Is the association model broken?

Blog_50.pngIn a recent online discussion on the ASAE Executive Management Section Listserv, one poster made the point that too many of today’s thought leaders are claiming that the traditional association and membership models are “broken.”

Although I wouldn’t presume to call myself a “thought leader,” we have been thinking, writing, and talking quite a bit about the changes associations need to make in order to grow and thrive in the internet or knowledge age. We’ve written about the danger of associations going from “good to great to gone,” the new rules of engagementgetting unstuck, “Association Think,” and how associations need to reorient their focus 180 degrees, from inside out to outside in.


As we talk to CEOs about reorienting their organization toward demand- and customer-centricity, we’re constantly hearing how frustrated association executives are with their governance models and how stymied they are about how to grow membership and serve increasingly diverse membership populations. At the same time, we often encounter puzzlement and sometimes outright resistance from these same leaders to any suggestion that involves changing either their governance or their membership models. So, I wondered:

Is the association model really broken?

Well…yes and no. Remember, back in 1992, when Francis Fukuyama announced “The End of History,” but history dug in its heels and went on happening anyway?

It’s sort of like that with associations. Traditional association models will survive despite all predictions to the contrary. In some cases, perhaps, the one-size-fits-all membership model, with its governance and leadership garnishes, may even be (as some claim), the best way to achieve a common cause. Certainly, it’s the most familiar. And, it’s the easiest, since associations are already set up for it. It’s definitely the model that brought about “The Golden Age of Associations,” from 1950-2000, when many of today’s associations went from “good to great.” And, it’s the model that some associations are still using to grow, despite the rise of the internet and the onset of the Great Recession.

So, we, at least, are not arguing that the association model is completely “broken.” We are saying that, in the Knowledge Age, it is limiting what associations can achieve and how many people they can reach and engage.

Something is clearly not working. The latest benchmarking reports show that as many as 60% of associations have experienced serious membership decline or stagnation over the past five years. Many that are reporting growth are not growing sustainably. And, those of us who have been around associations for a while know that the slow, steady, incremental decline of associations didn’t start with the recent recession. It actually started as long ago as the 1990’s in some industries.

Or, does the association model need to evolve?

The association model itself isn’t the problem. The problem is associations’ attempts to apply it to all relationships and decision making regardless of whether it’s appropriate. Like the corporate model, the union model, the university model and just about every other organizational model, the association model has to evolve to keep pace with the era. Can anyone realistically argue that, in the wake of globalization, corporations haven’t had to adapt in order to survive and thrive?

There are associations out there that have not yet maximized their membership growth potential. They still have room to grow within the confines of the traditional governance and membership models. And they should, until they can’t any more. But these groups are increasingly exceptions to the rule.

If your association is struggling to add members, going farther and farther afield from your core to find “members”…wondering why so few of your members want to engage with your organization…holding your breath until those last-minute conference registrations come in to be sure you have operating funds for this year, then it’s probably time to consider whether you need to start looking at new models for engaging people around your mission.

Not instead of traditional membership (at least not yet), but in addition to it. For example, consider:

  • New options within membership—tiered membership, nonvoting membership, online only, customizable benefits packages.
  • New relationship categories outside of membership and sponsorship.
  • New delivery systems of traditional benefits—live streaming or on-demand conferences, conference sessions or tracks.
  • New product development processes—strategic partnerships, co-development of benefits with members, staff champions.
  • New engagement opportunities that maximize social media tools, inclusion, and sense of belonging.

Bricks and Mortar in the Internet Age

Go ahead and keep your traditional one-size-and-one-price-fits-all membership option for anyone who wants it. Keep your volunteer leaders, your committees, and task forces and boards. Keep your publications, annual conferences, and continuing education. There will always be a market for them.

But, think of traditional association models as bricks-and-mortar bookstores in the Age of “Real” bookstores will always be around (I hope) and there will always be a market for them. They may even see something of a resurgence as the dust settles from the big-box bookstore collapse. But, their best days are behind them and they will never dominate the market as they once did.

So, maybe the association model is not so much broken as it is crippled. Why let it hobble your association?

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