goals, and career aspirations, and that power of the collective can be a force to solve problems and make the world a better place. However, associations haven’t evolved enough to meet societal shifts in how people—and communities—interact, particularly younger generations.


Human beings do want to be part of something bigger than themselves. Millennials and those in Gen Z have a compelling desire to be part of something and to join associations.


However, the reality is that there’s an enormous amount of demand on people’s time and attention. Thus, many people have less time to attend an annual meeting for a week. The trend towards shorter, higher impact and more inspirational live events and annual meetings is the new normal. Plus, digital technologies have changed the way people connect—and not just younger generations. People now engage as we know, more in online communities like Facebook, Instagram, and video game platforms.


The basic human need for belonging is being met in other ways today. Associations must determine how to leverage their strength as conveners and create an effective digital substitute for people to engage, interact, and belong.


An Association for Life
There’s an opportunity for associations to fill a void left by the changing nature of corporate America. For decades, companies provided community for their workers. When people were hired, it was for life, and companies provided opportunities for education, networking, and growth. That’s been gradually changing over the past 20 years—for a variety of reasons. This new generation of workers may work for as many as 15 different companies over the course of their careers. Add to that shift a relatively new phenomenon: the gig economy. In the past few years there’s been an explosion in the number of freelance, contract workers, and those working in the sharing economy. These are people who in essence work for themselves. According to Forbes, about half of U.S. workers will be part of the gig economy by 2027.


This presents a great opportunity for associations. If you’re a gig worker or you’re going to have multiple jobs in your life, wouldn’t it be great to have a central relationship with an organization that you know is going to be there?


That, of course, would be their professional society or industry association. Associations need to do a better job of catering to those individuals and telling the story that they “can be an association for life.”


What Can Boards Do?
To adapt to this new environment, boards must look at the organization from the outside in.


What forces and factors are changing around you? Are the demographics of the membership shifting? Are there new jobs emerging in the profession and do you cater to them? Which programs and benefits are providing value and which are not? How do partners want to engage with members—and vice versa? Also, look at competitors in both the nonprofit and for-profit spaces. How are they connecting with their audiences? Are there technologies and platforms that are changing the way people connect? Do you have the mobile capabilities to satisfy mobile-first members?


These types of questions will force many associations to re-examine their membership models, revamp their offerings, and rethink how people want to connect, grow, and network.


Ultimately, people turn to associations for three things—significance, connection, and growth. They want to be part of something bigger, they want to network with their peers, and they want to advance in their careers.


Every board should look at how the association is delivering on those three things to their members. Answer the question at a deep level. Just having a big convention and trade show doesn’t automatically provide connection. They provide platforms for people to come together but they can be isolating experiences if they are not curated properly.


Optimism is High
Association leaders are feeling optimistic. A growing number are bullish about their industry or profession’s future. They should be even more optimistic about their own relevance and growth potential in what could be an emerging renaissance for associations.


Boards need to start thinking about these questions now, particularly when times are good, as these factors will transform associations in the next five to 10 years.


It’s better to fix your roof while the sun is still shining. For forward-thinking associations, it will be a period of reinvention that will lead to a new golden era for associations.


Don’t be custodians of what was once the model—think about how you’re going to influence the future of your profession and the membership that you’ve been charged to serve.



*This article originally appeared in the Board Forward October 2019 edition.



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A marketing thought leader, speaker, teacher, and advisor, Don Neal brings his Madison Avenue experience to help organizations see their opportunities in a new light. He is passionate about helping organizations accelerate the trajectory of their success.

Don Neal
Founder & CEO
360 Live Media

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