When Change Doesn’t Look Like Change

A new study suggests that association leaders' top concerns haven't shifted in more than a decade. Are  execs focused or flailing?

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

That’s French for “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” You probably knew that. Me, I had to look it up. I took four years of French in high school, but a couple decades of distance from my diploma have erased my serviceable-at-best grasp on the language. If only I’d had more opportunities to put it into practice, my recall would have been easier. Alas, I haven’t been fated to live in Paris.

Like speaking in a foreign tongue, experience gives you a fluency about situational problems that makes them easier to address.

I bring this up because there’s something very plus-ca-change about Veris Consulting and Brittenford Systems’ Nonprofit Financial Outlook for 2013 [PDF], which was released earlier this month. Last week my colleague Katie Bascuas nicely addressed some of its findings in terms of associations’ anticipated growth, and one point she makes is that the path to growth isn’t always clear. But in terms of what the challenges to that growth are, Veris and Brittenford found some familiar concerns. Take a look at a few details:

  • Nearly half (46 percent) the nonprofit leaders surveyed said one of their top priorities for the year were “rethinking revenue model and income generation”; the same percentage also listed “improving program results and metrics” as a priority.
  • Top challenges for the respondents were improving revenue consistency and forecasting; generating nondues revenue, and expanding fundraising.
  • Among the top opportunities for the new year are implementing a transformational strategic plan, better focusing on target audiences, and expanding partnerships and international initiatives.

By comparison, consider some research from 15 years ago, when I might still have been capable of fluently ordering lunch (or at least a croissant) in Provence. The ASAE book Facing the Future explored 14 trends shaping associations. Among them:

  • “Reassessing the traditional revenue formula”
  • “Current governance models are outmoded and obsolete”
  • “Developing a clearly defined value proposition”
  • “Associations, and the members they serve, are boundary-less”

Plus ca change, etc. It’s enough to make you wonder if, as a group, association leaders have learned anything in the past decade and a half. Executives certainly absorb plenty of advice about staying relevant and making big changes in the face of industrywide transformation. They’re exhorted to innovate, yet they keep running into the same old concerns. Are executives simply stuck in a rut, or is there something inherent in the association world that keeps pushing these issues to the fore?

I think it’s more fair to say that it’s the job of the executive to concentrate on the sticky-wicket problems, and that matters of revenue, governance, and globalization will always be the stickiest wickets around for associations. It’s important to recognize that that’s not the same thing as saying association leaders haven’t evolved; if the big issues haven’t changed, executives have generally adapted their responses to them. For example, there was much more anxiety about the impact of the internet back in 1999: “Don’t underestimate the internet,” Facing the Future cautioned, a line that would get you laughed out of the room today. But today, similar anxiety swirls around cloud computing and social media at many associations. Forty-nine percent of the Veris survey respondents use the cloud today, and 21 percent intend to explore it this year—a process that’s sure to generate a lot of gray hairs in the C-suite.

Will associations find an effective way to use cloud computing and work with Dropbox-using staffers? Of course. And it will happen in part because leaders have kept in practice at focusing on IT problems. That doesn’t mean IT problems then go away, but it does mean that, like speaking in a foreign tongue, experience gives you a fluency about situational problems that makes them easier to address. Leadership is a muscle. Use it regularly and it becomes easier to keep using it; don’t, and it atrophies.

That’s my relatively rosy take on it anyway. Are association leaders well equipped to handle these big issues, or is this study proof that leaders are indeed stuck in a rut and need to shift focus?


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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