Trends in Association Management

Does it sometimes seem that the future is no longer just a fork in the road, but a complicated cloverleaf with ramps everywhere and no signs at all? That vision isn’t far wrong. Several major trends will impact every area of association management and the prudent association executive will realize the necessity of not only keeping up with the pack, but passing the pack at a dead run. It can be a little scary and a lot exhilarating to face this rapidly changing future, but it can be done. Let’s examine these major trends in more detail.

The Rate of Change

In the 1600’s and 1700’s major changes occurred about every 80 years; by the time of the launch of Dreadnought (the first modern battleship, introducing the all-big-gun class of battleship) in 1906, the rate was about every 60 years. Today, the rate of major changes in technology, society and economy is a major change every 60 days or less. Technology is expanding at breath-taking speed. As never before, associations must adapt before changes are apparent. Reacting to change is no longer enough-change must be anticipated.

The news isn’t grim, however. Associations will thrive in the future. Rapid changes in society as a whole means people will need leadership from their associations more than ever. The core of association management has ever been to provide help and service to their member associations, and the enhanced need for leadership is a grand opportunity to build loyalty and community among members by helping them navigate the bewildering array of changes and choices. Use the tools that new technology has given to meet member needs. Members don’t want a response now; they want one twenty minutes ago. Associations can respond to this urgency by providing easier access to services and information. Providing 24-hour access to information via telephone voice systems and web sites, keeping call centers staffed during hours important and convenient to members, along with fax-on-demand and other adaptations will meet these needs. Find out what your members want, if you haven’t already, and respond to their answers now.

Information-gathering options have been expanded by new technologies and new ideas as well. Use networking to speed information gathering. Be willing to exchange information and form partnerships that provide insights into new options and new uses for old technologies. If you haven’t already done so, provide an on-going, easy-to-use instant feedback system that your members can use to submit their needs, wants and suggestions (and even criticisms). This can be done with a feedback option on the association web site or a dedicated voice-mail line. Don’t forget to ensure that any comments received are acknowledged and addressed immediately. Members who feel their ideas are heard are more likely to continue to provide steady input.

Quick response to change is essential, but there may be resistance. That’s to be expected, but don’t let resistance from "old-school" members derail the association’s move to the future. Don’t try to drive change like a mechanic; cultivate it like a gardener. You are, after all, dealing with living organisms, not machines. Keep members informed and involved in all changes and transitions, so they feel like part of the progress, not like outsiders. More on this below.


Time seems to be collapsing upon us. The more timesaving technologies we develop, the less time we seem to have saved. Associations must start viewing time as a resource, not as a constraint or a given. In the future, time will be even shorter for members, creating a need for associations to respond faster to member needs, and to find more effective ways of using time-strapped volunteers.

First of all, think bigger, to get faster results. Incremental change does not result in a level of service and value that will attract and keep active members, not anymore. Compress, whenever possible, several steps or procedures into one step. Look at the organization as a whole, rather than scanning individual functions, to see what sweeping changes can be made to the entire structure that will benefit the individual areas. Re-examine procedures that actually sabotage productivity by taking core staff away from concentration on their core tasks. It’s worth every penny to hire a part-time clerk to handle routine functions like filing papers, making copies, and opening the mail, if it frees your trained staff for more productive work, like responding to members. Cut the number of committees, and reduce the number of people per committee and the time spent on each committee. While examining the organization, look for redundancies. If you keep an old system around as a back up, "just in case," lose it. Even if your current system should fail, the old system will be wildly out of date and probably unusable. If you have two computer systems, using two different software programs, doing two versions of the same task, combine them and use the rest of the equipment for something new and useful. Don’t take any policy or procedure for granted – like cleaning the attic, you’ll be amazed at what you can get rid of once you start looking in corners and under boxes!

In spite of what dystopian fiction would tell us, technology cannot replace people in areas of knowledge and service. Staff members will have to learn to use the technology to speed up and streamline the delivery of knowledge and service to the members. Efficient, well-trained association management staff will never have to worry about being replaced by Robby the Robot.


With time tight and so many issues, products, projects and organizations competing for the time and attention of your members, how do you keep them involved and participating in the association? Associations have (or should have) moved past the "you come to us" model to the "we’ll come to you" model, so it is up to the Association to keep their members involved, and up to the Management company to help the Association succeed.

Make involvement in the organization an integral part of members’ lives. Instead of asking members to commit large blocks of time to "volunteering," create lots of opportunities for participation. For example, ask someone to spend an hour handing out recruitment materials at a job fair or conference.

