by: James Young

Three Views of The Association of the Future


Associations are practical and action-oriented, but this comes at a cost. An emphasis on the short-term boxes us in. It hinders our ability to capitalize on authentic opportunities to understand, approach, and win the future.

We have the choice to design and prepare for what’s coming. This largely focuses on an investment and ongoing commitment to strategy. This article explores three associations on different tracks for the future.

I will describe a fictitious association from each category: a traditional one, a striving one, and an innovative one. In posing these contrasts I’d will consider what it will take for the association to thrive long into the future. 

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What is Greatness?

“Good is the enemy of great. And that is one of the key reasons why we have so little that becomes great. We don’t have great schools, principally because we have good schools. We don’t have great government, principally because we have good government. Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life.”

Jim Collins

Greatness refers to leading associations that commit to making the (a) right, focused choices and (b) integrated investments (strategy, people, impact) in order to achieve an ambitious vision through superior performance. As Jim Collins says, “Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice, and discipline.” 

This article explores three associations on different tracks for the future and asks five questions: 

  • Vision: Are we united toward an exciting future?
  • Readiness: Are we ready for growth?
  • Engagement: Do we have a highly-energized community?
  • Diversification: Are our revenue and offerings sufficiently diversified?
  • Outcomes: Are membership and revenue considered outcomes?

In doing so, I will challenge the paradigm of the traditional association toward a sustainable model of innovation that focuses on longitudinal learning journeys, purpose-driven impact, and insatiable engagement to attract and sustain a forever-member community. 

Association One: The Traditional Association 

“The most dangerous phrase in the language: we’ve always done it this way.”

Admiral Grace Hopper

The Global Accountants Union (GAU) is a long-established association representing accountants worldwide. The GAU will likely face future challenges due to its traditional approach to operations, governance, value creation, and engagement. 

GAU has inherent challenges. Their governance structure is based on a ‘who you know’ pecking order, they struggle to draw young professionals, and they rely on industry certifications to keep people coming back (extrinsic motivation) as opposed to an authentic passion for shaping the profession (intrinsic motivation). 

Their balance sheet is passable, but revenue is un-diversified and they rely too heavily on cash cows like annual conferences, sponsorship, and required dues for accountants who need to retain certification.

Mostly, GAU is addicted to the treadmill of short-term revenue. All metrics, energy, and resources keep everyone focused on the next quarter. This makes it nearly impossible to make a deep, long-lasting impact nor to invest properly in what matters the most (serving the membership community and driving evolution in the field of accountancy). 

Their investments are slanted toward board travel, board dinners, and industry relations. They have a handful of eager staff, but there is high turnover in the middle, and protective senior leaders invested in retaining the status quo. 

They live by a “save as” strategic plan that gets refreshed every five years and they view revenue and membership as pillars, not outcomes of robust, forward-thinking value creation. Things keep rolling along, in part, because — even if they wanted to change — they don’t really have the option: they lack the leadership, vision, or capability. 

Christoph Meyer

However, suffice it to say, GAU will continue to maintain a significant presence in the industry due to its historic reputation and geographically-dispersed membership. 

Value Proposition. The GAU’s value proposition is profession-focused, not problem-focused. It centers on reputation, experience, and a traditional approach to serving accountants.

  • Membership. The GAU membership is experiencing stagnation as younger professionals seek modern and agile associations or non-association alternatives.
  • Advocacy. The GAU advocates for the interests of accountants as a profession, but its influence on policy-making or accountancy’s impact on the broader world is not as strong as it could be.
  • Networking. The GAU networking is valuable due to the presence of senior professionals and established industry players. However, eager and up-and-coming professionals looking to shape their profession might be disappointed. 

Offerings. The GAU will continue to offer conferences, webinars, publications, and certifications, albeit through traditional channels and a traditional approach.

  • Professional Learning. The GAU’s professional learning programs struggle to keep up with the rapidly changing world of accounting. While GAU still offers valuable programming, they are based in passive recordings and traditional lectures.
  • Engagement. Engagement and community-building is a concern for the GAU, as younger professionals seek more interactive, applied, and digitally-driven experiences.
  • Career Advancement. The GAU provides opportunities for career advancement through certifications and events, but its offerings tend not to align with where the world is going or with the changing demands of the job market.

Revenue Diversification. The GAU relies heavily on membership dues and event fees as its primary sources of revenue. There is limited diversification.

