6 Key Issues Facing Association Leaders

The macro challenges facing leaders of professional societies and trade associations.

6 Key Issues Facing Association Leaders

Over the last few months I set out to identify the big challenges facing leaders of professional societies and trade associations. Like all organizations today, they are being reshaped by powerful economic trends. I performed a literature and Internet search, and interviewed 25 leaders of associations large and small. I identified six key issues:


1. The fundamental model of membership is in question
Membership has been the fundamental frame for associations for over 100 years. It captures the mindset of the people who join and the staff who support them. It permeates the thinking and behavior of volunteers as well as policy makers. But, it is changing.

Facebook is the world’s largest association with over a billion members and anyone can start a group for free. Many people are no longer willing to plop down dollars for the privilege of belonging. They need more tangible value.

Education, previously a core value proposition is now available everywhere to anyone who can search, which is everyone.

What is membership turning into? Too early to tell. Engaged action is one candidate. This is the anticipated, intentional, collective behavior of a group. Engaged action could be turning out at the polls, negotiation with policy makers, taking a class, buying a product, attending a live event, tweeting en masse. If you begin to consider everyone who has a stake in a particular action, suddenly the market expands way beyond membership. But, other issues arise including tax challenges and the identification of the base for advocacy, still the most widely validated currency on Capitol Hill.

2. The adoption of private sector business practices
I have not met an association exec who is not involved in this in one form or another. I have met several who are downright zealous entrepreneurs. Pursuing the bottomline in tough market conditions seems like a no-brainer, but the overall impact is not necessarily what is desired for a mission driven organization, shifting priorities away from impact and member value.

3. Talent
Long an asset in the business world, often the only place leadership is valued in an association is at the top: the CEO, Executive Director, or equivalent. What about the rest of staff? Continuous, aggressive professional development is an organizational asset only in some associations. This is changing. It means less certainty for employees while it opens up new territory for innovation and expansion of the organization.


4. Competitive intelligence
How can any organization hope to thrive in the market without an ambitious approach to understanding trends, competitors, customer experience, and organizational capacity? Yet, many associations are doing negligible work on behalf of their mission. Prices for gathering intelligence are plummeting. Often it is only the CEO who actively searches for new information and connects the dots for organizational strategy. Expect this to change.

5. Disruption of members’ business
Members are going through a challenging time in the economy, along with everyone else. Whether they are operating in a sector experiencing growth or contraction, Darwinian forces are at work sorting out the successful from the mediocre. Major waves caused by the government such as the Affordable Health Care Act, sequestration, gun control, and the coming congressional elections are passing through the American economy with real impact for professionals. Savvy association leaders are looking around the curve, putting the puzzle together for members. This means going beyond providing information and data. Instead it means compiling, analyzing, distilling and communicating useful knowledge that impacts members’ lives. It is not uncommon to see associations beefing up their subject matter experts these days because members need it in a disruptive economy.

6. Driving uptake in a competitive world
It was once the case that each association owned a small monopoly, providing the single best resource to everyone in their field. No more. With the advent of 24/7 interconnectivity, anyone can set up shop and begin serving your members.

For more on this, including a list of the 25 CEOs I interviewed, read my excutive summary, The Future of Association Leadership. You can also download a PPT and MP3 of my presentation at

[Image: Flickr user Francesco Paroni Sterbini]


About the author

I help leaders with change, innovation, and growth. My latest book is "Getting Innovation Right." My first book, "Getting Change Right," was a business bestseller. home office: (301) 229-2221, USA - email: