It’s hard to watch something die a slow agonizing death, including an association. Over the last decade I have presented at the meetings of scores of associations. Because I highly customize my presentations, I have had the opportunity to interview hundreds of association board members as well as rank-and-file members. My observations—as in any industry, some do well some plow along and some disappear.
One association, for which I presented three years in a row, I also found myself working with four different executive directors in that same time period. Consistent leadership is one of the critical success factors in any business, and an association—while perhaps a non-profit—an association is still a business.
This same association found its conference attendance dropping to the point that there were almost two associate (vendor) members for every (buying) member in attendance. The suppliers had been threatening for several years to discontinue their support if the trend did not turn around. The regular members didn’t listen. They just continued to see their conference as a subsidized vacation and social gathering. The vendors finally pulled the plug—early last year, this association planned not to hold a meeting this year.
What’s the lesson we can take from this example? I believe there are several.
Lesson Number 1: Free lunch…where?
Lunch is not free forever. Sure, your industry vendors will support and subsidize meetings for their customers, but only if there is something in it for them. Exposure does not put meat on the table. When the associate members of an association no longer believe they are receiving a reasonable return for their investment of time and money, they will discontinue their support.
Lesson Number 2: Do you know what’s really going on?
If you make like an ostrich and always keep your head in the sand, you will surely lose your rear end. Both the governing board and regular members are equally responsible for the success of an association. If you are a regular member, you cannot maintain the attitude of, the board will handle it. The governing board cannot perform magic; make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. They can only offer leadership and direction. If the membership at large is too lazy, comfortable or complacent, the board can only do so much.
Lesson Number 3: Fish or cut bait.
Associate, or supplier, members must either fish or cut bait. If a supplier member company is not receiving value from participation, they must first ask about their own responsibility. Ask, “How can we better work the show?” How can we better capitalize on the opportunities?” and “How can we help this association to improve?” After this has been done and the results are still unacceptable, shut up or cut bait. Too often suppliers will complain year after year about the quality of a conference but do nothing. It is like crying wolf, after enough complaining, nobody listens. Actions speak more loudly than words.
Lesson Number 4: Create value for members.
An organization must create enough value for those involved in it for the organization to sustain itself, let alone thrive. Everyone’s afraid to ask, “Does this association still serve?” If not, fix it or kill it. Penetrating deeper into the idea, the realization that an association is nothing more than its members must be brought to the surface. As such, how often does the governing board query its individual members as to the value they are currently receiving from their membership?
Lesson Number 5: Old Farts R Us is not the formula for success.
Every association must accept that there is a turnstile of membership. Some become disenchanted and leave, some go out of business and some die. This is the reality of any association. Additionally, industry players that have reached their golden years generally have already made it, become successful, want to spend time with their grandchildren or perhaps sipping a margarita in Cancun rather than building an industry. What are you doing each year, month, week and day to persuade non-member industry players to come and play in your sandbox?
Lesson Number 6: It’s all about the people.
Association members can do wonderful things in building their association if given the proper tools. Build outrageously successful relationships wherever you can. For governing board members: First, find the best executive director and staff possible, pay them well and develop incentives that will motivate them to stay put. Then develop tools to help your members at large to share with their industry colleagues the value in belonging to your association and keep asking questions in the form of member surveys. (See my association value article @ www.rigsbee.com/ma18.htm for help in this area.) For the members at large, if you catch yourself whining—quit it! You have the power and opportunity to ask, “What can I do to help grow my association, and industry?” You also have the power and opportunity to ask yourself, “What will I do to help my association and industry grow?”
Trade and professional associations in America, when run well, deliver to its membership huge synergies. This is done through economies of scale and other mechanisms. At an association conference roundtable session that I recently facilitated, we discovered that the association asked approximately $1,600 in cash and two semi-annual trips in time of its members. In return, that association delivered just under $5,000 in documented value for the member’s investment. What’s your association’s value proposition?
Ed is the Founder and CEO of the 501(c)(3) non-profit public charity, Cigar PEG Philanthropy through Fun, and president at Rigsbee Research which conducts qualitative member ROI research and consulting for associations and societies. He has been called “the dynamite that broke up our log jam” by association executives—rarely politically correct and almost always provocative—and from a dozen years as a United States Soccer Federation referee, Ed calls it the way he sees it. Exceptional resources at www.rigsbee.com.
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