  • Sponsorship or Industry Relations. The GAU maintains strong ties with established financial institutions and industry partners, leveraging its longstanding relationships for financial support and industry insights.
  • Fundraising. The GAU struggles to grow and diversify its fundraising efforts as they have not invested in relationship-building, cultivation, technology, or innovative approaches to advancement and development.
  • Impact and Outcomes. The GAU’s impact will be recognized but might not be as transformative or far-reaching as more innovative associations or industry groups. This lack of impact has a marked effect on long-term revenue growth. 

Though the example of GAU might sound dire, there are plenty of associations that have invested in strategy, explored new business models, and leveraged governance and volunteers to plan and make longitudinal impact. Let’s look next at a striving association. 

Association Two: The Striving Association 

“Everything is energy and that’s all there is to it. Match the frequency of the reality you want and you cannot help but get that reality.”

Albert Einstein

The Sustainable Business Alliance (SBA) is a striving association focused on promoting sustainable business practices and environmental stewardship. As an emerging player in the industry, the SBA will face numerous challenges but will be driven by a strong sense of purpose and commitment to innovation.

SBA has inherent advantages due to its youth, agility, and innovative leadership, but it’s hard to compete in a space in which members sometimes have a retro perspective on governance, volunteer roles, and what an association can do for them.

Despite these ingrained perceptions, SBA is tenacious in building a focused value proposition that does its best to ignore supper club politics in order to focus on shaping the future. 

SBA recognizes that revenue diversification, age-balanced membership, and shrewd investments in the future – information technology, executable strategy, and a balanced product portfolio – are keys to a world class association.

They also recognize, as hard it can be, that the association of the future has powerhouse, forward-thinking staff that partner robustly with volunteers. This is a boon for building confidence and shared governance, especially as volunteers like the energy and have a renewed trust for staff who want to work arm-in-arm. 

Value Proposition. The SBA’s value proposition will be centered around its commitment to sustainability and its ability to drive positive change in the business world. It is focused and problem-based. 

  • Membership. The SBA’s membership should experience significant growth, as businesses and professionals increasingly recognize the importance of sustainability. Proactive members will be drawn to the interdisciplinary collaboration needed to solve complex problems. 
  • Advocacy. The SBA is a vocal advocate for sustainability, influencing policymakers and driving change at a global level.
  • Networking. The SBA’s networking events will be popular among professionals seeking to connect with like-minded individuals and environmentally-conscious companies.

Offerings. The SBA will offer a wide range of programs, including sustainability certifications, workshops, webinars, and research publications. They recognize the power of leverage, evergreen content, and serial re-use of popular offerings.

  • Professional Learning. The SBA will offer cutting-edge professional learning programs on sustainability practices, positioning itself as a thought leader in the field. Their pathway program is especially popular with young professionals looking to grapple with tough-to-solve problems.
  • Engagement. The SBA will leverage digital platforms and interactive tools to ensure high member engagement and collaboration.
  • Career Advancement. The SBA will create opportunities for professionals to specialize in sustainability and find rewarding careers in sustainably-minded businesses.

Revenue Diversification. The SBA will diversify its revenue streams, exploring partnerships, grants, sponsorships, and new products to reduce reliance on membership dues.

  • Sponsorship or Industry Relations. The SBA will actively seek partnerships with environmentally-conscious businesses and organizations, attracting financial support from a variety of sources.
  • Fundraising. The SBA will embrace innovative fundraising strategies, including crowdfunding, impact investing, and social giving.
  • Impact and Outcomes. The SBA’s impact will be highly visible, as its efforts will contribute directly to the advancement of sustainable practices globally. This, in turn, will have meaningful, positive outcomes on the budget.

The word ‘striving’ is a powerful trigger to build momentum in the world of associations. At the least, there is an energized culture, diversified balance sheet, and a value for making shrewd choices and investments in the interest of creating a great association. Let’s now turn to how an innovative association approaches the future. 

Association Three – The Innovative Association 

“Revenue is an outcome of great relationships.”

Mark Grinberg

TechConnect is an innovative association bringing professionals together across various technology industries, including artificial intelligence, blockchain, nanotechnology, and quantum computing.

Techconnect is interested in taking a systems approach to association management. Not systems from a technology perspective (though this is true), but systems from a connected, purpose-driven worldview paired with practical, applied practice to solve difficult problems. 

It is this systems approach that makes the association both unique and truly powerful. Being at the forefront of technological advancements, TechConnect will continue to experience rapid growth and be a frontrunner in driving industry innovation.

