Strategic Thinking Articles

Reshaping your Association for the 21st Century

Reshaping your Association for the 21st Century

Recreating your association in the image of the 21st century may seem to be an impossible task. It isn't. Most of the elements of 21st century America are already in place. The next generation of your members has already been born, and your leaders for the year 2000 are already members. The options for the revitalization of America were expounded thoroughly during the presidential campaign, and the shape of the post-Cold War, post-industrial world is already apparent.

If we scan this emerging world of the early 21st century and position ourselves to take advantage of the new opportunities it presents, associations can become stronger and more successful than before. If, on the other hand, we continue to apply 20th century thinking to a 21st century world, we will be surprised by constantly erupting crises that keep us on the defensive and unable to create our own future.

Let's look at what the world will probably look like during the first decade of the 21st century. Then let's look at some specific steps that association leaders can take today to prepare them to prosper in the challenging world of tomorrow.

The New World

What kind of world are we likely to have at the turn of the century, just seven years from now? By then, the economic crisis of the 1990s will probably have brought Americans closer together in a shared commitment to solve long-neglected domestic priorities. In this new America, there will be a greater sense of social responsibility, tempered by more emphasis on self help and less on government handouts. On the other hand, government will be more active in articulating national goals and helping others achieve them through public/private partnerships. This will give rise to a much greater emphasis on government/business initiatives in developing leading-edge industries to maximize American competitiveness.

After a painful realignment of its economy lasting for most of the 1990s, America will resume its robust growth and world economic leadership. We are in the midst of a transition to a "New Industrial Revolution," this time based on knowledge and information rather than manufacturing. It will cause all the pain, agony and world upheaval of the earlier economic revolution. It will define the world for our lifetimes and beyond.

The economic crises of the 1990s will leave all our institutions sensitive to the need for leaner structures and greater employee/member participation in decision-making. There will be a firmly established trend away from low-bidder purchasing and toward long-term partnerships with suppliers.

The federal government will be reorganized and streamlined, and the power of PACs will be eliminated or substantially reduced. These steps will lessen the divisiveness of special interest politics and gradually restore public confidence in government.

Since the new world of the next millennium will be knowledge-based and communications based, power and wealth will go to those countries with the best-educated and trained populations and the most advanced information and communication technology. The United States will be a much more potent competitor in both these areas by the early 2000s. Knowledge exports are already the single most important factor in our trade surplus.

By the turn of the century, major changes in our educational system will be well underway. There will be a national commitment to improve the educational base that will be similar to the national commitment to put a man on the moon back in the 1960s. Government will encourage development of national standards by educational associations, similar to those created by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

There will be increased emphasis on academic core competencies, such as science, math and language, but also on apprenticeship training for those choosing not to go on to college. Everyone will engage in continuous retraining to keep up with rapidly evolving

technology. Schools will be expected to compete with each other for funding on the basis of academic success.

The expected advances in communications technologies will threaten all educational institutions with competition from non-tenure based, quicker response, for profit educational organizations.

By the dawn of the 21st century, the United States will have become what Ben Wattenberg has termed the first truly universal nation -- multicultural, multiracial and multilingual. We will become a "salad nation" rather than a "melting pot," bringing life to our national slogan, E Pluribus Unum -- "Out of Many, One."

As the old century ends, the Baby Boomers will bring to national leadership a perfectionism and idealistic zeal that will fit well with emerging demands for change and reform. They will be vocal and demand to be heard, but will tend to be reluctant volunteers.

The international world of the first quarter of the 21st century will be both less and more dangerous. For the foreseeable future, the United States will remain the unchallenged military power. On the other hand, nationalist feelings that were suppressed during a century of great power conflicts will continue to explode. Nation-states will begin to disintegrate all over the world, resulting in small but vicious ethnic wars.

The world will coalesce into several large trading blocs, but there will be a more tightly integrated world economy. The economic world will be bipolar, dominated by large multinational corporations and small entrepreneurial companies linked together in formal and informal networks.

Once neglected social and growth issues have been addressed, the overriding issue of the new century is likely to be the environment. This issue will increasingly loom over policy makers worldwide and will ultimately have a dramatic impact on the nature of the marketplace.

Some Implications for Associations in the New World

Opportunity to Serve as an Early Warning System

With change accelerating at a breathtaking pace, everyone will need a filter, an early warning system, an interpreter of developments and the implications. Associations and professional societies will be needed more than ever before. But their role will be largely different. They will need to be sophisticated listening posts for change. They will need to be able to instantly go to the heart of emerging trends and prepare their members to address them. And in the absence of powerful PACs and with special interest politics in disfavor, there will be a need for sophisticated associations that know how to wield influence effectively and quietly to address member needs.

