Sunday, January 6, 2013

15 And/Or Dilemmas Facing Association Leaders in 2013

In the 12 months of curating the SCDdaily blog, I’ve covered a lot of issues facing associations, association executives and association volunteers. I’ve read (and/or scanned) thousands of pages of blogs, tweets and articles (from HBR, FastCompany, Forbes, WSJ, USA Today).
During 2012, I listened to the issues facing associations at local and national association and marketing meetings: 
  • “Should we move all our publications online and if we do, what does that do for our (older) members who don’t have access to internet media?”
  • “How do I break down our organizational silos so I can get people in other departments to fully implement what we are doing?”
  • “I hear what you are saying about the freemium model but don’t you get what you pay for? Doesn’t free membership devalue what our association offers”“
  • “How do I get my board to step back and take a hard look at who we are and what we offer?”
  • “If we live-stream conference sessions, won’t fewer members attend out conferences?”
  • “How do we keep up with all the changes?”
To start 2013, I’ve created a list of “association challenges” that I’m labeling the “And/Or Dilemma Facing Associations.” [By the way, these are not listed in any specific order.] The choices in this list are not right or wrong even though most associations probably need to select one or the other. Please feel free to use the comments section below to combine, delete or add to this list.
1. Association organized and/or self-organized groups
The and/or dilemma: Do you create your own closed system or use an open public system such as LinkedIn groups? And, if you establish an internal, private system, what should you do about members (and prospects) who maintain connection via a LinkedIn group? 
  • Associations traditionally (as in pre-social media) developed and implemented programs and services that the volunteer boards and/or professional staff conceived and implemented. This worked/works great!
  • Associations seeking an engaged community of members face the dilemma.
  • As Clay Shirky outlined in “Here Comes Everybody: the Power of Organizing without Organization,” the internet and social media tools have allowed individuals to self-organize. Whether inside or outside traditional associations, such decentralized self-organized activities can either threaten or complement the traditional association “programs and services.”
  • My brother Dave was a professional who belonged to his professional society. He attended (and enrolled his staff) the annual meetings of his professional society. However, he also participated in twice-a-year “study group” meetings organized by a vendor. He often told me that the study group (limited to 100 professionals in non-competing territories) “made” his business. I asked him why the study group was not part of the offerings of the professional society. His response, “Oh, the association is run by the good old boys and they are not interested in these types of programs.”

