Three Tips for a Global Start That Sticks

Associations new to going global can find the process daunting. Smart planning, risk management, and a board that’s on board can help.

What’s standing in the way of your efforts to take your association global? It may be as simple as one letter.

For the better part of the past year I’ve been working on that question with the ASAE Foundation, which is in the midst of a multiphase project to better understand what’s made associations successful outside of North America. The result of my portion of the effort is Global Growth Strategies, a report written in conjunction with MCI Group. (You can get up to speed on the first phase of the research by reading about Achieving Global Growth.)

The new paper was based on multiple focus groups with association leaders and global chiefs—and, for a special section on China, one-on-one interviews with the leaders of 40 associations that have done work in the country. Those conversations provided the bedrock for both the report and the Achieving Global Growth pre-conference workshop, which was held Saturday at the ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition in Detroit.

If you don’t have a tolerance for risk, then don’t go global.

That conversation covered a lot of ground, but I want to highlight just few of the prominent themes covered by the research. Every association is different, and none of the answers to globalization questions are so simple as, “Go to X country and sell product Y and watch the money roll in.” But over the course of many conversations, these were a few of the themes that repeatedly emerged.

  1. Stakeholder Buy-In Is Critical. Every association doing work overseas needs to have a strategy—an idea of where it wants to go, what effort it wants to make, who it needs to work with, and how long it will stay. But the hardest people to persuade are often key staffers, members, and especially board members, who often find reasons to resist. They may blanch at the expense; they may feel that it’s misplaced attention; simple xenophobia is not uncommon. But the resistance to going global may be as simple as the association’s name, if you’re the American Widget Society. “It’s a big ‘A,’” as the CEO of one trade association said during a focus group.
  2. Know What to Lead With. The association model that’s common in North America—membership plus a mix of certifications, meetings, education, publications, and other tailored products—may not be as relevant in other parts of the globe. In China, most notably, there’s a cultural resistance to membership; people their can be eager to earn certifications, but not necessarily maintain them. But whatever you lead with needs to be a function of what your research tells you people need there. Is it training? A tradeshow? Access to a standard? Whatever it is, it’ll be what you hear is needed, not what you think you can impose.
  3. It’s a Risk. A new draft law regarding nonprofits working in China has some associations concerned. Such governmental shifts in the country can often have substantial impact: In April the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America had to make adjustments after the government moved quickly to tear down a number of golf courses and reconvert them to farmland. But in truth, any new effort in any country involves facing up to uncertainty. The successful associations I’ve heard from plan well ahead, know what work they’ll be doing, avoid mission creep, keep close track of revenue, attendees, and other metrics, and cultivate patience—there’s no such thing as an overnight global success. As one focus-group participant put it, “If you don’t have a tolerance for risk, then don’t go global.”

What’s been your strategy to introduce your association’s work outside the United States? If you attended the Saturday workshop, what were some of your takeaways? 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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