associations, nonprofit,

The End of it All – 2018 for Associations

Written by Erik Hansen

I remember working for a very brief stint at IDSA several years ago, and every day it was losing market share and credibility to Core77. My boss asked me what we should do. I told him that we should buy Core77. A week or two later, I was no longer there. I’m not sure where either organization sits now, but I would wager that Core77 is running laps on IDSA just based on their websites.

If your association hasn’t made any disruptive changes in the past decade, you better start in 2019. At Mekanic, we see it all, from thriving associations with an appetite for maintaining a competitive advantage to crumbling organizations with bloated executive compensation packages and a fear of upsetting a board of volunteers. In all these partnerships, one thing is clear—transformation is the only way to survive the next decade and beyond.

I recently met with another respected consulting executive in the space, and she shared this sentiment that we are in a disruptive period of transformation for associations. I agreed but shared my thoughts with her that we had been here as an industry for over ten years. It’s just that most had tried to bury their head in the sand and ignore the reality that difficult problems typically require difficult decisions and provocative solutions. Take a look at our wealth disparity, the challenges facing the healthcare industry, and political climate. They didn’t happen overnight, and they will not be solved without tough decisions and new approaches.

Uncomfortably new approaches.

Simply changing up some sessions at your annual conference won’t cut it. Introducing a new podcast series won’t either—and if social media is something you are still “considering” you are too late. If you are more than 70% dues dependent, you need a new business model.  If your value proposition sounds something like “we are the most credible, oldest, largest source for networking and bringing together the entire profession,” your value proposition sucks to next generations.

We are moving faster than the speed of light, so it’s time to kick it into high gear.  Otherwise, some kid is going to develop an app in his parents’ basement that will kill your organization. If Amazon, Uber or Square hasn’t opened your eyes, you are blind to the ultimate reality of everything from healthcare to legal, underwear to travel. Disruptors are coming for your cake.

Artificial intelligence is just as real as the Internet was 20 years ago. Virtual reality is as real as social media was ten years ago.  We are well into the depths of digital economy and this is our new reality. If you are going to survive, you are going to have to keep up, and many associations are three strides behind the pace—at best.

About a year ago, I met an association executive who shared with me his aggressive plan to fill a gap in his industry using association reserves. Fresh off two successful for-profit business launches, he had envisioned that these ventures would drive enough profit to make the association 100% free of dues. I nearly fell out of my chair complimenting his ingenuity. I’ll be rooting for his organization from the sidelines.

Stop talking about thinking differently and start doing things differently.

The Mekanic team recently engaged with a client to help reimagine their association’s booth presence at their annual conference. What we presented wasn’t groundbreaking, but it was disruptive to decades of tradition. In our first meeting, we were faced with statements like, “But how can we do it this way? Our members expect it the way we have done it.” This is a tired excuse that is obstructive to the future health of any organization. Your priority should be what you need to do to bring in new attendees—the future of your industry. You should not be making your decisions based on the comfort zones of loyal members (or boards of directors) that have come year after year no matter what. Yes, they bring tremendous value, but your job is not to rest on legacy – but use it to fuel ingenuity.

Over the past three decades, if special interest groups within your profession left your association to start another one, you need to bring them back in. You are all chasing the same people and the same dollars. The problem wasn’t that the industry needed another association—the problem was a lack of perceived value.

It is time to define what it means to belong. We need to redefine what it means to be a part of a community. You need to reevaluate what your profession or industry will need in 10 years.

Don’t die a slow death like Radio Shack did. Sometimes brands and organizations need to retire, and that’s ok. If that’s the case, then close the doors. Don’t make everyone suffer watching your slow demise. But, if you have some fight left in you, most businesses can reinvent themselves, reimagine a future, and rebuild a sustainable model for success—it just takes guts and a lot of pain to come out on the other side.