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Four Challenges Facing Associations and How to Fix Them

The World PCO Alliance turned to three of its members, Nancy Tan of Ace:Daytons Direct, Andre Vietor of Bco Congresos and Gregg Talley of Talley Management Group, for their take on some of the most pressing issues facing associations and the successful initiatives being adopted that can make the difference for an association’s short-term and long-term viability.

Challenge #1 – No Clear Value Proposition

Not surprisingly, funding continues to be a challenge for many associations. The good news is that with digitalization and technology, there are more potential sources of income for an association than ever. Before reaping the rewards of these new sources of income, however, associations must first determine what their members want. This entails determining an association’s value proposition, a critical element that many associations ignore.

Andre Vietor points out that quite often associations don’t even know what their membership is looking for and what's of value to them. This knowledge gap compromises both an association’s relationship with its membership as well as its ability to attract sponsorship dollars. As Andre says, “Partners are more selective in choosing where and how to maximise their return on investment/return on objective.” Associations with a strong grasp on membership insight and that offer appropriate services and benefits to its members are far more appealing to prospective partners. It bears mentioning that sponsorship no longer applies exclusively to an association’s conference. More associations are seeking institutional partnerships with industry players; in other words, sponsorship in the form of funds allotted to an association for education-related activities such as educational grants and digital educational platforms—all providing a valuable benefit to members.

Trends indicate that more and more members are seeking services and products that either enhance expertise/experience (think webinars, e-learning material, online courses, access to professional guidelines) or professional visibility (think networking). Andre recommends associations invest in developing digital educational platforms that feature online content year-round. This can be in the form of webinars, virtual meetings, access to recorded sessions. Nancy Tan agrees that the online world offers associations a plethora of possibilities, including establishing an online community with e-learning opportunities. She also reminds us that the occasional in-person event such as a “Lunch & Learn” and local meet-ups are equally valuable for members. Another very interesting trend is adopting a Netflix-type business model. In lieu of an annual subscription fee that gives members access to products and certain benefits, associations can price individual services and products to allow each member a personalized experience.

Andre warns that while this model may be appealing, particularly because of the additional revenue it represents, associations must determine appropriate prices, and this can only be done if they know what's of value to their members. From his experience, many associations must invest the time to get to know their members and assess what’s important to them and what they want to reap from their membership. “It’s all about communication,” says Andre, “and not just in the form of an occasional email. Associations need to enact an elaborate communication strategy for staying in touch with members.” Such a strategy could incorporate elements such as a newsletter, surveys, educational activity promotions, but should also include activities that keep members engaged and active, such as working groups, webinars and road-shows by geographic regions.

Challenge #2 - No Strong Infrastructure and Online Process

Nancy has observed that, in addition to not knowing their members very well, many associations don’t have the proper tools for managing their members—much less for extracting insight and data that can help them offer appropriate benefits and strategically position themselves to attract sponsorship dollars.

It all begins with a solid website that provides members experiential value. Nancy says, “Even if the association can only afford one staff person, full- or part-time, with a comprehensive website, that person has an effective tool to get the job done.”

She believes an association’s online platform should include:

  • A membership portal which allows for data uploading, profile updating, access to committee workspaces and membership directories, online discussion forums, registration for upcoming events, direct member inquiries, and membership renewals
  • A seamless registration for any training courses the association may offer
  • E-payment gateway
    • An electronic direct mailer (EDM) template that can easily be adapted to content and images without requiring the design process from scratch each time
    • A membership relation program, which may include business legal advice on business, member assistance with any important issues, a job portal, etc.
    • Document archive management which relies on archive management software so that associations don’t have to deal with physical files.
    • Administrator-contents management system (CMS)
    • An onsite registration module
    • A clear “search” button on each page of the website and other calls-to-action
  • An easy-to-navigate menu with items such as “Education,” “Publications” and “Membership”

All too often, associations use fragmented technology platforms, hence members don’t enjoy a seamless experience and instead waste time trying to find what they are looking for.

