Wednesday, August 17, 2011


First, I have to say that ASAE was amazing this year in their ability to deliver an incredible event, in a city that many were skeptical about.  Hats off to ASAE and St. Louis for providing one of the most exciting learning environments in recent memory.  I flew to Washington DC and back in one day, shortly after ASAE Los Angeles, to be a part of a special meeting with ASAE’s leadership to discuss the failings of the event.  It’s obvious they listened to the group.  Thank you ASAE for listening and delivering.

What I love about a conference, is that it can give people the opportunity to live out their purpose and experience their passions.  My purpose is to drive people to live life in a way where they never look back and say, “I wish I would have…”, but instead say, “I did!”, and to reach beyond themselves to experience the “ultimate life.” ASAE provides me an opportunity to engage with those who are in challenging times, and need someone to help them see a positive direction for themselves or their association.   There is nothing more rewarding than helping people move from one place in life to a better place in life.   That was never more evident than when I challenged people at the YAPNation Network-FEST Event to come to the stage during the song, "I Got a Feeling", and put money in the bucket for the Joplin Red Cross.  During the entire song, people just kept coming with money.  It was an amazing experience.  We raised $2,900 that night!  Thank you ASAE for giving me and YAPNation a platform!

My passion is drums.  I’ve played drums since I was 5 years old, and was playing in bars when I was 13 years old.  Having the chance to play a dozen rock songs, and then jam a solo at Jive and Wail, at the YAPNation Network-FEST event, rocked my world!  It was like being on top of the world, performing the very thing that gives you the most pleasure, and knowing your closest friends in the association world were there to experience it with you.  The greatest moment was the next day, when a friend tweeted during the general session, “@tommorrison is better than the drummer playing in the general session.”  It will be a memory etched in my life forever.  Thank you ASAE for being a path to living out my passion!

For the rest of this post, I want to lend some reality to the world of association management.  I always ask the question of people when they are listening or reading on association management, is the person teaching or writing, sitting in the stands, or are they playing the game?  There are many things from the stands that really look good, but won’t work in the real game. Now having a little time to digest my thoughts after ASAE, my goal is to lend some reality thoughts from a CEO who is living the dream, and the success of an association that has grown over 500% in net surplus in 5 years, increased its membership 7.5%, and increased average revenues per member by almost 30% in the same time frame.  ...And I have a board and membership, that looks just like any other baby boomer group (I put their picture up in my ASAE Innovation Session).

Many are not going to like to like this statement, but we don’t have an association model problem.  Did you hear that?  We don’t have an association model problem.  We have a leadership problem.  It all starts at the top.   It is no different than the evolution of cars.  Cars today still have a frame, a body, wheels, and an engine.  Yet, cars in the 80’s would never compete with cars of today in performance, because of the advancements made in the technology components, and reengineering around the frame, body, tires, and engine. 

The same is true for associations.  The core of the association model is still as powerful as it was 80 years ago.  Associations who are experiencing exciting growth in their organizations are making constant advancements in their association components, as well as, reengineering themselves like new cars, which enhances the performance of their core association components.  Key components associations should reengineer that will lead to incredible growth in member excitement, loyalty, and revenues are:

  1. Narrowing your focus on doing programs and services for your members they can’t do themselves, allowing you to charge “retail dues.”  As Heath Ledger stated in The Dark Knight, “When you are good at something, never give it away for free.”
  2. Implement technology that allows your members to connect with people, content, and their membership purpose...24/7...year round.
  3. Create an experience for Gen Y that hits at the heart of why they want to belong to your association.  If you reach this group, baby boomers leaving membership for retirement is not an issue for your association.  Gen Y is 40% larger than baby boomers….Get IT!
  4. Developing not just a conference, but an exciting learning experience that engages member’s emotions into gaining a new perspective on their industry, and refreshing their sprit personally.  It’s not about the learning, but the experience that brings them back.  Get the spouses have them for life.
  5. Leveraging the power as an association of many to infect change in the industry.  When your membership is convinced they are an army, not just a soldier, it empowers them to be a part of something bigger than themselves, that can help create a better marketplace for their companies.
  6. Develop a communication structure that engages every demographic group where they are; including print, email, video, and social media.   Do it ALL to reach ALL!
  7. Think BIG!  Do it all with a WOW Factor!  Members want to be excited about their organization. 

Growing your association is about living in a constant state of innovation, and chasing the ultimate level of relevance to your membership by focusing on the 7 areas above.

...And this can’t start from the bottom up as some might think...that takes a generation to impact change.  When it comes from the top down, an association can turn on a dime and rule its industry.    I know because I’ve lived it in the two associations I’ve ran as CEO.

Again, we don’t have an association model problem, we have a leadership challenge.  When association leadership turns from being governors, to business savvy leaders, we will see an exciting new breed of associations that have reengineered the components of the core association model to dominate their world.


  1. Your last sentence in component #4 might seem trivial to some, but in my experience, it isn't. With members so pressed for time, it's smart to provide experiences (social events, education, whatever) that they can bring their spouse/partner, kids or friends to.

    Many of our local associations held family events and social events (where friends were welcome) that were talked about all year long. The association became a part of members' personal lives, not just their professional lives. This is easier to pull off at a local level, but I can imagine ways to make a national conference appealing to more than just the parent in the business suit. Hmmm, I might just have to write about this. Thanks for your inspiration once again, Tom!

  2. I always knew you were a rockstar, Tom, but seeing you behind that drum set seals it. Rock on!

  3. Thanks for the comments Deidre. #4 is probably the most important of all. There is a great article that was out recently that spoke to how more business travelers are turning their conference attendance into mini-vacations with their families due to limited time to have vacations and time away for conferences.

    Instead people are taking the family, taking advantage of the 3-days before or after group rate, letting the company and uncle Sam subsidize their vacation and allowing the family to get a taste of what dad or mom does for a living.

    Associations that tap into that emotional value will see members LOOK FORWARD to where their next great adventure may be with their association.