The men's 110m hurdles semi-finals.
The men’s 110m hurdles semi-finals. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

SSP’s excellent Executive Director recently recommended a book, “Race for Relevance,” by Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers. The book is about association management and membership organizations. It’s a short book. It’s not only short, it’s vigorously written and quite correct in its diagnoses and remedies, I think.

Take, for instance, this passage about candor in associations:

. . . lack of honesty results in volunteers and staff operating in an environment  that can be far from reality. Some associations have been going through the charade for so long they begin to accept it as reality.

If this resonates with you, you might want to read this book.

It’s no secret that associations and membership organizations are facing generational, attitudinal, practical, and economic challenges simultaneously. Many things are going on, but a sampling shows how profound the challenge is becoming:

  • Younger people don’t want to join organizations they see as either irrelevant to them or as fusty leftovers of their parents’ or grandparents’ generation (really, a 20-something is hankering to join Kiwanis?).
  • Organizations haven’t shifted their value propositions sufficiently — they haven’t trimmed benefits to match their members’ needs or added the right new benefits, which means they have value propositions that are hard to explain or just plain wrong.
  • Time pressures are everywhere (working spouses, busy kids, long commutes), but associations and societies have bylaws, structures, and practices that demand a lot of time and commitment. You have to work your way up to Board work; there is only one big meeting per year; or all meetings demand travel and multiple days away.
  • Dues are expensive relative to other things competing for the same money — as much as a new iPad or an airplane ticket. All these things compete for money, and there is less discretionary income at the same time.

It’s not that young or time-pressed people don’t want to join. Self-organized groups are everywhere — from book clubs to groups focused on young professionals or local leadership. The problems seem to be more squarely hitting the organizations that are national or international and not clearly focused enough. There’s both a marketing problem and a value proposition problem. But the authors of “Race for Relevance” go deeper — there are governance, service, and sizing problems galore, which make the other problems merely emblematic.

The prescriptions for change are direct and sensible:

Shrink your Board, make it competent. Boards are too big and often ineffective. In many associations, Boards or other governance bodies have dozens of members, many of whom aren’t qualified for or capable of leadership, and who practice what is called “social loafing.” Many Boards cope with this by creating subsets (executive committee, management committee) of 5-6 members, who then make decisions while letting the others ride along. But while this can solve the Board issue, it doesn’t solve the staff issue — the wasted time catering to unproductive members who spend their time dithering over schedules, hotel accommodations, agenda preparation, or other irrelevant things. The clear recommendation is to trim the Board down to 5-6 members, and to make the Board competency-based, rather than seniority-based, old-boy-network-based, or region-based. A Board with 5-6 competent members will be more productive and less intrusive, which leads to the next step.

Empower staff and the CEO. It used to be that associations were relatively simple, with few technological, financial, or legal demands on them, and evolution occurred glacially. This meant that staff could consist of a few strong personnel, the Board could drift around the zone of competency, and the CEO or Executive Director could be middling. Now, the world is complex, fast-moving, specialized, and risky. And volunteers don’t have the time or skill to deal with it all. This has elevated staff and executive leadership to center stage. However, if this isn’t recognized, micromanagement from Board or Committee leadership can repel qualified leadership, make them ineffective while they’re there, and add costs and reduce speed. That’s why the authors strongly recommend a small Board that steps back and allows a strong executive create a strong staff to handle the complicated and accelerated pace of getting things done. There is one very compelling example given — one that’s all too familiar — of an RFP having to be approved by multiple committees, which adds costs, slows down decision-making, waters down the project, and leads to failures (excessive costs, weak execution, and slow implementation) while everyone feels good about it.

Examine your membership. Not all members are worth keeping, and not all contribute to an effective and viable organization. I recently saw a great example of this. An organization had pursued one of the normal association expansion strategies of the 1990s — attract international members. It had succeeded. Fast-forward to 2011, and a high percentage of attendees at its annual meeting are from outside the US. The problem? Vendors can’t or don’t care to market to non-US members. There are laws against it, the technologies can’t be used in those markets, or the international markets can’t afford them. Suddenly, there’s a crisis brewing at the association’s biggest money-maker, its annual meeting. Similar things can happen when Membership starts pursuing a will-o’-wisp notion for expansion, not taking into account the low renewals or low price, or when member benefits outstrip member fees by a large proportion, which leads us to the next point.

