by: James Young

Invest in Capabilities to Create Permanent, Focused Growth


Associations are unique. We employ great people capable of working with volunteers, delivering great programming, and managing the day-to-day complexities of the modern association.

At the same time, we’re faced with questions that challenge the notion of operational excellence leaving us exposed and unprepared to navigate what’s coming.  

Are we ready for the future? How can we anticipate our community’s evolving needs? Do our staff and volunteers have the proper capabilities to meet these evolving needs?

To achieve sustainable growth, associations need to invest deeply and widely in our people. A capabilities-based strategy focuses on distinctive and compelling choices about what it means to win or make impact in a particular market. 

The Product Community is a product development learning community designed specifically for associations. 

The Unique Challenge of Associations

“As associations continue to seek new sources of revenue, they must get serious about talent and reward those responsible for building businesses. In other words, to create the competitive advantages of the future, associations will need to ensure that key personnel have the skills, support and incentives necessary to ensure success. For many associations, this requires a seismic shift in the way they think about human resources.”

Jay Younger, McKinley Advisors
Associations and Competitive Advantage

Investing in your people will make your association better. Whether we’re talking staff, volunteers, members, partners, or our community, we are in the people business. 

People are the greatest asset and the largest expense in running a successful association. This includes staff salaries and benefits, the cost of managing volunteers, or the expense of employing an association management company. 

Source: Hope McConnell, Behance

Associations should invest in people as a differentiating competitive advantage. We can do this, in part, by investing in strategy and by tapping into the creativity, passion and ingenuity of our staff and volunteers.

We ground this article with a few assumptions.

  • Your association wants to expand reach, grow and diversify revenue, and make an impact.
  • Although we have similar features (volunteer-led, purpose-driven, membership-focused, etc.), there is no single, one-size-fit-all, silver bullet list of skills or capabilities to prepare your association for the future.
  • There are, however, ways to identify the capabilities your particular association will need to gain competitive advantage and to achieve growth. 
  • Identifying these capabilities requires your association to develop, commit to, and carry out a strategy based on a specific set of integrated choices, namely:
    • What is our winning aspiration? This describes our destination and what it means to succeed.
    • Where will we play? This describes where we will compete, our geographies, product categories, members segments, and channels.
    • How will we win? This describes our unique value proposition and competitive advantage.
  • While a team of talented expert-generalists are a boon to nearly all associations, it isn’t enough for staff to be solely operationally-focused or tactically-oriented. 
  • When we refer to strategy, we’re not talking about a strategic plan; we’re talking about what differentiates your association, what creates a competitive advantage, and what measurable steps we’re going to take to achieve our winning aspiration. 

According to Leinwand and Mainardi (2011, page 90), capabilities are the ability to consistently deliver a specific outcome, in support of your way to play.

Capabilities are the right combination of processes, tools, knowledge, skills, and organization, all focused on meeting the desired result. 

This is important given the uniqueness of associations. We are wildly diverse, yet have similarities that tie us together:

  • We are anchored in purpose
  • We are volunteer-led
  • We celebrate community and believe in membership
  • We produce content and choreograph events 
  • We are also constrained and desire focused action 

Despite these similarities one of our greatest strategic challenges is to differentiate our particular association from the competition (other associations, but any other place a prospective member would go to serve their needs).

The below graphic asks a critical question: is your association ready for growth? This question is vital for two reasons:

  1. You will hire staff and design capabilities depending on where you fall on this spectrum. For instance, if you are near the top (strategically adrift or distracted), your talent management plan or staffing plan will respond accordingly. You will largely have a talented staff engaged full-time in firefighting. 
  2. It’s a completely different picture if you fall in the green area (near the bottom). This suggests a strong alignment between the commitment to a strategy and your readiness for growth. It also suggests that the people you hire and train will have significantly different skills and level of readiness. 

Associations tend to be practical organizations comfortable in the operational, tactical space as opposed to broad-based strategic evolution. 

If we develop and commit to an association-wide strategy that is evolutionary and rooted in making an impact, we’ll need to make a parallel and bold investment in our people, especially in distinctive capabilities that will help position us for long-term success.

Types of Association Capabilities

An organization’s engine for growth is its system of a few capabilities that distinguish it from its competition and contribute disproportionately to its success. 

Paul Leinwand + Cesare Mainardi
The Essential Advantage: How to Win with a Capabilities-Driven Strategy

One important way to position our associations for the future is to look at a table we created for last week’s article, Leverage for Scale.   