TechConnect is a full-throated ecosystem of ideas that draws diversified, energetic, and forward-thinking professionals who are deeply interested in shaping the profession as much as they are their community and the broader world.

TechConnect has also invested in agile governance to distribute power, but also to enhance participatory engagement and create a pipeline of energized volunteers and staff.

TechConnect neglects the traditional strategic planning process, but believes deeply in strategy that forces the association to make shrewd choices that balance short-term revenue with long-term outcomes of vibrancy, engagement, and high-impact influence in the market. 

Perhaps most importantly, TechConnect is a product community. This signifies an investment in value creation, leveraging great ideas to solve problems, and stretching the life of evergreen content to foster longitudinal engagement.  

Value Proposition. TechConnect’s value proposition revolves around its cutting-edge technology, impactful problem-solving, trendsetting events, and access to the tech industry’s top minds.

  • Membership. TechConnect’s membership will grow exponentially, fueled by the pervasiveness of technology, the increasing demand for tech expertise in various sectors, and the importance of technology to solve complex problems.
  • Advocacy. TechConnect will be a leading advocate for technology-friendly policies and regulations, driving change in governments worldwide.
  • Networking. TechConnect’s networking opportunities will be unparalleled, connecting professionals with industry pioneers, investors, and innovative startups.

Offerings. TechConnect offers hackathons, tech expos, interactive conferences, and co-mentorship programs. Through their product community, they foster an environment of continuous innovation.

  • Professional Learning. TechConnect revolutionizes professional learning by offering applied learning pathways that both draw and challenge learners to engage longitudinally. TechConnect invests in technology, curriculum, and staff capabilities ensuring members have access to the latest trends in the field.
  • Engagement. In addition to plenty of in-person experiences, TechConnect employs AI-powered chatbots and immersive online experiences to ensure high levels of member engagement. Members especially like the participatory nature of learning communities that TechConnect hosts at in-person events.
  • Career Advancement. TechConnect is the go-to association for tech professionals seeking career development with access to groundbreaking projects and top employers.

Revenue Diversification. TechConnect is a product community. It diversifies revenue through technology-focused events, sponsorships, consulting services, partnerships, and a steady stream of exciting products. 

  • Sponsorship or Industry Relations. TechConnect will have strong partnerships with leading tech companies, attracting substantial financial support and industry insights.
  • Fundraising. TechConnect will leverage blockchain technology and digital currencies for fundraising, making it a trailblazer in association financing.
  • Impact and Outcomes. TechConnect’s work will have a transformative impact on the technology industry, influencing policy, and shaping technological advancement.

TechConnect thrives not because it’s in a cutting edge industry. It thrives because the association is run by a strong leader who balances patience with urgency and superior performance with deep care (for staff, volunteers, and purpose).

A cutting-edge approach to innovative association leadership is not coincidental. Investment, coalition-building, and an emphasis on value creation are paramount to utilizing emerging technologies to both attract and engage members while solving big problems and furthering advancements in the tech industry. 

We Have a Choice

“You need to be uncomfortable and apprehensive: True strategy is about placing bets and making hard choices. The objective is not to eliminate risk but to increase the odds of success.”

Roger Martin

Traditional associations face challenges in adapting to a rapidly changing world, especially concerning technology adoption and engaging young professionals. The striving and the innovative association help combat this by leveraging technology, pushing for diversified revenue, and a desire to address and help solve pressing global challenges. 

It, therefore, draws energized professionals of all ages.

Here is a summary table of the three association types: traditional (orange), striving (blue), and innovative (green).

The future of associations will be diverse, with traditional ones needing to adapt to stay relevant, striving ones working harder, smarter, and leaner to make their mark, and innovative ones leading the way with novel business models, connective cultures, and agile governance models.

Membership growth, engagement levels, revenue diversification, and the ability to drive impactful outcomes will vary significantly between these different association types. The key to success for each will lie in the ability to understand and meet the evolving needs of its members and stakeholders in a rapidly changing and unpredictable world.

Leading associations have a choice in how they want to approach this future: in a mode of traditional, status quo operation or to strive for something better, healthier, and more-focused. When we make specific choices to reach a specific long-term impact, we form our identity around an exciting vision that unites and energizes disparate professionals around hard-to-solve problems.

Who wins?

The membership community and the diverse communities that the membership community serves. It is the increasingly-widening concentric circles that defines our greatest impact. 

And remember, product-led growth fuels connection. Join the product community and flip your destiny. 

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.