A Look at What’s Good in Associations

A report highlighting some negative viewpoints of nonprofit work leaves out all the inherent advantages of association management. Time to fill in the gaps.

When I was young, sometimes I picked on my kid brother. Nothing terrible, just your typical sibling rivalry stuff. We liked to push each other’s buttons. There was a brief period, though, when he had some troubles with a bully picking on him on the bus. It was resolved eventually, but I still remember how I felt when I heard that someone else was picking on him: I saw red. I was angry. It was OK if I gave him some grief, but if someone else did it? No way, man.

This was similar to how I felt when I read the comments of several for-profit-turned-nonprofit executives in “Striving for No Difference: Examining Effective Leadership Between Nonprofit and For-Profit Contexts,” which my colleague Mark Athitakis shared in his Monday blog post.

It’s not all disadvantages in the nonprofit sector. Professional and trade associations have some inherent advantages over the for-profit sector, too.

The study interviewed 10 nonprofit executives who had previously worked in the for-profit sector and asked them to make some comparisons. A few highlights:

  • “Most of the interviewees … ‘cite workforce competence as a current challenge—they suggest nonprofit employees [are] less proficient, generally, than their corporate peers.'”
  • “Boards … ‘represent a major factor diminishing their overall authority and their ability to get things done.'”
  • “Nine of 10 study participants cite the roles that measurement and evaluation play in their organizations. … Interviewees consider current practices to understand service and program impact to be deficient.”

No way, man. My first thought was, Who are these for-profit interlopers bashing our nonprofits? We here in the association community are allowed to gripe about our challenges and deficiencies—and gripe we do—but something about it coming from outsiders (even though they’re now on the inside) makes it feel like an attack.

Never mind that their comments are relatable and perhaps indeed accurate. For now, I just feel the need to offer what’s missing among the perspectives in that study. It’s not all disadvantages in the nonprofit sector. Professional and trade associations, specifically, have some inherent advantages over the for-profit sector, too. Here are just a few:

Members. This one is so obvious it might be easy to overlook. The average association annual member-renewal rate is 80 percent. That’s built-in stability, a dedicated audience and customer pool. A customer might walk into a store, buy one thing, walk out, and never come back. A member makes a commitment for a year (or more). Members don’t just buy, they belong. Yes, this stability comes with the danger of breeding complacency, and often that’s what we focus on. But the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. How many for-profit business leaders wouldn’t saw off a limb for the level of virtually guaranteed repeat customers that associations enjoy?

Community. Associations gather groups of people with shared interests and passions. It is the foundational aspect that sets associations apart from mere membership programs or subscriber lists, and community is its own selling point (see above). Yes, associations sell products to customers like many for-profits do, but their core operations are built on relationships and networks and collaboration. These are far more difficult to build in the for-profit context. In the past five to 10 years, a lot of corporate brands have jumped on the community bandwagon to try to build relationships with and among their customers, but associations have been doing this for centuries.

Mission. People come to associations for a lot of reasons, but they come to support the mission as much as any other. This is important; it’s what enables positive change, because the various stakeholders in associations—members, volunteers, staff—aren’t acting exclusively in their own self-interest. In short, people in associations care. For a leader, that’s a different and powerful motivational factor to tap into, one that is in much shorter supply in a for-profit.

These shouldn’t be surprises to anyone in associations, of course. Nor is this an exhaustive list. I just wanted to set the message straight. I feel a little better now. To those of you in associations who also feel a bit disparaged: Please comment and add to this list. What other advantages do nonprofits have over for-profits?


Joe Rominiecki

By Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki, manager of communications at the Entomological Society of America, is a former senior editor at Associations Now. MORE

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