Opportunity to Serve as a Consensus Catalyst

Political advocacy will change from opposition by special interests to cooperation among diverse interests. Associations will be the natural agents to lead this change, helping to bring together the public and the private sectors. There will also be a realization that cutthroat competition among associations for market dominance is a zero sum game. Increasingly, associations will learn to benefit from strategic partnerships among erstwhile competitors.

Opportunity to Lead the Communications Revolution

In the rapidly changing world of the 21st century, members will no longer be satisfied to receive provider driven information: information that is compiled and sent out by the association at its convenience (e.g., monthly magazine, weekly newsletter). By the turn of the century, the flow of information will be user-driven. Users will expect to get up to the minute information when and how they want it -- uncluttered with information they don't want and comprehensive in meeting their interest and needs. To provide information on demand at an affordable cost, associations must make it a priority to become highly sophisticated in the understanding and use of cutting edge communications technology. Early in the next century, there will be a fiber optic information highway that will interconnect businesses and homes and provide products and services undreamed of today. The new technology will provide associations with the opportunity to offer a powerful and essential value added service to members and others. This can mean significantly increased non dues income.

Opportunity to Lead the Education and Training Revolution

Associations can have a powerful impact on the revitalization of the American educational system, which will be central to our economic and social recovery. Associations provide targeted organized channels through which their members and critical constituencies can be given the necessary skills to absorb the new knowledge base and technological skills. They will have an increasing opportunity to become the catalysts for bringing together the public and private sectors in providing Americans with the knowledge capital our nation needs to compete.

Associations are rapidly becoming the principal deliverers of continuing education to a vast array of professions and specialties. They can also play a great part in helping design the new school systems that will produce the employable workers of the 21st century. By the beginning of the next century, associations will be working with educators and government to design and implement German style apprenticeship/partnership training programs for entire industries.

Opportunity to Profit From International Marketplace

The emerging "one world" will offer vastly greater scope for associations, as nations vie with each other to imitate the American model. This will be particularly true as our economy revives and as third world nations move toward market economies. Associations can thrive as conduits of information between America and the world. Increasingly, associations will move to fund research yielding new products, new markets and new approaches to the environment.

In the new world economy, associations will have a chance to use their experience as multicultural moderators to serve as catalysts for worldwide cooperation.

Meeting the Challenge of Generational Change

The current World War II generation of association leaders is participative, social and loyal. The emerging Baby Boomer and Baby Buster generations will be less likely to contribute their time and leadership to the association, yet much more demanding of value for their dues dollars. These members will be hard to sell and hard to keep on board. Delivery of services will supplant the traditional social aspects of association membership in importance.

Meeting the Challenge of Multiculturalism

Today a lack of multiculturalism in an association is viewed as insensitivity, and causes deep rifts and resentment. By the end of the decade it will be viewed as folly, since women and minorities will make up a critical mass of the population.

Meeting the Challenge of Scarce Financial and Volunteer Resources

Most of today's associations were designed during the halcyon days of American prosperity, when threatening issues were few and members could afford to proliferate offices and to socialize lavishly. Those days are probably gone for good. Even when prosperity returns, members are likely to remain issues oriented and economy minded. Large and cumbersome governing bodies, dozens of committees, meetings and social events will not survive. Neither will those associations that persist in holding on to them.

Preparing Today to Become a 21st Century Association

Whether or not you agree that these changes are likely to take place, it would be prudent to act as if they were. Your association can only be better and more competitive as a result. You can operate more cost effectively, provide your members with more value than ever before, and define the terms of competition. Here are some specific steps you can start taking now to create the future you want for your association as we enter the 21st century.

Commit Your Association to Quality Management

Start now to focus on the essential services that are of vital importance to your core constituency. Better to do a few vital things well than to do a fair job trying to cover the waterfront. In a time of fraying loyalties and self absorption, the only way to get and keep members will be to provide indispensable services at an affordable price. Discipline yourself to always regard members as customers.

Achieving customer satisfaction requires a total commitment to quality management. Quality management means much more than quality control in the production of an association product or service. Real quality management is a three-step sequential process.

The first step in becoming a quality, member driven association is achieving fitness to standard. This means determining with your customers/members what constitutes excellence in existing products and services, and then meeting those expectations. Quality standards will differ among associations because they are determined by customer expectations. By conducting regular quality assessments with your members, you will discover what those expectations are.