In this article we contrast how adopting a product community approach is substantially different from standard association practice. This is one way of framing the future. This leaves us with two central questions:

  • What is our commitment to adopting and committing to a focused strategy?
  • What capabilities would we need to achieve the right side of the table?

We will use a lightweight framework to present three broad types of association capabilities. These will support our strategic approach to talent and help us allocate our scarce human resources. 

It can also guide us in understanding how (and in what areas) we need to recruit and when and where we need to invest in professional development. This framework can also inform our association’s talent management planning efforts.   

There are three general buckets of association capabilities: lights-on, table stakes, and distinctive. All associations need all three types and a healthy interplay among them.  

  • Lights-on capabilities are basic business capabilities needed to operate our associations (aka “keep the lights on”). This can include tax reporting, real estate and facilities maintenance, and energy management.
  • Table stakes capabilities are the competitive necessities that all associations must have to compete successfully (adjusting for size and complexity). Examples might include a membership function, events management, volunteer engagement, baseline technology infrastructure, or budget-specific processes. Table stakes capabilities are the minimum requirements to have a credible competitive advantage in the market. Therefore, they tend not to be differentiated.
  • Distinctive capabilities are the unique sources of value that enable your association to stand out from the competition. They are the source of competitive advantage. In most associations, these distinctive capabilities are complex enough to transcend functional boundaries. For instance, an association might have capability in designing products that delight members, incorporating a volunteer community of practice model, customer insight, and mature, data-informed assessment practices. A thriving association will only have three to six of distinctive capabilities, all reinforcing one another. They require considerable attention and investment to ensure that the association maintains its distinctive position. 

As we learned in one our recent articles on cross-boundary community-building, innovation is not departmental.

Great strategy is sticky, social, and longitudinal. It starts with shared buy-in and is extended by the interplay among the different types of association capabilities.

Product communities work as they channel the best ideas through passionate people from different professional and personal lenses. They help break down organizational barriers in order to get the best ideas to market efficiently and collaboratively. 

While you’re at it, people get to know each other and earn trust.

Let’s look at an example to drive this home.

Presenting an Example Capabilities System

“How do you constantly look around for new ways and new resources to learn new things? In a networked age, that type of entrepreneur gives us unlimited possibilities.”

John Seely Brown
Why Learning How to Learn is the New Competitive Advantage

 A capabilities system is an integrated approach to understanding, leveraging, and utilizing your association’s people. 

For purposes of illustration, we will use the following winning aspiration for a fictitious association, focusing on sustainable agriculture:

  • Establish our association as the premier community for sustainable agricultural systems in the world.

To achieve lasting success, a strategy needs to be backed by capabilities that meet the needs of your members. A clear and ongoing investment in capabilities will distinguish your association from the pack and help you achieve your winning aspiration. 

For our capabilities to reach full potential they should work in a system. This positions people of diverse yet distinctive capabilities working together toward a shared aim.

An integrated approach to capabilities is also nearly almost impossible for one’s competitors to copy.

This capability system should be specific yet flexible enough to guide your association’s strategy for the next 5-10 years. 

This section has three components: distinctive capabilities, an activity system, and table stakes capabilities.

  1. Distinctive capabilities are unique, hard to copy, and set your association apart from the competition.
  2. An activity system reinforces and deepens our distinctive capabilities (ensuring they are broadly leverageable across offerings and areas of engagement).
  3. Table stakes capabilities are baseline capabilities that our customers expect. Without table stakes capabilities, associations will not gain traction in the market, but without distinctive capabilities and a reinforcing activity system, we will lack unique, competitive advantage. If you try to be great at too many things, you will end up failing.

Distinctive capabilities. What critical skills and core activities must consistently be performed at the highest level to achieve advantage in each of our chosen spaces? Because an association’s most distinctive capabilities are cross-functional and applied to most offerings, they require a great deal of attention and investment; even large associations only have 3-6 distinctive capabilities in their capabilities system. Hence, the need to set (and commit to) clear priorities. Our fictitious association is banking on these four capabilities:

  1. Make longitudinal impact. Apply our expertise in member engagement to help understand and solve next-generation member problems and make meaningful, longitudinal impact.
  2. Widen community. Use data + relationship-building to achieve deep member understanding. Uncover unmet needs + design solutions for them better than any competitor.  
  3. Build a co-creative future. Leverage strong volunteer + staff partnerships by working together on ‘move the needle’ value creation. 
  4. Integrate offerings. Leverage product frameworks to deliver offerings as leveraged, repeatable, and marketed as strategic, longitudinal engagements.

Activity System. What are the reinforcing relationships that make each distinctive capability stronger? A reinforcing relationship is an essential characteristic of an activity system. 

