First Steps for Strategic Expansion

Adding a new membership category can increase your lobbying power and add a revenue stream. But it’s not a move to be taken lightly, and a patient strategic discussion can reveal whether it’s necessary.

From career-changers to expats to people heading back to school, the world is full of people who’ve decided to shift their conception of who they are. That urge is similar at institutions, which are obligated to respond to changes in market forces for the sake of their survival. After all, we wouldn’t have an IBM to talk about today if IBM insisted that it needed to stick with mainframe computers.

Associations have the same concerns, of course. In the latest issue of Associations Now, I spoke with leaders at a handful of associations that have invited whole new classes of members into the fold. The Authors Guild, long an association for established writers, has opened its doors to aspiring writers seeking their first publication; the Petroleum Services Association of Canada, a trade association long focused on oil and gas companies, recently decided to welcome members from the alternative-energy industry; the Association for Legal Administrators created a category for consultants; and a regional Realtors association invited office administrators to join.

In each case, there’s a push and pull over the wisdom of the change. Advocates will point to shifts in the industry that necessitate the expansion, as well as the opportunity to tap a new group of members. Critics will decry damage to the integrity of the organization, and while some might dismiss that complaint as another case of that dreaded association affliction, We’ve Never Done It That Way Before, it’s always good to question whether expansion is a good fit, and isn’t done just for the sake of improving the bottom line.

I wanted to get my board to get some different kind of thinking going.

If there’s one thing that unifies the associations I spoke with, it’s a willingness to be open to that conversation—and to prepare board members and other stakeholders for it. Mark Salkeld, president and CEO of PSAC, had seen many of its members already moving toward wind and solar, so he brought the conversation about those changes to his board. To create an on-ramp for that discussion, he scheduled a strategic planning schedule a few months earlier than usual, and invited three speakers to discuss industry change: a futurist, an oil-industry expert, and a former president of a Canadian chemical association who had steered an organization through changes himself.

“I wanted to get my board to get some different kind of thinking going,” Salkeld says. “There was an update on the industry [at the meeting], an update on associations, and then outside-the-box kind of thinking.” There was some urgency behind the move too—PSAC was seeing a decline in membership. But Salkeld says the conversation was relatively stress-free because the leaders were addressing headwinds instead of desperately fumbling for answers. “There was no sense of panic because we had all the pieces in place that we needed to have in place to recognize the circumstances we were in,” he says. “We knew our membership dropoff was through mergers and acquisitions, insolvencies, and then tightening discretionary spend and thinking that dues weren’t affordable at the time.”

The benefit for PSAC in the short term is that it has a broader base of members from which it can now lobby legislators. The long-term challenge is making sure that the new and old member bases share enough of the same interests to make the expansion viable. Another challenge is that expansion can also be an expensive proposition—that brand-new category of member may be so substantially different that serving their needs can put new demands on the association’s resources and staffing. That’s one reason why Marketing General’s Tony Rossell cautions against it. But if you want to pursue it, he says, spend some real time getting to know and understand the people in the member category you’re thinking of adding.

“Start with qualitative research,” he says. “That can be executive interviews or focus groups, which at least helps you frame the issues around the question. And then you can move to more quantitative research, having people in those marketplaces rate the benefits—how useful they are, and what kind of products and services they need.” He also recommends piloting a program to see what the initial response is. “I’m a big believer that the best research you can do is see if someone will write a check or not,” he says.

When it comes to member expansion, though, it’s best to go exploring with an attitude of “why not?” instead of “why should we?” When Rachel D. Tristano, CAE, CEO of the Plymouth and South Shore Association of Realtors, first raised the idea of expanding membership for the association, she says she was hit with a firehose of “100 reasons why it shouldn’t be allowed.” Conversations with leadership and people in the potential new category, though, suggested there was a little more wiggle room than that list of reasons might suggest. Tristano spoke to me enthusiastically about the people who came on board with the idea once it was out in the open.

So what happened to that list of 100 reasons? I asked. Tristano laughed. “It just disappeared,” she says. “They were more staff-based reasons—what if there are too many admins showing up at events?, things like that. The reasons not to do it were really not as realistic.”

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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