Once fitness to standard has been mastered, the next step is achieving fitness to need. While fitness to standard is about making your current products better, fitness to need is about devising products that are needed and wanted by your customers. This means doing your homework, asking members and potential members to identify their unmet needs -- and then filling them excellently. Fitness to need is another name for the marketing approach: building a product or service that so perfectly meets the customer's needs that it sells itself without a lot of hoopla.

To determine what your members want, you can employ a variety of market research tools, from quick, electronically tallied polls of convention participants to comprehensive member needs surveys, focus groups and informal get-togethers. The results of this research should be regularly shared with the membership and should be one of the key drivers of your strategic plan.

The final step in becoming member-driven is fitness to future need. This is the key to being a 21st century association -- a key that few know how to use successfully. Fitness to future need means being a disciplined visionary -- creating excellent products and services that will be essential to your members in the future, although they don't yet realize they need them. A good example of being attuned to future needs is ASAE's internal technology task force. It has been charged with anticipating the new technology of information transfer and being among the first to use it to make timely information available to its members. If fitness to future needs drives your strategic planning, you will always be a step ahead of your customers and your competition, and will therefore define the marketplace you have chosen.

Streamline the Policy-Making Process

Byzantine association policy development processes and ponderous governance structures will be obsolete by the turn of the century. Smaller boards will have greater credibility because of their ability to act. Demand fax, conference calling and other communications media will make it possible for much of association decision-making to be done instantaneously, without costly and time-consuming meetings of committees and governing bodies. Substantial sums of money and person-years of staff time can be saved by taking advantage of technology to streamline governance. These resources can be better applied to providing more vital services your members will appreciate.

Adopt a system of strategic management

Strategic management can be defined as a rational process for setting objectives and managing to achieve them. Lots of associations do what they call strategic planning, but unless these plans drive the annual workplan and budget, they generally lead nowhere. Strategic management ties policy making to implementation. Under strategic management, the board assesses future opportunities and threats in the political, social, technological, economic and biological environments. It then assesses the association's strengths and weaknesses in addressing them. Using these insights, it then adopts a mission, objectives, strategies and policies to guide the association's future.

Staff's role in strategic management is to develop action plans, budgets and procedures, and implement the plans within the policy guidelines set by the board. Standing committees are abolished in favor of temporary task forces that disband when their assignment is completed. A strategic board/staff partnership works and costs much less to operate than traditional association governance.

Empower Your Staff

Association staffs should be given responsibility for achieving the goals and carrying out the policies set down by the board, and should serve as a support and resource for the board in carrying out its responsibilities. As boards become more strategic, they will cede more to the staffs and be less involved -- or interested in -- tactical, micromanagement activities that so frustrate association executives.

Just as the board needs to be more sensitive to the needs of members, association staffs need to be galvanized from the bottom up. Your chief staff executive needs to learn how to become a coach instead of a boss. Staff members should be encouraged to develop their own action plans and budgets so long as they carry out the goals set by the board.

Walls between departments need to come down. The pervasive curse of office fiefdoms needs to be replaced with interdepartmental task forces of volunteers and staff that come together to develop and implement plans that cross department and committee lines. Staff must come to believe that they serve the members, not a particular department.

Make Peace With Your Chapters or Affiliates

If there ever was a no-brainer, it is the ridiculous competition between many national associations and their affiliates for member revenues. Both are indispensable parts of the same system, and like boards and staffs, they need to form mutually beneficial partnerships. Do your strategic planning and member research jointly. Divide up responsibilities, building on the strengths of each of the partners. For example, the national organization could use its resources to develop regional educational modules for chapters to implement. The national organization could set up a central electronic catalog of products and services that could be accessed by chapter members via 800 numbers. The first step is to break down the walls of suspicion and hostility through ongoing two-way communications and joint planning.

Reconsider Your Non-Profit Status

Government is under increasing pressure to find new revenue to apply to the ballooning budget deficit, and it will intensify targeting of association income. IRS redefinition's of unrelated business income (UBIT) are likely to be just warning shots. This will appear to be heresy to most association executives, but it may be advantageous for some associations, particularly 501 (c) 6 organizations, to consider converting to for profits. Although their taxable income will increase, they no longer will have to worry about staying within their exempt purpose, can seek venture capital and can more easily eliminate burdensome governance structures.

Make Your Service Corporation a Cash Cow

The new communications technology will make it possible for association service corporations to become powerful sources of revenue to support association service objectives. For example, instant interactive communications technology will enable associations to offer an electronic catalog of products and services. It can be instantly updated to provide real time information on both association and supplier offerings, and can be supported by listing fees and line charges. Such a system can become a major income source. Treat your service corporation like the profit making entity it is. Have an aggressive marketing strategy and you will be successful.

