Don’t Go Global… (…if you can answer “yes” to all these questions)

7th September 2023

In the pursuit of global development strategies, many associations often overlook essential considerations. Martin Sirk, International Advisor to the Global Association Hubs Partnerships, delves into these essential factors and offers practical solutions to help associations thrive in their international efforts.

There are hundreds of articles and check-lists on global development strategies (many are available on Global Association Hubs’ website), yet countless associations remain wedded to a narrowly-defined geographical mindset, with “global” seen as a distraction or irrelevance. Sometimes this makes perfect sense, but how often? 

Here are eight questions. 

If your association can answer “yes” to all eight – congratulations – going global is almost certainly a dumb idea!

1. Do you only have members in one country/region AND zero interest from prospective members beyond your borders?
2. Do your services/content only have relevance or market value in your country or region?
3. Is there no-one beyond your borders who could offer equivalent services to your members?
4. Do your members have zero connections, competition or need for information outside your borders?
5. Do you only advocate to national policymakers, worry about local laws?
6. Is your mission only relevant in your country?
7. Is your association monocultural, only working in one language?
8. Is one market capable of providing sustainable long-term growth?

Let’s explore what those “yes” answers imply!
1. (Prospective) Members
Every association is by definition exclusionary: it is for some people or organizations and not others. But whilst geography is a logical constraining parameter for plumbers, it is a weak one for associations: saying “yes” ignores the value of non-members’ business interests/aspirations, cultural and historical ties, and intellectual input.

2. Content & services
Hopefully whatever you are delivering in your specialised field is world-class. If specialists outside your community are not interested in your content and services it probably means that someone else has got a superior offering!

3. Competition
This is a hyper-competitive world. The remains of the “local monopolies” that once defined many associations are disappearing. Answering “yes” ignores the certainty of increasing competition for your members’ attention, attendance, and money – from other associations, entrepreneurs, even AI-algorithms.

4. Members’ interests, competition, knowledge
Many associations “go global” because a proportion of their members have already “gone”. These know that scientific advances or business innovation are destination-blind, worry that others will out-compete them by accessing cutting-edge knowledge first. Once any members take this route, others will inevitably follow, if only to remain competitive at home. Answering “yes” assumes this exponential process hasn’t started.  

5. Advocacy
From tax to environment to healthcare, today’s greatest societal challenges are global, even though most policy is legislated nationally. Partnerships between associations have become a key vehicle for engaging with these issues. “Yes”-answering, geographically-constrained associations, acting alone, won’t be heard. 
6. Mission
A “mission” implies ambition, acting for a greater purpose, a foundation of values, the possibility of fellow travellers. Any mission that only has relevance within a single country almost inevitably negates these implications.  

7. Language & culture
Today there is no excuse not to offer multilingual access at events and online, thanks to excellent AI translation and interpretation tools. Every country has groups from different cultures, especially working in science, healthcare, trade and high-tech. Associations that maintain a monolingual, monocultural strategy ignore socio-economic reality, at home as well as abroad! 

8. Long-term growth 
Giant markets like Brazil, China and the USA might appear to offer unconstrained growth, but competitive threats and strategic/tactical opportunities will inevitably be missed, and being exclusively active in any single market risks mortal damage should it suffer a socioeconomic crisis. 

Global Association Hubs, a partnership between Brussels, Dubai, Singapore and Washington DC, is committed to promoting the societal value of international associations, and to stimulating the discussion of important issues through events and articles such as this, which appears as part of a collaborative partnership with Boardroom.

Go (a little bit) global
It’s clear that the likelihood of any association answering “yes” to all eight questions is pretty remote! Logically, almost every association ought to have a global development strategy. But too many assume that such strategies have to be comprehensive and complex, require inaccessible resources and skills, risk alienating members, divert from more critical priorities.

One pragmatic solution is to go (a little bit) global! By focusing on just one global dimension an association can start to develop a strategically coherent expansion beyond their current geographical boundaries without generating undue risks. 

For example, introduce multilingual interpretation into events (Q7). Run a survey to ascertain members’ current international activities (Q4), making global interests visible. If individuals or organizations outside your geographical boundaries are interested in membership or services (Q1 & 2), test a menu of non-member services (which could evolve into a change in membership policy). Or set up advocacy partnerships with overseas organizations that share your mission (Q5 & 6). Any single one of these actions is affordable, self-containable, justifiable to members without needing a politically-risky shift in priorities from “domestic” to “global”. 

Associations don’t need to do everything, to counter each threat, exploit every opportunity. Constraints always exist around budgetary and staff capacity, cultural competence, regulatory access, market knowledge, member and board priorities. But help is available: Global Association Hubs – Brussels, Dubai, Singapore and Washington DC – have extensive services to help associations go global; ESAE and ASAE are sources of excellent peer-to-peer advice. 

But the greatest resource is associations’ own members. No association should be without a global advisory group, drawing on the wisdom of internationally engaged members: scientists involved in EU Horizon research, business leaders from multinational companies, expat doctors who can advise on birth-country cultures, start-up entrepreneurs and students. Every national association has members whose interests encircle the world, and these individuals will be excited to share their thoughts. They are by far the most qualified people to tell you: “don’t go global”; more likely, they’ll recommend the opposite!

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