Serve Versus Sell: How to Negotiate Associations' Dual Roles

By / Jan 6, 2016 (iStock/Thinkstock)

A study on how organizations with hybrid missions—both social and commercial—manage the inherent tensions between the two offers some guidance for associations and the membership business model.

Picture your association staff gathered for your next all-staff meeting but divided into two groups. On one side of the room is everyone who primarily focuses on your association’s mission, or serving your members. On the other side of the room is everyone primarily focused on business, or selling to your members. What’s the balance between the two sides? And what’s the feeling in the room when they’re divided up?

This might not be a dichotomy most associations would readily make, but organizations that embrace their dual roles—and that don’t shy away from the inherent tensions between the two—might be more successful at both.

The organizations that are successful are the ones that keep the tension alive.

Last month, in “What to Do When Your Organization Has Dueling Missions,” Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge shared findings from a study on the performance and practices of “hybrid organizations,” which combine social missions with for-profit business models. In particular, the study—titled “Harnessing Productive Tensions in Hybrid Organizations: The Case of Work Integration Social Enterprises,” conducted by researchers at Harvard, Boston College, Stanford, and ESSEC Business School and published in the December 2015 edition of the Academy of Management Journal—looked at “work integration social enterprises” (WISEs) in France, akin to organizations like Goodwill here in the United States. These nonprofit organizations aim to prepare disadvantaged individuals to re-enter the workforce by employing them in a for-profit economic operation, from which the revenues are used to support training and rehabilitation services for those employees.

A Duel of Dual roles

Based on annual survey data from the French National Federation for Work Integration Social Enterprises from 2003 through 2007, the study showed a clear tension between the social and economic motivations in such hybrid organizations: A higher level of “social imprinting” (i.e., mission focus) correlated with greater social performance, and a higher level of economic productivity equated to greater social performance, as well (via more money generated to put back into the mission). But, paradoxically, organizations with higher social imprinting tended to have lower economic productivity, according to the study. The authors diagrammed the relationship like so:

social performance paradox

They didn’t stop there, though. They also sought to answer how hybrid organizations manage this tension, through a comparative case study of two similar work integration social enterprises in France. Both faced similar challenges during the global economic crisis, but one fared much better, which the researchers credit to its methods for managing the tensions between its dual roles.

The key is what they dubbed “spaces of negotiation,” a set of formal structures and practices that regularly brought colleagues from the social and economic sides of the organization together. Examples included “regulation meetings” every trimester for social counselors and production supervisors to discuss progress, a scheduling system for employees that required input from both counselors and supervisors, and a performance-appraisal system that similarly required input from both.

“The creation, and subsequent use, of spaces of negotiation was associated with higher economic productivity … but did not make the tensions between production supervisors and social counselors disappear; rather, the interactions between production supervisors and social counselors came to be seen as ‘positive confrontations,'” the study’s authors wrote. Julie Battilana, associate professor at Harvard and coauthor of the study, told Harvard’s Working Knowledge, “The obvious solution to a conflict might be to integrate everything in an attempt to make the problem disappear. But what we found in this context is very different: The organizations that are successful are the ones that keep the tension alive.”

Associations’ Competing Purposes

Associations may not see themselves as hybrid organizations like Goodwill, but there’s no denying a central tension in the association business model: Membership is both a product to be sold and a tool for the collaborative pursuit of common goals. Which part of that equation you prioritize may depend on your job description, your professional background, or your mood on any given day of the week, but ideally you’d have some clarity from your association and its leaders about how those dual purposes should interact.

It may indeed be difficult for associations, though, to divide up staff into “serve versus sell” roles. My back-of-the-napkin attempt to categorize some common association job roles would go as follows, but I think you could make an argument for any of these to switch sides.


  • standards development
  • advocacy
  • community engagement
  • volunteer management


  • membership
  • meetings
  • education
  • publications

Even if the mission- and business-focused efforts of your association can’t be delineated by program or department, the concept of “spaces of negotiation” may still be worth pursuing in some form. Consider, for instance, a common question any association must face when developing a new product or service: Will it carry a price tag or will it be free to members (or even nonmembers as well)? That can be a tricky calculation to make, but the factors to be weighed get to the heart of mission-versus-business tension in associations.

The study’s authors suggest that further research could illuminate how spaces of negotiation might work in other specific organizational contexts, but Battilana told Working Knowledge she thinks it could apply broadly. “It is especially important to create and maintain such spaces of negotiation when it comes to managing trade-offs between social and commercial activities,” she said. “That’s certainly an issue in any organization, not just social enterprises.”

How does your association clarify mission- and business-related roles for staff, and how do you balance the two? Do you think specific association job roles fall clearly onto one side or the other? Where would membership fit? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki is a contributing editor at Associations Now, a lifelong Phillies fan, and a proud alum of Ohio University. More »


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