Current Affairs

Key Ingredients for a Successful Association

11th September 2020

Stylianos Filopoulos, ESAE Board Member and management consultant, reviews the ingredients that make for a good, future-proofassociation. When doing this strategic exercise, a good question to start with is “What can we do to help those that we serve reach the association purpose?”

Associations take many forms but are essentially about people coming together for a common purpose. They understand that this purpose can be achieved faster and better if they work together rather than separately. Their membership gives them access to relevant communities/networks and resources that can increase their capacity and facilitate their work. In addition, they are also usually seeking that social impact a credible and well-recognised association bring them. These rather complicated members’ needs and expectations make the answer to the initial question anything but straightforward.

Nonetheless, while the specifics of each organisation differ, there are some basic and interconnected elements that every association must have, namely purpose, trust, resources, and action. I first came up with this set of ingredients for a successful organisation while leading a strategic workshop for an international association. They helped to structure the exercise in a more efficient way and to design actions and products relevant to the actual needs of the community that the association is serving. 

Let us see what these ingredients are:

Purpose to inspire 

A purpose is the declaration of what the association stands for and allows people to judge if it is something that they care for or not. It is a declaration that is confirmed by the association’s values and tested daily by its stand on critical societal issues. The time when the purpose of an association was all about the interests of its members is long gone, simply because we are way too exposed and connected to each other. A purpose that can inspire both the membership and the wider sphere of stakeholders is a purpose that serves a greater good that speaks to their hearts and minds. This is what creates the spark and elevates an association in the eyes of society. So, an inspiring purpose is both the north star that guides the members and something that can generate social impact. 

Trust to engage 

A purpose will inspire, but what will truly engage members and stakeholders is trust. Unless the association walks the talk with credible and justified actions, it will never get its members and stakeholders committed. Transparency and accountability are therefore key for every association. Similarly, as we tend to trust what we know, an association cannot but be open and responsive. 

Both inspiration and engagement are hard to achieve but amazingly easy to lose. They require strong commitment and continuous effort by everyone in the organisation, especially the leadership. 

For the long journey towards purpose, members will need tangible, relevant and easily accessible resources, and some unique moments to keep their spirits up, which leads us directly to the next two key elements for a successful association. 

Resources to build capacity 

The main resources of associations lie in their knowledge and networks. Knowledge is generated from both the secretariats and the input from members. With the overwhelming information at disposal and the increasing training offer, associations should act as art curators and design an attractive and meaningful body of knowledge to guide members from knowledge to intelligence.

In parallel, associations should become personal coaches. They should use digital tools to understand needs and co-create, with each member, learning paths and personalised offers. The more relevant the offer, the higher the value and the appreciation by the members. 

Finally, considering how valuable the time and attention of the members are, associations must create a flawless user experience that makes access to association resources as compelling and as easy as possible.

Action to drive change

Ideas and intentions are great, but change requires action. While it is necessary to get members inspired, engaged, and empowered, it is also essential to get them out of inertia and trigger action. After all, the best way to get people together is to get them do something together. 

Getting people to act is the hardest thing for an association because it requires effort by the members, therefore, the more the association triggers and facilitates action, the easier it is to get members moving. To this end, associations can create the opportunities themselves or, even better, seize them from the environment in which they operate. Annual events and conferences were traditionally the best touchpoint to provide access to content and networks and to create opportunities that could foster change through cooperation and innovation. Today, with the help of technology, there are plenty more opportunities to get in touch with members and create powerful moments that can drive change and generate progress. Some already well-implemented examples are international days/weeks, social media challenges/campaigns, etc. It is critical that every touchpoint with members is well designed to support interaction and every opportunity for action is well facilitated to make action as easy as possible.

Seizing opportunities from the external environment can be equally successful to unite members and motivate action. As the saying goes never leave a crisis go to waste. Crises can unite and motivate members more than anything else; the COVID pandemic is a good example of how a crisis can actually create opportunities and force change. 

An optimistic future

COVID-19 has disrupted business as usual but, at the same time, offers a unique opportunity to reimagine associations’ vision and redesign their strategy and business models. The ingredients we just discussed can act as focal points for association leaders and help them understand challenges and opportunities in their difficult task to lead change all for the right reasons. 

In the future, competition, especially when it comes to tailored and personalised access to knowledge and networks, is likely to come less from rival associations than from the IT industry questioning the sustainability of associations as we know them today. Associations must embrace innovation and proceed to the necessary transformation to face the challenges ahead. 

A purpose to inspire, trust to engage, resources to build capacity, and opportunities and facilitation to trigger impactful action will lead to a strong and motivated association community that can generate an unparalleled collective intelligence and social value. These are the distinctive advantages of an association and the beacon for both its sustainability and the sustainable growth of our societies. 

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