Is “follow the leader” leading associations astray?

Blog_18.pngBy Andrea Pellegrino

Having members as leaders does not make an association “member-driven.” At least not in the way most associations think it does. In fact, the practice of allowing a small group of atypical members to “drive” the association is helping to drive many organizations toward irrelevance and decline.

Member-leaders always have been and always will be a minute fraction of an association’s actual or potential membership. Yet, they continue to be the gold standard—the “go to” segment associations use to define value, develop products and services, and to which they allocate the most resources (including staff time).

And that’s where association leaders are leading associations astray.

Because a small group of members drives critical decisions, too many associations believe that this makes their organization “member-driven.” After all, these leaders are members, aren’t they? They drive the association, don’t they? They value the association and its products, don’t they? What more does it take to be member-driven?

With this rationale in mind, many associations thus continue to focus on bringing more “value” to these “ideal” members—and creating more like them—at the expense of the wider market, which is the only place where growth can occur.

However valued they are, member-leaders are not necessarily an association’s most valuable members. The very fact that they are already so deeply engaged means that member-leaders do not represent the majority of an association’s current members and customers or, more importantly, the majority of its potential members or customers.

Our research shows that growing associations look outside the narrow focus of their volunteer leadership. They pay attention to, get to know, represent, understand and serve the “peripheral members”—those not serving on committees or buying booths or attending conferences (and never will), the un-served or underserved segments of the value chain, individuals or companies new to the field, their competitor’s members and customers.

Even with the best of intentions, volunteer leaders can lead an association astray (as many do) by focusing on the needs, benefits and pricing policies that meet their own short-term needs, price points, and narrow ideas of value. They represent the past, not the rapidly-changing present, and certainly not the future.

“Member-driven” is about all members, not just the select few who make it to the top of the association volunteer leader heap. It’s about designing solutions for the members and customers an association wants to have five years or 10 years into the future.

Organizations can no longer just listen to the echo chamber of their most “engaged” or “involved” members. The path to growth—to truly being “member-driven”—is not to build clones of or provide additional or enhanced services to the Executive Committee. The path to growth is to engage the unengaged. The challenge is not to give internal customers more value, but to expand the association’s value proposition to encompass the maximum universe of current and potential members and customers.

Associations should be careful not to “follow the leaders” into irrelevance by building the organization around increasing its value to volunteer leaders.

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