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.)