Leading Members in a (More) Global Economy

How can association leaders best serve their increasingly global members? Two new studies suggest a few paths.

The Winter Olympics wrapped up Sunday, and as tends to happen with the games, a spirit of international unity prevails. If Jamaica can deliver bobsledders to Sochi, what can’t we all do together?

International issues in reality are much messier, of course. And as long as I’ve covered associations, I’ve seen leaders struggle to effectively respond to globalization. What’s the best way to expand your international reach? How do you staff for it? Should you bother with it at all?

Association executives need to help both their own organization and their members cope with the impacts of globalization.

Two recent association-specific studies shed some light on the urgency of the issue, and suggest a few paths toward a focused global strategy. The first, produced by Association Laboratory, shows that global activity is becoming more common at associations: The study found that a majority of organizations (55 percent) are now receiving some revenue internationally. The biggest force affecting members globally, according to 26 percent of respondents, is the simple fact that they’re doing more around the world. But members are also challenged by economic instability in other countries (18 percent), managing a global workforce (17 percent) and competition from outside the United States (14 percent).

For those leading the associations serving those members, there’s a related worry about how to respond, according to the survey. A majority of executives that Association Laboratory polled shared some common concerns: among them are educating members on the changing global environment, building partnerships, and identifying and developing the activities the association wishes to pursue. “Association executives need to help both their own organization and their members cope with the impacts of globalization,” the study says.

True. But how? An updated white paper from GlobalStrat, “Global Growth Strategies: The International Association,” offers a few helpful pointers. Author Terrance Barkan, CAE, recommends three relatively low-risk ways to start expanding internationally:

  1. Focus on just two or three products that you know you can deliver successfully and that are profitable. This is almost never membership, which is perceived in very different ways around the world; the American model of annual dues-paying and volunteering isn’t universally embraced.
  2. Think about specific markets that research tells you that your products will perform well. Those aren’t necessarily the same countries where you’ve already established partnerships.
  3. Start small. Doing a handful of things well will serve your association’s staff and its reputation better than making a big global push that flames out.

“Remember, one of the objectives your association should include in your international strategy should be to learn more about the needs of the market,” Barkan writes. Or, to put it another way: Talk to people.

One of the best examples I’ve heard about to that point involves the Institute of Food Technologists, which spent three years working with its Chinese counterpart to establish a publishing foothold China. IFT knew the market it wanted to be in and knew what product it wanted to bring to it. But just as important, it was willing to spend the time necessary to listen to leaders in China and better understand what would work for both sides. “I think in every country you want to get involved in, you have to decide on your entry point,” IFT Executive Vice President Barbara Byrd Keenan, FASAE, CAE, told me. “You have to be clear about your objective, and you have to be clear about their objective.”

What global challenges are your members facing, and how are your responding to them? 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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