Social media represents another piece of an association’s online platform. Nancy believes it’s a valuable tool to connect with a younger demographic (more on that later) and keep them engaged with the association. While it’s tempting to dive into every social network available, associations should be selective about what they undertake. Not only does social media demand time and consistency, but not every platform is appropriate for every association. It brings us back to the question of knowing one’s members. “Two of the most used platforms are Facebook and LinkedIn, but there are plenty of other networks that may provide even better results,” says Andre. “This is why it’s so important for associations to determine their objectives and to understand who their members are.”

Challenge #3 - Lack of continuity

Associations are generally non-profit organizations with very little (or no) in-house administrative staff, meaning the association relies on volunteers to help map out milestones and execute key objectives. Yet many of these volunteers are busy with their own professions and don’t have the time necessary to sustain the efforts required to achieve key milestones.

Moreover, typically the objectives are set by a president who will step down after a two- or three-year term, and if the new incoming leadership has a different vision/agenda, whatever milestones were set become more or less obsolete. This interruption and tendency to regularly “start over” severely affects an association’s ability to set any long-term goals and sustain growth.

ards to focus on foresight: what is happening that will impact their members, profession or trade and their organization? That is then validated by data and feedback, from which strategies and plans can be developed, implemented, measured and adjusted.”

Andre urges associations to implement a strategic plan that goes beyond any presidency term and that adopts a long term “institutional” vision representative of the entire association and not imposed by a single person. He also encourages associations to invest in fixed operational staff such as a chief executive officer and a team that, while guided by long-term objectives, is also handling day-to-day affairs.

Nancy suggests that executive committees create the position of “president-elect,” which would be occupied by someone appointed as an understudy to the president. She also suggests that any incoming executive committee retain at least 50% of the members from the outgoing committee, and that the immediate past president continue to attend all executive committee meetings, even though he/she has no voting rights. Lastly, a solid secretariat or association management team can ensure a smoother transition from one president to the next.

Challenge #4 - Difficulty in Attracting a Younger Demographic

Attracting the next generation is a key factor in the viability of any association. With the fast-moving nature of technology, associations are particularly tasked with continuously remaining relevant enough to attract young professionals and—ideally—having them take on leadership roles on the executive. Andre sees this as one of the most urgent challenges that associations must tackle. “The new generation has different expectations, which will have a major impact on how associations are successfully run in the future.”

One solution that Andre proposes is the implementation of a "young professional advisory board," which would serve as a platform for younger members to change ideas and put forth any concerns that they feel should be on the radar. In turn, this “younger” board could communicate anything vital to the Executive Board, thereby ensuring that an association’s younger voices are heard.

Along similar lines, Nancy advises associations to develop a multi-generational engagement strategy, which would engage student volunteers as well as groom young leaders for the future. Associations need to discern the changes that students and young entrants want to see in their industry and what makes them tick. She also encourages associations to organize activities that can serve as opportunities to facilitate engagement between young members and their “older” counterparts.

Gregg Talley agrees that it’s all about involving younger members and giving them a voice. “Are they even at the table? Do you know their needs and wants? It’s time to stop talking about them and start talking to them, with them and listening.”

It’s clear that many associations are at a critical point which necessitates some serious reflection and initiative to embrace the opportunities that can seal their viability for years to come. It all comes down to strategy. Gregg cites an ASAE (American Society of Association Executives) study that was done four years ago. Their findings formed the basis of the book 7 Measures of Success. If there is a real focus on “Clarity of Purpose,” “Commitment to Data and Feedback,” and a “Commitment to Action,” organizations are less likely to be whipsawed by changing officers; they will know what their members and stakeholders want and need, and will take steps to address the subsequent opportunities and challenges. All too often, the negative experiences that befall an association don’t emerge from out of the blue. In most cases they are the consequence of ignoring an issue rather than addressing the issue with a concrete plan.

The primary question that associations must consider is best put by Gregg: “Outdated association models and traditional thinking will not enable organizations to compete in the future. How ready for that reality is your organization?”

Sponsorship remains a cornerstone for many associations, but what are partners looking for? Click here to discover and understand what today’s sponsors are looking for.