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Association apocalypse: Navigating a changing landscape for future success

  • The operating landscape for associations is rapidly changing.
  • To survive, associations must fundamentally transform their business models, membership structures and component frameworks.
  • Strategy will only be successful if strong operational enablers are in place.

When I first started working in associations 25 years ago franking machines were common in offices, my CEO thought websites were a ‘passing fad’, Google didn’t exist, membership fees were paid by cheque, cameras needed film, dial-up modems made a loud noise, and I was genuinely excited when our office bought a new fax machine.

It was only 15 years ago that MySpace was popular, (Facebook wasn’t public until 2006), social media was unknown, Blackberry phones dominated, digital cameras were cool, and I thought it was awesome that so many more members were paying by credit card.

It was only ten years ago that the iPhone started to change the way we interact with the world, Twitter rose to popularity, and our daily lives started to become inextricably entwined with the internet.

The change since then has been phenomenal with the last five years seeing the rapid rise in the sharing economy and the apps that enable them (such as Spotify and Airbnb). The ability to outsource various tasks in our lives has become easier through the rapid rise of apps such as UBER, Deliveroo, Airtasker and Fiverr.

Things have changed dramatically, and we can expect to see exponentially more change moving forward.

This has massive implications for the association sector.

Seismic shift in the operating landscape

Without immediate and rapid action some associations will find themselves rendered obsolete and replaced by newer, more adaptable competitors. For those organisations that don’t adapt quickly, the coming changes represent an apocalypse they will not be able to navigate.

For associations with the will to move forward, grasping new technologies and opportunities, it will be a chance to transform into something more powerful than ever before as they navigate the following five shifts:

  1. Technological — The integration of machine-thinking and AI into association management software will make the mass personalisation of membership possible. The first associations to successfully implement this will be able to rapidly expand their scope of influence and gain a potentially unassailable position in their industry or profession.
  2. Generational — Associations need to bridge an ever-widening generational divide. They must be able to pivot enough to create an organisation that younger people want to join and/or engage within sometimes new ways, while also retaining (and not alienating) existing members.
  3. Competition, mergers and consolidations — An influx of new and powerful competitors will disrupt the existing competitive landscape. Associations must deal with these new competitors, as well as the existing range of competitors. They will also need to navigate the impact of mergers and consolidations between associations and amongst the members of their associations.
  4. Tangibility — People are looking to engage with organisations who can deliver results, not rhetoric. Associations must develop measurements of success around productive outcomes (not membership numbers) and be able to demonstrate the tangible difference they make.
  5. Personalisation — In the highly personalised nature of the services we experience in our daily life has created the expectation of customisation amongst members. Associations cannot afford not to meet these baseline expectations which makes the need for associations to segment and personalise their offer and communications to target different groups more vital than ever before.
  6. Community — People are driven by the need to belong and connect. Associations who can harness this desire and become the facilitators of positive connections amongst their community and tribes will have created a powerful competitive advantage for themselves.

The first associations to successfully implement [the integration of machine-thinking and AI into association management software] will be able to rapidly expand their scope of influence and gain a potentially unassailable position in their industry or profession.

Transform to survive

Associations cannot rely on business models suited for an era that has now passed. Innovation and entrepreneurship must be embedded operationally as associations fundamentally transform the following.

Business models

Associations will move away from purely relying on the ‘provider of services’ model to become a platform that facilitates positive outcomes for members as well as the professional or industry community. This will create a range of new revenue generation opportunities.

Membership structures

Associations will adopt more intuitive membership structures, fee schedules, and payment methods that better align with new business models and changes to the way people live and work.

Component frameworks

Most association components (such as branches, special interest groups, committees) are based on traditional frameworks that limit the association’s ability to powerfully mobilise their communities. Associations will better leverage the power of their communities by moving to more innovative models that enable members to connect and engage without requiring the hands-on involvement of association staff.

Ensure strong operational enablers are in place

You cannot build a tall building without ensuring it has strong foundations that will support the final structure. In the same way, associations cannot grow effectively without the 11 core operational enablers in place:

  1. Leadership — A dynamic, cohesive leadership team, comprising the board, the CEO and any senior staff, who have a clear vision of the future, the pathway to get there, and the motivation to achieve it.
  2. Governance — A well-run, supportive board that has up-to-date and sound governance in place, and that embraces innovation, ‘nimbleness’ and strategic oversight.
  3. Strategy — Evidence-based strategic planning processes that create measurable, time-dependent objectives that flow throughout the association as operational KPIs. Effective monitoring and reporting against the strategy that feeds into the ongoing strategy refinement process.
  4. Staff — A healthy, passionate, outcomes-focused, collaborative workplace that does not tolerate toxic staff members.
  5. Financial – Strong, diversified income streams; revenue growth higher than inflation, pro-active minimisation of inefficiencies (for example, automation of manual tasks); and effective financial management.
  6. Processes — Strong yet flexible policies and procedures embedded into a robust technological framework.
  7. Technology — Technology that optimises the ability of the association to facilitate powerful outcomes for all members of its community
  8. Offer — A variety of powerful offers that deliver tangible value and meaningful outcomes for each market segment.
  9. Brand — An engaging positioning and branding strategy that ensures the association is positioning itself in the hearts and minds of stakeholders in a compelling way.
  10. Communications — Engaging and targeted internal and external communications that ensure they cut through the clutter and have their voice clearly heard.
  11. Engagement — Proactive facilitation of positive interactions and engagement between individuals within the association community.

Change needs to begin now

The operating landscape for associations is changing so dramatically that associations need to fundamentally transform to survive. This kind of change cannot happen overnight, and associations must begin work now.

This article1 has been designed to assist association leaders to understand the scale of the change coming and create a platform for productive discussions within their associations about appropriate pathways forward.

By working together with other associations to resolve these challenges, associations can ensure the strength and vitality of their organisations into the future.

  1. Based on Strategic Membership Solutions Association whitepaper, Apocalypse: Navigating the Rapidly Changing Landscape to Ensure Future Success. Released in June 2019.

Belinda Moore can be contacted on 0413 190 197 or by email at LinkedIn:

Material published in Governance Directions is copyright and may not be reproduced without permission. The views expressed therein are those of the author and not of Governance Institute of Australia. All views and opinions are provided as general commentary only and should not be relied upon in place of specific accounting, legal or other professional advice. 

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