2. Engaged vs passive members
The and/or dilemma: Deciding if you really want engaged members. And, if you do, what systems do you install to help “hook” prospects and engage members. 
  • Long before the internet, associations worried about “passive members.” Some called them “checkbook members” or “mailboxers” because they would join but would not participate. Today these same passive members are often called “lurkers” because they’ll sign up for the association’s social media sites but rarely get engaged, post information or leave comments.
  • Some association leaders like having passive members ... after all, they pay their dues and don’t “stir the pot” with comments, concerns and complaints.
  • David Gammel, CAE, described the engagement acceleration curve in his book Maximum Engagement. He suggests the key is to “hook” prospects early with free offerings and then “move” them along the engagement curve. 
3. Print and/or electronic publishing
The and/or dilemma: Would it benefit our organization if we switched from print to digital publications? And, if so, when? And, what do we do about members who “aren’t digital?”
  • Associations traditionally printed their materials (fliers, newsletter, magazines, etc.) and distributed them via snail mail. Then, many found that distributed printed publications via fax sped delivery and lowered costs (paper, printing, postage).
  • The internet and digital publishing provided associations the opportunity to increase efficiency and lower costs by converting to digital publishing and producing blogs, e-letters, e-books and other publications distributed via websites, emails or other electronic tools.
  • The and/or dilemma: digital publishing is fast and cost efficient but some members don’t like electronic publications and/or don’t have access to the internet tools for reading digital publications. (Some, obviously, just don’t like the change!) So, the association – especially those which have older member demographic – faces the dilemma of choosing between traditional publishing or digital publishing or both.
4. Short and/or long content
The and/or dilemma: Most associations have been told that members want information in a condensed, short format ... but do they? There is some evidence that longer form content is also successful. What does an association do?
  • In “What The New Yorker Magazine Can Teach You About Content Marketing that Works”  Demian Farnworth noted “The long-form story (“epic content” in the Copyblogger vocabulary) is The New Yorker’s unmovable anchor in the rough seas of magazine publishing. A monument to good writing. A reason that people are willing to scale a pay wall.”
  • “Long-form content has substance. There is a drilling-down into a topic that will leave you reeling with a load of new information. Long-form content tells a story. The article is built on a narrative. It is the equivalent of a This American Life episode (and the Ira Glass Guide to Link Bait).”
5. Free and/or paid and/or Premium memberships
The and/or dilemma: Determining whether the traditional dues-only based member benefits still works. Or, whether the association could better achieve its mission by offering an all-inclusive freemium membership. 
  • Association dues have been the key entry for member connections and benefits. Associations have traditionally said “if you want our information, knowledge or connections, pay our dues.” It was a near monopoly, especially for professionals. Then along came the internet ... Google opened up the doors to knowledge and for profit competitors stepped in to provide information, knowledge and connectivity.
  • Then, some nontraditional associations and more traditional associations began “testing” the freemium model. They offered “free memberships” (with reduced benefits) to anyone interested who provides contact information. These associations then work to move the free members up the engagement acceleration curve to paid memberships and beyond.
  • The “mass” and premium model is a variation of the free and/or paid issue. Many associations operate under the strategy that more members is good. So, they establish policies, pricing and promotion designed to keep recruiting new members. Meanwhile, some associations are more selective and focus on selective recruiting. And, a few associations operate with both strategies combining a “lower priced” dues level designed to generate large numbers of members while offering “premium level dues” designed to attract a small group of members willing and able to pay for premium services.
6. Member-driven and/or board & staff-driven
The and/or dilemma: Some associations rely on members, volunteers and the board to “drive” associations vision and programming. Staff drive other associations. Race for Relevance suggests associations need to rely more heavily on a professional staff not just to implement board-developed programs but to drive association strategies and programs. 
7. Face-to-face and/or networked connections
The and/or dilemma: Most associations focus on the importance of face-to-face events (conferences, luncheons, meetings, seminars, etc.) not only to engage members but also to generate non-dues revenue. 
  • I’ve experienced global networking through my active involvement in Twitter. I’ve met people online that I would have never met any other way.
  • Associations may find great results if their face-to-face events offer the time and space for online colleagues to meet in person. 
8. Command & Control Structure and/or Informal Bottom-up Organization
The and/or dilemma: Processes, best practices and systems help increase the efficiency of associations. But, best practices limit us to what has been establish and may not help the association meet future issues and needs. (How can your association’s culture be both efficient and flexible to change?)
  • Most associations were constructed in the “command and control” era. Those systems may be decaying or in need of repair
  • Millennials (and I suspect some of us older folks) are looking for more collaborative cultures that permit engagement regardless of title and more focused on skills or talents needed to be successful. 
  • If you haven’t already done so, get and read Humanize by Maddie Grant and Jamie Notter.
9. Organizational silos and/or networked teams
The and/or dilemma: Whether we admit it or not, most large associations – those big enough to have “departments” – have real or perceived silos. It is a fact of organization life. The departmentalized structure offers advantages, efficiencies and best practices that benefit many associations. At the same time, the organizational silos – which can foster that’s my role or “that’s not my job” – can prevent the association from achieving its overall strategies.
