Global Strategy: Wading Into International Waters on a Small Scale

Developing a successful global strategy is difficult even for the largest associations. So imagine doing it with a staff of 25 or fewer. Here are stories of associations that haven't let staff size stop them from serving their members and meeting their strategic goals around the world.

Playing dress-up is usually a pastime reserved for kids, but that didn’t prevent several dozen California judges from getting into character during a trip to Mexico.

In 2005, 58 members of the California Judges Association (CJA) flew south to Morelia—the capital city of the state of Michoacán—to share their knowledge with their Mexican counterparts, who were in the middle of navigating judicial reforms. Mexico was transitioning from a judicial system in which everything was written down for the judge to review and then offer a written decision, to one in which arguments and decisions were delivered orally.

“There was no real trial or even jury,” says CEO Stanley Bissey. “So the judiciary needed training on that, and it was a great opportunity for CJA to step into that void and offer a mock trial for the judges in Mexico, so they could see how a jury trial is actually conducted by actual judges.”

CJA members played all of the roles, from bailiff to defendant to judge, and it was a huge success—somewhat surprising considering it was arranged by Bissey and his staff of eight in a short six months. Even more astonishing? The registrations from the weeklong trip brought in more revenue for CJA than its annual meeting.

Subsequent trips to Mexico, England, Israel, South Africa, and Cuba have followed, and they were all just as lucrative for the association’s bottom line as they were rich in cultural and community-building experiences for CJA’s members. “I’m just as surprised as anybody at how successful this has become,” Bissey says.

But what works for CJA won’t work for all small-staff associations. To determine the best path for going global, smaller organizations—which are likely working with limited resources—should keep in mind their goals, members, and industries, says Alfons Westgeest, FASAE, a Brussels-based vice president at Kellen Company.

They also have to do their due diligence upfront to determine if expanding internationally is right for them. “The first stage is the most difficult, but it’s the most important,” he says. After all, a smaller association launching a meeting or setting up a chapter abroad is likely to feel a bigger impact on staff resources and budget than a larger organization.

Deciding to Take the Leap

Since 1948, the Washington, DC- based Construction Specifications Institute has been involved in improving the quality of building requirements, and professional education and credentials are cornerstones of CSI’s work.

But the world of construction looks very different today than it did more than 50 years ago. According to a recent Global Construction Perspectives and Oxford Economics report, the global construction market will grow by $8 trillion by 2030, driven by the U.S., China, and India.

This boom may require CSI to adapt to keep up with the market. “In our industry—in construction—there’s no question that firms are and have been, for years and years and years, far more global in their approach” than CSI has, says CEO Mark Dorsey, FASAE, CAE.

While the majority of its members still reside in North America, CSI receives more frequent queries from individuals and firms worldwide interested in its products and services, particularly in professional education and credentialing. In response, CSI is “looking at cost-effective ways that we can make our content and related credentials available internationally to those folks who want them,” Dorsey says.

Engagement for us globally may just simply mean having better relations with like-minded associations internationally—that could be the extent of it.

Already, CSI offers an International Construction Documents Technologist (CDT) credentialing exam, which is accessible to people around the world. But there are a few issues. The source material is based on American specifications, and the exam is offered only in English. And although the in-person exam is offered internationally, “the physical brick-and-mortar locations are typically limited to major metropolitan areas,” says Aaron Wiseman, certification manager at CSI. “Stateside, the furthest someone would need travel for a test site would be 50 to 100 miles, and even that is rare. Internationally, one test center may serve an entire region or country.”

Correcting these shortcomings would require CSI to translate the exam into other languages and explore options for a different mode of delivery to an “increasingly tech-savvy, tech-dependent, and mobile culture, with corollary customer service expectations,” Dorsey says. In addition, the association would want to figure out the ROI on such a program.

These are big hurdles, especially for a 16-person staff, which is why it’s even more important to Dorsey not to “jump to any conclusions” about the best way forward.

