Keep the Mission, Expand Its Reach

An author on innovation says associations need to stop playing small-ball with product tweaks and start pursuing big-picture partnerships.

Everybody in an association understands the importance of networking. But are all networks created equal? And how can you expand your networks to include people who can help your organization do more?

Those are a couple of questions that leadership author and speaker Seth Kahan recently took on during a talk earlier this month called “Leading Associations in the Age of Business Disruption,” held at the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the American Association of University Women. The word “disrupt” doesn’t usually set my heart aflutter—I think it’s often tossed, grenade-like, into the room to make executives needlessly sweaty—but Kahan makes a sensible case for how much the landscape for associations has changed, and offered some advice for how organizations can progressively adapt. You can watch the whole video below:

When other people see you as creating value that is relevant to their own success, they will invest in you.”

Every association, Kahan says, functions with a set of core assets, generally focused on the expertise of its members and the association’s ability to connect them. This has served associations well in general, but changes in the economic landscape alter not only who wants to be a member and what products and services members are willing to pay for; they also alter the nature of potential partnerships that associations can use to grow. Neglecting the opportunities those new potential networks offer, Kahan argues, is a recipe for ongoing struggle, if not failure.

To emphasize that point, Kahan breaks down the association world into three increasingly sophisticated types:

  1. The transactional association. This is the association as we’ve traditionally understood it: A suite of products and services provided to members (and perhaps nonmembers), occasionally tweaked for the sake of improving returns but rarely if ever strategically rethought. This system has worked for a long time, Kahan says, but the downside is that it puts the leadership in a perpetual mindset of dollar-chasing, where any nondues revenue idea—“car-buying clubs when you’re cardiologists,” as he put it—get pursued regardless of whether they’re good fits for the organization. “If you stray from your mission, you’re going to fall off the edge of the world,” he said. “Your mission is your asset.”
  2. The generative association. This is the association that recognizes itself less as a revenue stream of members and products and more as a repository of knowledge, and consistently thinks of new ways to increase that knowledge. That’s typically in the form of meetings, which allow experts in the same field to discuss new ideas. But anything that allows people to increase the association’s repository of industry knowledge is a positive for the organization.
  3. The scalable association. This is the organization that thinks beyond the scope of its particular industry and expertise and actively seeks out people and organizations that recognize the value of your knowledge—well beyond your core membership. Kahan cites the example of the Institute of Food Technologists, which has partnered with organizations that concentrate on water and energy, since those two industries have shared interests that relate to IFT’s mission. Particular types of manufacturing associations are ripe for this kind of thinking; technology associations as well. “When other people see you as creating value that is relevant to their own success, they will invest in you,” Kahan says, “because you’re playing the same game they’re playing.”

As a way of understanding the ways that more sophisticated associations distinguish themselves, this is all well and good. But if this is an evolutionary process, what’s the mutation? What are the factors that help an organization leapfrog from one status to the next?

I put that question to Kahan, who says, “the difference is leadership. Leadership can come from the board or the CEO, but it is almost always the CEO. This is due to the revolving nature of most board leadership. For a board to drive this kind of change it must have a unified vision of change that outlasts individual chairs. It is much less rare for a CEO to get it.”

It’s a bigger challenge, Kahan says, to go from transactional to generative (“a total culture shift”) than from generative to scalable. “This requires a CEO who knows what they want, is able to give voice to the vision clearly, and can help midwife the organization. The internal transformation requires talent development, acquisition, and letting people go who are in positions of authority and are not able to make the leap.”

So CEOs who take on the challenge ought to be thinking about their relationship with the board during the process. “Some form of governance transformation, from progressive to radical, is required for the successful transition to another stage,” Kahan says, “because it is the volunteer leaders who ultimately run the organization through their support or lack of it for the CEO.”

To put it another way: Your mission is your asset, but when it comes to broadening your mission, your board is your asset.

How does your organization expand and cultivate networks to broaden the reach of your mission? 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

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!