Rationalize your programs. A lot of internal validation can accrue to a Membership department that adds member benefits. But when does the menu become too confusing, the return on investment turn negative, and the membership stop caring? Most members only want a few things done well by their association, and the rest is noise. Do you know where the line is? If not, you need to re-examine your value propositions, and also be willing to cut programs. This can be painful, because pet projects, some staff, and some committees may have to go at the same time. But in the race for relevance, sacrifices must be made.

Build a framework for the future. Looking ahead, technology and virtual benefits will be more important, but associations are often too tied to the “here and now,” and may not have the visionaries or competencies to address the future adequately. Already, there are concerns that associations can play a vital role in information filtering. Are they capable of meeting the challenge of information overload for their members? This is where investments come in. But where does the money come from? The authors offer a few rational options — savings from the useless programs eliminated above; drawing on reserves (reserves that often have no clear purpose); fundraising; partnerships — none of which is mutually exclusive. Money isn’t the problem, however; it’s vision, discipline, patience, and strategic thinking.

Overall, this is an excellent and timely book. Too many associations are adrift and struggling. These times of change are an opportunity for reinvention and redefinition. “Race for Relevance” should inspire anyone working at a not-for-profit organization, and help leadership grapple with the tough choices that may be exactly what will make them relevant again.

(Hat tips to TR for the HBR link and to MH for the information overload link.)

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


10 Thoughts on "The Challenged Association — Remaining Relevant Requires More Than Cosmetic Change"

As a professional information scientist, there are a large handful of associations to which I’d like to belong, however the aggregate amount of annual dues is gargantuan, the costs of the annual and semi-annual conferences prohibitive, and finding the right connections and interest groups within them time consuming. Time and money and meeting my needs are the issues. In this day and age of streaming video why are the conference organizers waking up to serving their members to offer a streaming video attendance instead of only a face to face attendance option? Face to face is great if you want to meet several colleagues who will want to attend the conference and speak with each other to brainstorm and collaborate. I don’t have a need to do that. What I would like to do is not feasible in the face to face mode and that is surf several video feeds and see what speakers are saying and decide to “sit in” for a bit and then leave to attend a different feed. Physically this isn’t possible when attending face to face. Offer me an association membership level with a menu that includes this, and membership in an exclusive Listserv(s), access to member email contacts, digital or print association publications or conference abstracts and/or presentations. I don’t have bottomless amounts of time to physically fly all over the world to attend conferences. But then in this day and age of technology, I shouldn’t have to! Wake up! Leverage the technology we currently have! Associations are still operating in the past with an only one size fits all offering.
Melissa V Rentchler, MLISc, M.Ed.

I take your point about virtual participation. However, it is not nearly as simple as it seems to have a live video feed out of a conference, even for the plenaries. First you need to ensure the proper bandwidth (which many venues simply don’t have) to carry video. Then you need to find a suitable technology partner to broadcast the video stream. This is not nearly as simple as attaching one’s HD camcorder to a MacBook. While there are firms that can do this (provided the infrastructure is available), the fees to have them do so often runs into the 5-figures. Simply financially, it often doesn’t make sense to sell virtual participation in meetings for less than $400-$500 per attendee, which is nearly the rate of on-site registration and many don’t see the point in paying that much if they’re not there in person, despite the travel savings.

Beyond that, there are incredible risks with doing live broadcast shows. Think of how many tens of thousands of hours of TV there are, and how much of that is live? Broadcasters learned long ago that live streaming is prone to problems and expensive, and they try to avoid it as much as possible. And these are organizations with millions of dollars to invest in doing it well. Most non-profit organizations simply can not afford the risks or costs of undertaking this type of meeting.