“Engagement for us globally may just simply mean having better relations with like-minded associations internationally—that could be the extent of it,” Dorsey says. “Or it could be rolling out goods and services.”

To figure out which direction to go, CSI is committed to answering some hard questions first. “What we’re assessing right now is, ‘What really is the need?'” Dorsey says. “How quickly do we move once we’ve identified a need for a product or service, and what’s our risk tolerance for failing?”

Building a “Glocal” Community

For the International Association of Lighting Designers, a lot of its global strategy hung on its name. That’s why, 15 years ago, Chicago-based IALD and its 14-member team started thinking seriously about the “I” in its acronym. They came to the conclusion that “you either deliver on the ‘I’ in your name or you don’t—and you take it out,” says CEO Marsha L. Turner, CAE.

Based on member feedback, IALD took the former route and created a thriving local region and chapter network of members around the globe who were already getting together. To date, IALD has 15 chapters, located from Toronto to Melbourne, and 10 regions. To manage them, IALD relies on a combination of component relations staff, contract staff, and volunteers.

Members “wanted to connect with the organization from where they sat, where they were located, and because there were all these clusters and groups, it made sense to formalize [them,]” Turner says.

A needs assessment proved that IALD’s “glocal” attempt—approaching globalization at the local level—was the right one: “We asked people why they belong, and all their words were about community, engagement, and connection,” she says.

To assist in creating meaningful connections, IALD convenes yearly leadership workshops, in which it brings together regional and chapter coordinators from around the world for training that helps them “develop interactive engagement opportunities locally.”

But there are still challenges. Language and translation in messaging to IALD’s global audience can be tough. “We’re still a small association with limited resources and limited staffing, so there’s a lot of challenge with how you communicate,” Turner says. Although general organization communications are sent out in IALD’s official English language, IALD makes a year-to-year determination on what should be translated into other languages depending on the initiative and the outcome. For initiatives that make the cut, IALD uses a translation service, and translations are reviewed by two or three members, making the effort costly in both money and time.

Even so, IALD’s focus on building engagements and connections at the local level has paid off. In the last four years, its total global membership has grown by 63 percent.

Making In-Person Connections

With a staff of 22, prioritization helps the Association of Executive Search and Leadership Consultants accomplish as much as it can.

“There’s so many things that we could be working on, there’s so many different markets, there’s so much work to do,” says Patrick Rooney, managing director of AESC’s Asia Pacific and Middle East regions. “But at the end of the day, being a not-for-profit and a small organization with a pretty small team and a pretty small budget, you could easily spread yourself too thin and have no impact at all.”

One of the ways New York City-based AESC has advanced its global work is by establishing an on-the-ground presence in strategic places around the globe where membership was growing. “We are the only association for our profession, so it was logical for us to grow globally to support our broad mission,” he says. Currently, AESC has offices in Brussels and Hong Kong with two staffers tied to each. Rooney is based in the Hong Kong office.

“It’s really hard to get the nuances of individual markets when you’re not actually based in the region,” Rooney says. “It’s not like the EU or North America, where economies are very linked. Each individual economy is really a separate market with its own issues and its own trends.”

Rooney says he has a keen understanding of the market issues facing his members in Hong Kong because he’s experiencing them too. He also has plenty of in-person engagement with local members through networking and learning events, as well as regional conferences. Plus, it’s easier for Rooney, who travels throughout the region frequently, to fly off to Sydney or Dubai from Hong Kong than it would be if he were traveling from the U.S.

“If you really want to engage with your members, then the most effective way, by far, is to do it face to face,” Rooney says.

Whether that face time comes from CJA’s peer-to-peer educational trips or IALD’s volunteer leaders, these groups are proof that associations can make a splash in international waters no matter their size.

(skegbydave/Getty Images)

Emily Bratcher

By Emily Bratcher

Emily Bratcher is a Contributing Editor for Associations Now. MORE

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