Rethink How You Do Membership Marketing

When most of us think of building membership, we think of the gimmicks: contests, telemarketing, direct mail, hoopla. It is time to stop thinking of ways to sell memberships and start thinking about marketing them. Selling means convincing someone to buy what you have to offer. Marketing means working with users to develop a product or service that so perfectly meets their needs that it sells itself. The concepts of selling and marketing are antithetical. If your association consistently identifies and meets member needs in a culture of excellence, professionalism and enthusiasm, you won't have much selling to do. Prospects will beat a path to your door.

Move From Confrontation to Cooperation With Adversaries

Start talking with all the consumer advocates, environmentalists and public interest groups that have been harrying your association in the past. Look for common ground on which you can begin to build mutually beneficial coalitions. In Congress, even Jesse Helms and Ted Kennedy form temporary alliances when their issues coincide.

In your relations with government, think about how you can contribute to solutions to problems before Congress and the administration feel obligated to address them. You can have a real impact on policy if you form coalitions with interest groups and work with government to find solutions before a groundswell for political action develops. Once that happens, you will be fighting a rearguard action against the inevitable.

Stay on the Cutting Edge of Communications Technology

Becoming a learning organization is critical to becoming a 21st century association -- and communications technology is an essential prerequisite. Today associations are using old technology to communicate with their members and other constituencies. Even associations that have invested in high technology, such as desktop publishing, to develop information are using low technology -- printing, paper and the mails -- to delivery it. This will change rapidly. Communications is becoming user driven instead provider driven.

Many associations are developing online computer data bases. The problem is that computer data bases can be difficult, time consuming and costly for members to use. However, there is a recent technology that can provide similar on demand access to information at low cost using only a Touch Tone phone and fax machine. Members won't have to wait until the association publishes its newsletter or magazine to get latest information. Instead, they can tap interactive fax libraries of articles, newsletters, issue papers, technical specifications, supplier product listings, job listings, legislative bills, and regulations, instantly, from anywhere, 24 hours a day. Interactive fax also makes instant polling possible. Service bureaus offer interactive fax on a fee basis, so little investment is necessary since no equipment purchase or personnel are required.

Video fax will also be common by the turn of the century. Using digital technology, videos can be compressed and sent in bursts over microwave, satellite, coaxial and fiber optic networks to receivers about the size and cost of today's VCR. A two-hour video can be transmitted in 15 seconds or less for less than it costs to rent a video today. Also on the way is interactive video that will permit two way communications between the sender and receiver. The coming of video fax and interactive video will bring new educational opportunities to homes and offices and may supplant many small association seminars and even larger conventions.

CD ROM technology will be a standard feature of PCs. Associations will use CD ROM to offer many years worth of journals, as well as complete libraries of information to members for a modest fee. This information will be in full color with motion. Users will be able to access the information on inexpensive Sony Discmans® or manipulate them on Apple Newtons®.

Lead the Education Revolution

Your association probably knows what skills are required in your field and has experience in delivering educational programs to its members. The entire educational system will be put under the microscope and by the beginning of the century, a new one will be largely in place. You can take the lead in transforming how those in your field are educated and trained by developing working partnerships with federal, state and national governments, as well as with teacher and advocacy groups. Someone is going to be making those decisions about how your field will be educated, from kindergarten through college. You should be in on the decision-making process from the beginning.

You also have the opportunity to establish association run interactive job banks that link employers and prospective employees instantly through fax on demand job listings and fax mailboxes for resume responses. This service can also generate substantial income for your association.

Summing Up

We don't need a crystal ball to determine the shape of the new century that is just seven years ahead. Most of the trends are already in place for those who care to seek them out. It is likely to be a tough but exciting time, filled with great challenges but unparalleled opportunity for strategic thinkers. And there is the nub of the challenge.

Most associations tend to be focused on short term, tactical problems. This is natural, given the constant leadership turnover and the need for staff to keep scrambling to keep up with new volunteer initiatives. But strategic management and quality management principles, combined with staff empowerment, provide a model that works.

What it boils down to is this. Be a forward thinker, and train your leadership to see beyond today's crises. Scan the future for social, economic, political, technological and environmental opportunities and threats. Then look at your association's strengths and weaknesses in addressing them. Erect a "Chinese wall" between governance and staff: let governance set policy and let staff carry it out. Concentrate on providing a limited number of vital services to your core constituency, and do it excellently. Listen to your members and be responsive to their needs. Do all this while taking an ax to your hierarchical structure and slimming down your association to fighting weight. Stick to these few principles and you will be positioned to be a winner as we enter a new century.

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