Ecosystems & the Natural Lifespan of Associations

14th February 2022

International Advisor to the Global Association Hubs Martin Sirk explores the lifespan of associations and gives a few tips for professional societies and nonprofit organizations to be future-proof.

This article is being written shortly after Meta/Facebook lost a quarter of its value – $240 billion – in a single day’s trading, followed by Amazon increasing in value by close to that astronomical amount the following day. These wild swings remind us of the mortality of all organizations: start-up style growth can’t continue unabated at scale (simple mathematics tell us such companies would eventually own or sell or control almost every resource on the planet), and when that growth falters the expectations of investors and the programming of algorithms ensure that the downward slope is far from smooth!

One of the most common models or metaphors for organizational life-cycle is that of trees in the forest, first made famous in Alfred Marshall’s 1890 publication “Principles of Economics”: the largest trees suddenly toppling with little warning because of hidden structural weakness or rot, perhaps exacerbated by an external shock like a bolt of lightning (or a pandemic!), letting in sunlight for thousands of seedlings to compete in a race for the canopy. Variations on this life-cycle model of start-up, growth, maturity, (often invisible) decline and death (or for a relative few, renewal/rebirth) have been applied to bureaucratic and corporate organizations, products, events, and even ideas.

But this concept is surprisingly absent from discussions about associations (try Googling “association life cycle” if you doubt this claim!). We occasionally acknowledge that some of our products and services have a natural lifespan, but rarely consider the most well-established associations themselves as potentially at risk of toppling. Perhaps because many of those formed during the great era of international association formation from the end of World War Two till the 1970s are now at the peak of their maturity and apparent invincibility!

Typical signs of the decline phase in companies and bureaucracies include: “mission creep”; political decision-making; solidified departments and areas of responsibility; flat budgets with higher proportions going towards administration and top executive salaries; thick rule books; a focus on historically important advantages and established ways of doing things; rent-seeking returns on financial investments; and loss of the most dynamic staff to start-ups. Any of these sound familiar?

Potential solutions

But of course, to quote the great statistician George Box: “all models are wrong, some are useful”.  In the case of associations, a “trees + forest” life-cycle model can be of use to clearly identify potential solutions as well as sources of danger at different stages of development, it isn’t a cast-iron prediction of inevitable collapse and death!  

This piece is part of the exclusive partnership between Boardroom and the Global Association Hubs, which comes as an innovative response to the increasing decentralization of international associations as they look to develop their activities globally.

We can identify essential nutrients and new sources of energy. For example, new forms of membership or grassroots decision-making to overcome bureaucratic inertia. We can deliberately nurture nearby seedlings – the many new online communities of shared interest – rather than treating these as invasive competitors. It’s a relatively painless process to interweave our root network with those of neighbouring (both competing and complementary) associations to build collective strength – through mergers, collaborative events and educational programmes, and joint advocacy campaigns. 

And of course we should trim off rotten branches to let in more light and fresh air – even though stopping activities or giving up an existing role is often the toughest and least pleasant task any association can attempt!  We can even take advantage of new ecosystems, propagating regional offices or representation in destinations that treat associations as strategic economic and social assets, whether in relatively new hubs such as Singapore or Dubai, or within deep-rooted association ecosystems in Brussels or Washington DC.  

The one thing that established associations cannot do is to nonchalantly bask in the sunlight provided by their current elevated position in the forest. Competition in any environment is never-ceasing (resources are always limited, be they potential members, sources of revenue, or attention), dynamic new forms of life are constantly evolving, more external shocks are on the way in the slipstream of COVID-19, and any weakness or failure to radically enliven or reinvent will be punished without mercy.  

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