  • “How do I get our magazine editors to share their stories so I can use them in our association’s content marketing strategies,” the content exec of a major national association asked during our Content Marketing for Association’s workshop at the CMW12 conference.
  • General Stanley McChrystal. An Army man, McChrystal ran Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq and Afghanistan for nearly five years, and later commanded all U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan. McChrystal experienced a reinvention challenge of his own when the threat of Al Qaeda emerged and the U.S. military had to rethink its assumptions. Against Al Qaeda, however, "we had to change our structure, to become a network. We were required to react quickly. Instead of decisions being made by people who were more senior – the assumption that senior meant wiser – we found that the wisest decisions were usually made by those closest to the problem." (From The Secrets Of Generation Flux, FastCompany, October 15, 2012)
  • Structured organizations tend to focus on “systems,” “processes” and “best practices.” All are important to help the association meet its mission, vision and objectives.
  • Some associations operate in a less formal culture. They have guidelines but flexible processes allow staff to improvise to meet needs of members and prospects.
10. Déjà vu and/or vuja dé (see SCDdaily of 12/19/11)
The and/or dilemma: Bill Taylor shared this in Don't Let What You Know Limit What You Imagine in Harvard Business Review (11/29/11). “We've all experienced déjà vu — looking at an unfamiliar situation and feeling like you've seen it before. Vuja dé is the flip side of that — looking at a familiar situation (a field you've worked in for decades, products you've worked on for years) as if you've never seen it before, and, with that fresh line of sight, developing a distinctive point of view on the future. If you believe, as I do, that what you see shapes how you change, then the question for change-minded leaders becomes: How do you look at your organization and your field as if you are seeing them for the first time?”
11. Stability and/or flux
The and/or dilemma: Rapid changes have made many employees feel in a state of flux. Many association staff (and members and leaders) see value in stability and knowing what membership means. They tend to be adverse to change. Meanwhile, other association staff (as well as members and leaders) love change and thrive on “flux.” Both skills (and desires) are needed for associations of the future. How does your organization provide a culture that fits both preferences and needs?
  • In FastCompany’s year-long series on “Generation Flux” Robert Safian describes Gen Flux as those with a mind-set that embraces instability, that tolerates – even enjoys – re-calibrating careers, business modes and assumptions. 
12. Governing Board: representational and/or competency based
The and/or dilemma: Race for Relevance opens with a call for smaller, competency-based boards where directors are elected or selected based on the skills and talents needed on the board. In reality, directors for many association governing boards is representational: directors are “selected” based on an individual segment within the association. For example: they might represent a chapter or state association or a special interest group or perhaps a segment such as manufacturers or a sub-speciality of the profession.
  • The challenge of representational boards surfaces when the director acts “on behalf of” this segment of the organization and does not focus on what’s best for the entire organization.
  • The challenge of competency-based boards is making the transition from a representational board, determining the skills/talents needed and finding a nominating or election process that select directors in a way that doesn’t smack of “the old boys network” at work.
13. National and/or affiliates (local chapters and/or state associations)
The and/or dilemma: Over three decades I’ve witnessed numerous “fights” between chapter and national organizations all representing the same industry or profession. I know of one national association that discontinued its national convention & trade show because its state associations complained about lost revenue when the national meeting was in their state. I’ve seen local chapters question whether the national association knew what it was doing or complained about the costs and/or lack of service the national provided chapters. In some organizations, members have to join the local, state and national organization as part of a single dues package. In others, individuals can join one or both organizations. Structure and cultural seem to make a difference. But, the “arguments” have reached the point that some associations question whether chapters add enough value to have them.
14. What’s it in for me and/or what’s in it for us
The and/or dilemma: This is a question of personal focus: do members join and volunteer because it’s the right thing to do for their profession or industry? Or, are people making the “decision to join” on what I’ll get from membership? Some have argued that this is a generational difference but I’m not so sure. If most of your prospective members are joining based on “what’s in it for me,” your association is challenged to provide, market and quantify specific and tangible benefits (not features) for those who join. If, however, most of your members (and prospects) are thinking globally about what’s in it for us, your marketing and messaging can and should focus on “join the cause” to support our industry or profession.
Well, that’s my list. As you begin 2013, what would you add or delete? Share your thoughts in the comment section below. 

Unfortunately, there is no right or wrong way to “solve” the and/or dilemma. Each association will find the best way to deal with the issues.

The important step is that you can and should discuss the and/or dilemmas among your staff and with your volunteers.


  1. Happy New Year Steve! Since it's not mentioned above, your readers may want to take a look at my free e-book, Associations Unorthodox: Six Really Radical Shifts Toward the Future (, for a different view of what it will take for associations to thrive in the years ahead.

    In addition, they may find value in my recent blog post "Six serious ideas for 2013" ( as they think about how they are going to make transformation happen in their organizations this year.

  2. Happy New Years to you too Jeff!

    Thanks for sharing those links ... hope all those interested in the future of associations will be reading your posts!