How Volunteers Can Help Respond to Disruption

The technologies your association's members use are changing. A broad volunteer conversation, plus an innovation mindset, can help you weather the storm.

A few weeks back, I spoke with AIIM CEO and Technology Conference speaker John Mancini about the importance of keeping up with changes in technology. Because we were talking about IT, we mostly discussed matters of hardware and software—the everyday tools and databases that members and staffers use.

But that’s not all you need to study up on, of course. There are probably technologies unique to your association’s industry you need to stay on top of, because if the 21st century has taught us anything it’s that no technology—laptops, books, cars, television—is immune to radical disruption.

When it comes to technology, assume your organization is always is in crisis mode.

Consider the case of  the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography, which serves professional sonographers and sonologists. As I wrote in the latest issue of Associations Now, the tools for conducting sonograms were getting cheaper and easier to use—handheld devices were proliferating—and ARDMS needed to respond.

Speaking with ARDMS CEO Dale Cyr, I was struck by two things:

  • First, the association’s response involved a broad swath of engaged volunteers, not just the staff or the board.
  • Second, though the issue required a sense of urgency, ARDMS was careful not to turn its volunteer gathering into a pressure cooker.

Indeed, some of the 60-odd volunteers who attended a two-day meeting in 2011 didn’t realize that there was even much of a crisis to discuss. “Depending on their personal experiences and practices, some of them were aware of what was going on, some were not,” Cyr told me. So the meeting was a valuable first step: If you recognize that major changes are occurring in your industry, getting your top layer of leaders and stakeholders on the same page will stem confusion and a sense of panic about it.

Cyr also made a point at the gathering that they hadn’t assembled to come up with a detailed response on the spot. They came together to learn about the changes and to brainstorm new ideas; the board would handle drafting the specifics of a strategic plan. “We wanted to keep the pressure off—‘It’s two o’clock on Saturday, and boy, we’ve got to get this strategic plan done,'” Cyr says, “It also reinforced the chain of command.”

Two months later the board was doing exactly what Cyr promised, and ARDMS is currently road-testing new credentialing exams for new classes of practitioners. It’s also hired two new staffers who are focused on more innovative testing methods, and assembled a new volunteer group dedicated to innovation.

I like those last moves because they make an important statement: When it comes to technology, assume your organization is always is in crisis mode. Assume that the tools your association’s members rely on to do their jobs will be very different (or nonexistent) 10 years from now. Assume that the way they receive information will look nothing like what it does now. Make people who can see those changes coming part of your network, and make discussions about those changes a regular part of your job.

The benefit of that approach is that it keeps your organization out of panic mode—you’re not convening emergency meetings when a new technology really starts eating your lunch. It can also have the benefit of broadening your pool of engaged members. As Cyr told me, the innovation group has attracted “people who would never have been involved with ARDMS before.”

How do you educate yourself on the aspects of your association’s industry that are most ripe for disruption? Share your experiences in the comments.


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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