Don’t ask someone to volunteer if you don’t give them something specific to do, and make sure they have all the training and materials they need to complete the assigned task correctly. Don’t forget to thank and reward those who do volunteer. You don’t have to spend big bucks-a little appreciation goes a very long way.

Ask your volunteers what works and what doesn’t. Soldiers on the front line usually know more about what they need than any officer above them. Most importantly, once you’ve asked them, really listen to the answers! Feeling that their input matters makes for higher loyalty and participation and it’s free, readily available information.

Anticipate member needs for products and services, lest they obtain them from the competition. Making the association the "one-stop-shop" for learning materials, information, and new ideas keeps members coming back there instead of going outside. Use surveys, not to tell you what to do-you should be anticipating that, but to tell you how well you’re doing it. React quickly to any feedback that says you aren’t anticipating correctly. Have alternate plans at hand, so you can switch immediately, if needed. Focus on what the future will look like from the members’ perspective. As everything becomes more customized, customer expectations will broaden. Members will expect their associations to know their preferences and interactions will be built on self-interest, rather than on altruism. In other words, to get volunteers, you will have to let them know "what’s in it for them" instead of assuming that the "good of the association" is motivation enough.

Use the web and e-commerce to re-invent everything – recruiting, promotion, planning, everything. While you’re finding new ways to link people, though, don’t forget that high-tech means high-touch. Increased technological communication leaves people wanting human contact. You know the feeling; after a day of voice mails, e-mails, and ATM’s, you just want to talk to a live person. Face-to-face interactions and personalization have long been a core competence and focus of associations.

Develop a shared vision, dovetailing future vision with current operations and making paths clear and understandable. Keep members updated on changes and proposed changes. Keep them abreast of the process; don’t just announce the end results. These steps allow staff and members to "buy into" needed changes, instead of resisting them.

Actively seek new arenas from which new members can be recruited. One new trend in this area is to target college students. Don’t wait until an individual is established in the industry you serve before you start recruiting them. Work with colleges and universities to promote your association to students who are planning on entering the field your association serves. This benefits both the student and the organization, as it gives the association a resource to the very latest developments in the field, and gives the student a leg up into their chosen profession, with opportunities to network with and learn from established professionals.


A somewhat thorny topic, as opinions on board governance range from "they’re essential!" to "they just meddle." Both sides are correct, to a point. The idea in the future is to make boards more essential, by making them more useful, and to channel a board’s natural and inescapable inclination to meddle into positive, constructive pathways. Active leadership must be the model, with emphasis on listening to customers. Leadership must also be malleable, able to change quickly and willing to take risks. Governance will be the focus in the future. The ability to adapt, and quickly, will be the key.

Essential leadership characteristics include a willingness to live with risks, the capability to anticipate where the industry is going before the general membership becomes aware of the trend (remember, if you hear the gun shot, you’ve already been hit), and a commitment to engage a diverse membership in a shared vision.

Planning is the main board area that must, must undergo radical revisions from past practices. Long range planning used to be simple – write up a three-year or five-year plan, then at the end of the three-year or five-year period, look it over and write a new one. Planning should be viewed as an on-going learning process, and the long-term plan should be reviewed frequently and updated as often as needed to keep pace with the association’s growth and needs. Don’t wait for annual (or longer) review cycles. Actively scan the industry and society as a whole for emerging trends and respond immediately. Think "outside the box" by studying trends and changes in other, unrelated industries and professions and consider how those trends might affect your industry.

While reviewing your association’s policies and procedures, don’t dump everything in a mad scramble. Think strategically and start chopping, not pruning. Look at everything. If there are problems to be solved, challenge common assumptions by thinking in reverse. For example, General Motors reversed the idea that the consumer must buy the car before being allowed to drive it, giving us the notion of the test drive and giving GM much greater sales. Don’t allow mental models of what should be, or preconceived notions of what might be useful information keep you from seeing other options. Be at least willing to consider alliances with old competitors or non-traditional partners, if those alliances meet the organization’s vision and enhance value for members.

Trim the board! Make sure you can justify every position – a president is essential, but every slot below that should have a valid reason for being. Treasurer and secretary positions, for instance, can be eliminated and their functions handled by staff members. Eliminate strict job descriptions, which are highly limiting to both productivity and creativity, and replace them with much looser, more inclusive guidelines for areas, not tasks, for which the individual will be responsible.

So, now you have an idea, at least, of how to prepare for the future. Prepare you must, for there’s no avoiding it. Anticipate trends, make the most comprehensive use possible of available and upcoming technologies, make your association’s members active participants and innovators in the coming changes, take all the information you can get from anywhere you can get it, and streamline your operation into a lean, mean, connected service machine. Then your organization, like the Dreadnought, can be the biggest gun in the water, and the first of its class.