Trust me, I know the pain of too many meetings, too much on the agenda, and too much travel (being in the midst of 8 solid weeks of it). I would gladly do more virtual meetings for my own organization, but it’s not nearly as simple as one might think.

The authors of “Race for Relevance” talk about this quite a bit, in a chapter called, “Bridge the Technology Gap and Build a Framework for the Future.” The basic message is, it will take investments of time and money to make this transition, but there’s little choice, and the apparently redundant costs are part of a migration, so the old costs of running traditional meetings will start to fall away.

The chapter is quite rich, touching on how member databases need to change to how organizations become anchored in traditional information dissemination approaches. It’s well worth reading.

This may be a subject-specific preference, and the different cultures of different research communities are likely to come into play here. In my years at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, there was an internal live feed available from all the meetings that one could watch in one’s office, rather than going over to the campus to take part in the actual meeting. Over time, I found this to be almost completely useless. If I was sitting in my office, I’d put on the feed, then quickly get distracted as the phone rang or emails came in, or someone knocked on my door. To really concentrate, I had to turn off my email, phone, lock the door, etc., to the point where I might as well have gone over and sat in the auditorium in person. Then again, I find following the Twitter feed during as distracting as sitting in a movie theater and having someone whispering in my ear summaries and comments about what’s happening on the screen.

In my former field of research (Cell and Developmental Biology), the talks are less and less the key part of any meeting. Given the near ubiquitous presence of Twitter and other forms of instantaneous communication, no one speaks about unpublished research any more. The real reason for attending is the interpersonal interactions with one’s colleagues, the discussion private knowledge sharing and collaboration that arises. The poster sessions have become a robust area for learning about new research and direct interaction between researchers (particularly as fewer and fewer pointed questions are asked during talks). If all you’re doing is listening to the talks, in some ways you’d be better served to save your money and just read the speakers’ most recent papers. Though I’d add that you do get the occasional brilliantly conceived session that brings together disparate speakers and combines them in a new way that brings insight.

And this may just be a reflection of that particular field. The original comment above is from an “information scientists” and her culture may be wildly different. If you’re doing most of your research online or at a computer, rather than seeing patients at a clinic or working in a busy wet bench lab in a busy department in a busy university, the way you interact with your colleagues is likely different. If the social norms involve communicating via screen, then virtual meetings held entirely online may indeed be more appropriate.

Great post, Kent, about the need for nimble leadership at associations. Will this presage big changes at SSP under your leadership next year?

One of the great things about SSP is that it’s always evolving. Just over the past 5 years, SSP has revamped its fall meeting (from TMR to SSP-IN), launched the Scholarly Kitchen, expanded its webinar offerings, increased its travel grants to young scholars, grown its annual meeting, and started work on a number of other improvements that we’ll all see over the coming year or so. I’m just hoping I don’t slow things down!

Thanks for liking the post. It’s a very good book that many in our space should read.

As long as association leaders frame the future of their organizations in terms of relevance, it will be extremely difficult for them to thrive in a world experiencing relentless societal transformation. It is time to stop talking in code and start addressing the real issue: associations commit more time, energy and resources to selling memberships than they do to creating radical new value. The association stakeholders of the future live and work in an ambiguous and uncertain world, running at full-speed, that places a high premium on clarity and focus in the pursuit of important personal and professional outcomes. Associations need to deliver new forms of value to help their future stakeholders achieve their outcomes without basing any part of that innovation work on the presence of a membership relationship. Instead, associations need to increase their surface area of attraction to build meaningful connections with a wide variety of interested stakeholders who will participate in the co-creation of new value for themselves and their distributed networks. In addition, associations need to design business models that do not depend strategically, operationally or financially on membership, and are capable of sustaining organic growth over time.

Associations can move in this direction by shedding once and for all the long-standing orthodoxy about what their organizations are supposed to be and what they are supposed to do. We need a candid dialogue about how our deep-seated beliefs are preventing organizations throughout our community from realizing their full potential. The discussion of relevance is nothing more than a distraction from that far more urgent and important conversation.

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