The Changing Dynamics Of Associations

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"The political associations that exist in the United States are only a single feature in the midst of the immense assemblage of associations in that country. Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations."

Alexis de Tocqueville in The Primary Role and Essential Importance of Associations in America.

Reading Alexis de Tocqueville's discourse from 1840 on the importance of associations in America is truly inspiring. He's talking about all manner of associations from commercial to political. But he goes on to state "associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive." That pretty much sums it up.

Have things changed since 1840? Not really. Moreover, that proclivity to form associations has been amplified by the power of the Internet and social media. The power of associations now ranges from the enormous and serious organizations like the American Medical Association to the diminutive and perhaps futile flash mob.

Given all that, associations, of whatever size and purpose, have a substantial role to play in our society. Yet they also encounter all the dynamics of our age in both disrupting their business model and offering new ways of reaching members and acting on their behalf.

In this article I'll focus on the changing dynamics surrounding business and professional associations. In the next post I'll focus on how best business practices can help drive change within those organizations.

Critical Association Problems

So what are some of the problems facing associations today? Here are a few critical items that we'll explore in this post.

  • Redefining Association Purpose
  • Providing Value to Members
  • Finding New Members
  • Retaining Existing Members

Redefining Association Purpose

Facebook is now far and away the largest association at 1.2+ billion members and growing. Plus, membership is free. As a traditional association within this new dynamic, how do you get members to pay? And what is the benefit of joining?

An article published nearly a decade ago by the American Society of Association Executives titled Will Demographic Trends Transform Association Membership? provided a great deal of insight. They cited that changes in age, ethnicity, race, and culture could well drive associations out of business or certainly drive changes in mission.

Unfortunately, associations are often inherently slow to change. This is due in part to the structure of the organization with a constitution and by-laws set up decades ago. Plus, with leaders coming from the older, long-term members who are more content with business the "way we've always done it," there is no drive for change. So what's to be done?

One thought is that the association must refocus on concerted action on behalf of the members. Members are constantly facing changes in their businesses, their customers, their employees, and in the technology they use. An association must be in the business of providing "just-in-time knowledge" to its members.

NPR in their post titled Time For Associations to Trade in their Past stated that associations must provide "the right knowledge at the right time for the right purpose for the right strategy, all revolving around the fact that the knowledge is instant, fast and transitory."

In this scenario, that has been unfolding before our eyes for the last decade and more, associations must re-evaluate their mission and their entire purpose. It's no longer satisfactory to conduct business as usual.

Providing Value to Members

As noted above, associations must refocus their mission and purpose on delivering value to their members. All too often association leadership is looking too closely at taking the action that benefits the association rather than it's membership.

Given, too, that association leadership is often from the old guard, they seldom address, or even recognize, the needs of multiple generations and cultures, along with addressing the diminishing availability of discretionary time. In summary, they must deliver personal business benefits for members.

Finding New Members

Finding new members should be based on standard business practices of finding the data on businesses or people that should be in your association. This could be purchasing mailing lists for a direct mail campaign, email campaign, or getting on the phone and calling them – perhaps it's all three. The key message in this outreach needs to be around the benefits of membership. This, in turn, points back to the earlier discussion of both redefining association purpose and providing true value to members.

Another approach to finding new members is to leverage the power of those disruptive technologies that are causing declining membership in the first place. Provide Facebook Groups, LinkedIn Groups, and Google+ Hangouts that not only engage your current members but bring in potential new members.This is truly leveraging the power of associations, bringing people together around the issues of importance for your association and doing so with new communication options.

Retaining Existing Members

One of the big keys to retaining existing members is delivering on the benefits you promised — then reminding your members of the benefits they've received. It's all part of a relentless communication program to tell them what you're going to deliver and how they can make use of it to address their problems. Then following up with success stories around how members have benefitted from the association's efforts.

That's basic blocking and tackling advice. Then you need to get into standard selling. This involves follow-up mail and phone calls that contact lapsed members and remind them of why they should belong. Sounds like an echo of our earlier discussion of providing value to members.

Along the way of working with lapsed members, find out why they've dropped out. Did their business change? Are the benefits you're delivering no longer valuable? Use this information to revisit or reinforce your efforts at redefining association purpose and providing value to members.

Who Ya Gonna Call?

As noted by Alexis de Tocqueville, associations of thousands of kinds are constantly formed by Americans. The staff at Campaign Now have experience and expertise working with a wide range of associations and recognize that your association has its own particular circumstances, requirements, and mission.

They can work with you on membership campaigns with data, contact services, text message marketing, direct mail, email marketing, digital development, media advertising, as well as public and media relations. Moreover, they can run a turnkey campaign, provide services to support your own efforts, and/or provide consulting insight. Clients include a long list of nonprofit organizations, associations, and political campaigns.

Give them a call to discuss how they can help your association at (855) 329-4327 or

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Jim Wilson

Jim Wilson

Jim Wilson is the founder of PathForeWord, a freelance writing and communication consulting service. He has over two decades experience working for the largest youth membership organization in the USA as director of communication services. He’s written on nonprofits, associations, journalism, technology, and the job search process.


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