Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Keeping it Real for Associations

Question?  Why do you believe “who” you believe when it comes to credible information, and blog postings on growing your association?  As a CEO who meets the challenges everyday in membership recruitment, engagement, meeting budgets, exciting volunteers, and driving a board to make change, I read a lot that comes through my computer via Twitter.  Some will work in reality.  Lots are theoretical ideas, that are driven by a series of assumptions due to changing dynamics of demography and technology.  The truth is that many of the ideas being circulated give no thought as to the vision and leverage of an organizational structure like associations.

Do you enjoy them because they are your friends, or what they say sounds profound and they are good writers, or because you can actually implement what they are saying?  I’ll give you an example.  At the 2011 ASAE Great Ideas conference, as the lead keynote was presenting, people were tweeting these incredible phrases he was stating.  A couple of us at my table, who are run associations, began to see that he did not understand how associations are run.  His corporate examples of Apple, Toyota, and Zappos, weren’t models that were relevant to growing an association, and his ideas were off base.  Yet people continued to tweet his profound statements that don’t work in, or are not relevant to, an association or non-profit business model.

 Let’s face it…1,000 companies/individuals together are more powerful than one of them.  I’ll even go further to say, that 1,000 companies/individuals that are organized through an association are more powerful than 1,000 companies/individuals who are joined together by social media.


I will restate what I stated in my last blog post…The association model is NOT dead, but is as strong as it has ever been!  What is dead, is the age-old thinking by baby boomer CEO’s, who are in charge of associations.  They are running a great business model right into the ground, and think their problem is because all their baby boomer members are retiring soon.

Those who see the future as doom and gloom because baby boomer members are retiring, have they not seen that the Gen Y generation is 40% larger than those boomers?  That spells OPPORTUNITY!  Business 101 folks:  The greatest opportunity lies when a shrinking marketplace is replaced by a larger, growing, and more intelligent marketplace.

With that said, I want to give all association professionals some advice as you seek out guidance from what you read in the blogosphere.  Ask yourself a couple of questions before you BELIEVE and ACT:

1)   Have they ever sat in the position as an association leader?
2)   Have they been successful in executing what they are claiming?
3)   Has anyone in the association sphere executed what they are saying?
4)   Are there measurable results from any association to back up their theories and ideas?

Think about it.  If you are shooting a score of 100 in golf and you want to get down to mid 80's, you don’t ask someone who doesn’t play golf for advice.   You certainly don’t ask someone who is shooting 95.  You ask someone who is consistently shooting in the low 80's, or a professional in the game who can provide just one or two tips that are executable immediately, allowing you to see short term results for longer term game change.

I love reading the blogs, love new thinking, and love new ideas.  However, the thinking and new ideas have to be something that can actually be implemented and work successfully.   Just trying to keep it real for the association community.


  1. Tom,

    Thanks for the great post. Even if someone isn't an association leader, or otherwise doesn't pass the 4-part test you laid out, I still love a good, thought provoking idea when I see it. Sometimes, I'll just try to implement 1 part of 1 idea that someone covers. If it benefits my association, that's all that matters.

    Anthony Demangone

  2. Tom, I think you raise some great questions here, but it feels like the tone of your post sets this up as an either/or: either you're in the trenches doing the work or you're off in the blogosphere dreaming up ideas.

    Isn't it an bit of an and? Theory informs practice and practice informs theory. Matthew May was at Great Ideas specifically to introduce new thinking that association practitioners could then consider for their respective efforts. If people only look to other associations for inspiration, we may be limited in the innovations we imagine.

    When we hear others' ideas, be they from association colleagues or from folks outside the industry, we still have to consider them in light of our specific association's mission and audience being served. As Anthony noted in his comment, just because something has worked for one association doesn't mean it can be adopted wholesale by another. And just because something worked for Toyota shouldn't exclude us form considering how to adapt it for possible application in the association arena.

  3. Jeffrey... Its not an either or. Its find the basis for why you should consider the ideas. The quickest way to maximize your innovation is to tap into new ideas already being done by others. I always agree you need to be a pioneer. I'm live for that process. But that takes time. I look more specifically for new ideas others are trying that are working or where I can see where they are failing to see if we can do it differently and succeed. Helps you know where the pot holes could be.

    I believe consultants are a very important piece of the association world. I also believe that when you are talking or listening, you need to listen to hear if they have pulled off what they are telling you. I think its dangerous to be listening to people who are just writing and talking. Someone you will invest time and money in to help you, MUST have had some success in either doing or helping someone else do what they are giving you advice on.

    Regarding Matthew May, I stand by my comments. It came across as if he did not research into associations. He just presented ideas. Peter Sheahan did an amazing job at annual connecting the dots for associations with his philosophy. You can tell he actually studied what associations do. Connecting the dots is very important.

  4. Peter Sheahan indeed make extensive connections directly from his ideas to the association context, but that doesn't immediately suggest Matthew May's also couldn't be sued effectively. Some people connect the dots for themselves regardless of whether or not the speaker does it and your original assertion was not about the speaker connecting the dots, but about there being no value in the corporate examples that he was sharing. Many disagree with that, including other execs who I'm pretty sure see themselves as "keeping it real" also.

  5. It's an interesting discussion, Tom and Jeffrey. I wasn't at Great Ideas so I can't comment on what was presented there. But I will stand up for Tom and myself as two working association executives in the blogosphere. I'm here to be exposed to creative new ideas and, especially when they come from the thriving consultant community, to try my own hand at contextualizing them and making them real for my association. That's helpful. But it is also fair to observe that some of those ideas are offered for reasons other than helping association improve their real operations. Everyone has skin in the game. We're just not all playing the same game.

  6. AMEN! Tom, you are spot on. I am so tired of hearing that the traditional membership model doesn't work; that we need to lower the number of volunteer leaders; that strategic plans are dust collectors; and that for-profits will take over associations.

    I too have experienced incredible growth and leaps in my association(s). I am a trade association, with a for-profit subsidiary, that manages two other associations. All three are thriving. We have more engaged members, never went into the red during the recession and have excited and engaged members. We fight attrition due to acquisitions, but still maintain retention rates of 97-98% and average 10-25 new members each year for our two North American-based associations. Our European association is a little different, primarily because volunteerism is not as prevalent in Europe, but mostly the members do not buy into the pan-European way of life, and still view things nationally. But otherwise, we see opportunity and still maintain a traditional membership model. We even raised dues dramatically and had a 97.6% retention rate.

    It is not rocket science, it is common sense, commitment to the reason for being and embracing our members and giving them a reason to be a member and not just a transactional customer.

    We were told that the internet would kill associations, yet we are still here. Then it was for-profit associations, yet we are still here. Then it was social media, but we are still here, and growing because of social media!

    We have made great strides getting deeper into our member companies so that when the baby boomers retire, there is the next generation of company leaders who know us and hold the same level of respect for us.

    Love your blog! Profound and spot on!

    Susan Avery, CAE, CEO, International Association of Plastics Distribution