It’s important that we do not settle for a generic activity system; our need to create a distinctive system that reflects the choices we’ve made. The white circles in the below diagram (and accompanying descriptions) reflect the chosen activities of our example association’s activity system. 

  1. Leverage distributed talent. Deploy lean and efficient expertise-based hub and spoke talent model.
  2. Build product framework. Build and employ a discrete set of product frameworks across the association’s offerings. 
  3. Use value-based pricing. Position offerings as distinct and differentiated. Set prices on what it’s worth to the member instead of what it costs us to produce. 
  4. Creative concept development. Use deep discovery to build empathy + relationships. Leverage a well-built creative sandbox.
  5. Reduce friction. Earn trust and repeat business by building community and making it easy to buy, simple to engage, and know what you get. Standardize core processes and utilize easy to understand contract terms.
  6. Build unique experiences through thought leadership. Launch and cultivate breakthrough experiences with powerful value for our member’s longevity in career or industry space. 
  7. Implement impact measures. Develop and utilize impact measures (OKRs and KPIs) in order to measure impact. 
  8. Build Bite-sized learning. Consumable and reusable content and experiences. 

Table stakes capabilities. As we discussed above, table stakes capabilities are our association’s competitive necessities or baseline capabilities that every association needs simply to remain current. They are undifferentiated and not enough to distinguish us in the market. That is, they need to be combined with distinctive capabilities and a robust activity system. Again, following through on our example, these are the table stake capabilities we’ve identified: 

  1. Membership
  2. Project management (integrator)
  3. Community building + engagement
  4. Experience provider
  5. Volunteer management
  6. Marketing
  7. Event production / Virtual event management
  8. Experience design / Experience provider
  9. Instructional design

We now take our example a step further by addressing how to rethink our professional development spend, review the rough percentage of each capability type, and discuss the importance of taking a balanced approach to adding new capabilities. 

Rethinking Your Professional Development Spend

What skills and capabilities are the currency of the future? What is your plan to move beyond table stakes capabilities?

We’ll ask a few questions to get a feel for how your association approaches professional development and then address implications for allocating scarce human resources. 

  • How much does your association spend each year on professional development? 
  • What is the focus of this spend? 
  • Do you see a marked improvement in your staff due to this spend? How do you know?
  • What capabilities do you expect your staff to have? 
  • How do you expect your staff to utilize these new capabilities?

Now that we’ve developed and committed to an association-wide strategy, reviewed the types of association capabilities, and applied these to an example, we can now look at how to reallocate our capability types over time. 

The most important variable here is time. As we discussed earlier, associations tend to be practical, resource-stretched organizations.

Over time, our investment in becoming more strategic should correspond to an increasing investment in distinctive capabilities. You can see the shift in this graphic.

Talented and well-rounded association staff typically specialize in a particular area, but are also intellectually curious, collaborative, adaptive, and use design-thinking, creativity, and communication skills to bring innovation to life. 

As ways of working evolve so does the need for continuous, lifelong learning to ensure our skills remain relevant. Individuals have a responsibility for investing in their development and ensuring their skills remain competitive, but so do employers.

The Product Community is a great way to identify and obtain new distinctive capabilities under the shared goal of growth, expressed in two ways here: 

  1. Agile ways to grow your association membership 
  2. Authentic and healthy ways of growing an engaged staff who build momentum and help shape a shared commitment to the future.  

If your goal is to grow, your professional development spend should be as strategic and balanced as your association. If not, there are clear repercussions, as you can tell by this graphic.

We argue that all associations need to invest in strategy, build a compelling vision, align resources (including staff and volunteers) for successful execution, and build and sustain distinctive capabilities so we are ready for the now, the next, and the future.  

When you focus on priorities, costs are not problems. They are choices. 

The priorities most worthy of high levels of investment are those that align with the growth priorities of your association, helping to build the capabilities that distinguish your association and contribute substantially to its success. 

These capabilities are steadily funded while other categories of expense receive just enough cash to be on par with competitors’ spending or to simply “keep the lights on.” They are subject to strict scrutiny, constant pruning, and a continuous search for leaner efficiency.

It’s critical to take an innovative, strategic approach to the way we do business. Strategy is the reason why, guiding light, and constant through line.

About the Author

James Young is founder and chief learning officer of the Product Community®. Jim is an engaging trainer and leading thinker in the worlds of associations, learning communities, and product development. Prior to starting the Product Community®, Jim served as Chief Learning Officer at both the American College of Chest Physicians and the Society of College and University Planning.