Thursday, May 3, 2012

5 Issues Impacting Future of Associations & Nonprofits

At lunch the other day, a vendor actively involved in associations and association meetings asked me, “What is the one big issue or trend that associations face today?”

I found myself not able to isolate just one. Here are the five I shared with him:
1) Nurturing a framework and culture for change.
2) Adding value beyond “networking.”
3) Managing association content.
4) Determining whether the current membership model works in the future.
5) Developing a freemium model that works.

Here are the details facing those of us in association management:

1) Nurturing a framework and culture for change.
  • Have you been part of a major restructuring of an association? Have you been a volunteer or staff member of an association with 30+ directors? Unless your experience is highly unusual, you’ve faced the pain of watching an organization struggle to adapt or to change.
  • As Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers observe in Race for Relevance, “most associations are tradition driven, slow and risk averse .... The current model is tied to face-to-face interaction through meetings, conferences, conventions and seminars ... and, while changing, most associations still rely heavily on print for publications, communications and information delivery.” 
  • With the rapid changes in society and the competition our associations face, failing to address change is not an option. See my blog Challenges of Narrow-Minded Board Members: OMG, I am One!  Clearly, remodeling our governance and management models should be a priority. 
  • One crucial element for this remodeling involves engaging Millenials and nonmembers in the process. After all, thriving depends on your ability to engage these two huge populations.
2) Expanding value beyond “networking.”
  • The fast emerging Millennial generation is leading the charge in asking “what do I really get for my dues?” Other generations are joining in this push to be specific about value of dues.
  • While many current members find value in networking through their association membership, millions of others feel quite comfortable networking via Social Media. 
  • This means board members and staff need to look at the world from the eyes of potential members not from their own perspective which suffers from the Curse of Knowledge. 
  • For example, in ASAE’s Decision to Join research, we find that Board members put networking as the #1 member benefit while members put networking at #3. 
3) Managing association content.
  • Content (whether we call it knowledge, information, research or education) has been the primary domain for most associations for more than 100 years. Our model was simple: if you want access to our content/knowledge, you must join.
  • Well, Google messed with our model. Nearly all content is now available instantly and free! So, people really don’t need to join to get content.
  • From newsletters and blogs to conferences and webinars, most associations are content-producing machines. Unfortunately, most of this content is produced once and rarely used in other ways. What a waste of resources. Associations can add value and spread costs when content is shared across delivery platforms; for example, using a conference speech in a blog, in a newsletter, on Twitter, on YouTube or SlideShare, etc.
  • Far too many association professionals still hold the belief that “hiding” content behind a member only firewall will boost membership. Sorry, very little content can be hidden today.
  • Managing and marketing your content shares resources and adds member value. To expand your knowledge of this, I encourage you to register to attend the Content Marketing/Management for Associations & Nonprofits workshop at the 2012 Content Marketing World Conference in September. (By the way, you can save $100 off registration if you use the SCDGroup discount code.)
4) Determining whether the current membership model works in the future.
  • Current orthodoxy: associations must have members. It is who we are and what we do. In today’s world, our stakeholders have “good enough” and superior alternatives. See great outline from Jeff De Cagna. 
  • Since we cannot require everyone in the industry/profession to become a member, most association professionals have struggled with how to put a fence around member benefits so nonmembers don’t get them. For most associations, this is impossible (especially now that prospects can get almost everything free from some other source!). I remember Charles Rumbarger once said “everyone is a member, just some ain’t paying their dues.”
  • Our goal in the words of entreproducer Brian Clark is “build your audience before you need it.” You can do this – and enhance your brand as a thought leader – by sharing your content with non-members as well as members.
5) Developing a freemium model that works.
  • Facebook, LinkedIn and other Social Media organizations (while not nonprofit) may be the prototype models for associations going forward ... and membership is free. Their revenue model does not include member dues and their philosophy (similar to that of “controlled circulation magazines) focuses on building the audience so they can make money from services, advertisements and other items.
  • One association CEO told me dues account for only 7% of the total revenue of his organization “but I can’t afford to cancel dues.”
  • Freemium means giving “benefits and content” to anyone who fits your qualifications and charging a few (dues) for those who want to upgrade to more benefits/services.
  • “Controlled circulation magazines” (those that you receive because of who you are and not because you’ve paid a subscription) have successfully used the free model for years. 
Well, what do you think? Are these the five most pressing issues facing associations? What have I forgotten. Please comment and I’ll share with my friend/vendor.


  1. Very good read, thank you very much!

  2. Thanks Devin.

    Hope you keep reading!


  3. Nicely encapsulated, Steve, you nailed it. If Associations don't focus on engaging members, sharing and re-purposing content and showing relevance and value, members will eventually float away or die off.

    We've been counseling clients to examine their dues models and their organizational structures for quite some time now, but absorption and adoption are slow and sparse. Tradition-driven organizations thrive on "How did we do it last year" mentalities that will kill innovation and original thinking, and prevent the ultimate evolution of the organization.

    Good on ya for posting this, nicely done.

  4. Thanks. I appreciate the feedback.


  5. Good post Steve. A lot of people in the chamber world, my industry, see the trouble that is coming. They just don't know what to do about it. Change is risky so they fiddle around the edges. "We are on Facebook", seems to let them off the hook.

    The boards don't know what to do either. Nobody wants to be the one that brought down the chamber so they take minor steps like having an intern do social media.

    It is going to take entrepreneurialy minded employees and visionary boards to make the giant leap to the new models.

    Thanks for the food for thought.


  6. Frank,

    Thanks much. Especially like your last sentence "It is going to take entrepreneurial employees and visionary boards to make the giant leap to the new models.