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It’s Time for Associations to Transform

March 6, 2013

I’ve been struggling lately with finding relevance for associations. I’m struggling because I love associations, but I question how they will continue with current models. Here’s my problem: I think many associations have forgotten why they exist, and instead, focus on just collecting dues and holding events. I’ve spoken with several association leaders lately that are having a hard time meeting financial goals, delivering value to stakeholders, and achieving their goals. I’ve also spoken with many association members who really question why they pay to be members of an organization and whether or not the fees are worth it. We need a major transformation both in terms of what associations do, and how they are funded.

I think many associations act like cocoons: they’re insular, and keep their value hidden. On the other hand, I’m also starting to see signs of associations evolving to be more like butterflies – and I hope to see more of this. So how do cocoon associations and butterfly associations compare?


Cocoon Associations

Cocoon associations are inward facing: concerned with themselves and their growth. They focus on recruiting members and holding events. They hide their value – and showing it only to those on the inside, and are restrictive about things like sharing content. They are tightly guarded, and put up a barrier that separates them from the world. They are also stuck in one place, not able to leave their spot. This combined with their vulnerability to everything from the economy to their competitors. Cocoon associations don’t sound very promising – but they have a huge potential to emerge transformed.

Butterfly Associations

Butterfly associations on the other hand have an outward focus and they show their value to everyone around them. With their wings outstretched and open they move freely as needed. When faced with a possible threat – they can fly to a safer place. They’re not completely protected from the butterfly nets of the association world, but they have the ability to be nimble. They are also transformed with a new focus on the mission of the association, not simply the management of the association. Butterflies are fascinating, they soar to great heights and they’re loved.

The Transformation Process

Becoming a butterfly association is no easy task and involves consultation and collaboration as well as answering some pretty tough questions. A few questions and tips to get you started:

  1. Start by asking yourself: How is your association relevant? Do you deliver value?
  2. Next, ask yourself if your current practices are the most effective way of achieving your mission. Are you preventing your leadership from focusing on key priorities because they are being consumed by projects that while valuable, or are not the best use of their time and talent? Are there other initiatives that would be more important?
  3. Develop a long-term plan, one with room for flexibility, but that ultimately commits to a transformation.
  4. Develop an alternative funding model that will help ensure your long-term sustainability that is not heavily dependent on member dues.
  5. Gain support for your vision with your board and stakeholders. Keep in mind that when you’re stuck inside the cocoon, it can be difficult to see the beauty that will emerge.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 7, 2013 2:32 pm

    This is indeed an excellent article and good reminders about evolution and its necessity for survival, eloquently said.

    • March 7, 2013 2:38 pm

      Thanks so much, Tahira! I like the connection you’ve made to evolution – as I do think that we are seeing that happen. The ability to adapt to new factors, from members being able to make meaningful connections through social media outside of the traditional association, to the realization that we need partnership opportunities that don’t start with “your logo will be placed on…” will be critical for associations.

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