How One Association Leads in Europe

The International Association of Lighting Designers has seen its European membership more than double in the past four years. To get there, it avoided a hard sell in favor of letting the community there shine a light on itself.

When Marsha L. Turner, CAE, CEO of the International Association of Lighting Designers, talks about expanding the organization’s work into Europe, she uses a gentle metaphor. “Instead of trying to catch butterflies one by one with a net,” she says, “we built a beautiful garden and planted lots of wonderful flowers and the butterflies came to us.”

The image is striking, because going global can often feel like a bare-knuckle business. That’s especially true in Europe, where a highly developed association industry can stymie American groups trying to do work there. But in the past four years, IALD has seen its membership increase on the continent by 153 percent.

It’s done that, Turner says, through a combination of careful strategy setting, a little good luck, and a lot of patience. The first step emerged from global strategy discussions it began in 2007 to retool its international structure, shifting to one that put a stronger emphasis on member needs specific to each region where IALD wanted a presence. “The idea was that if attention was paid to the regions, then as membership grew, subclusters of members that wanted to do things together could form chapters under the regions,” she says. “Then IALD staff would then work with volunteer coordinators to help develop the activities and programs that were meaningful to them locally.”

The tactic was, ‘We’re organizing this activity—why don’t you come to the activity?’

That strategy echoes what research from MCI Group and the ASAE Foundation has shown when it comes to entering difficult markets—sort out what the local needs are, rather than attempting to shoehorn a set of U.S.-focused products and services to potential members and customers. (And anecdotally, the Association of Proposal Management Professionals has enjoyed success with that approach.)

IALD put this idea into practice through a series of “Lighting Conversations,” low-key events in which experts around the continent convened for panel discussions and networking around trends in the industry. No logistics-heavy tradeshow; no hard sell on membership.

“[The tactic] was, ‘We’re organizing this activity—why don’t you come to the activity?’” Turner says. “It ranged from having a lighting conversation between an architect and a lighting designer talking about their work and how they collaborate, to a group that would go to a gallery opening and have drinks afterward. It was an environment that people found comfortable and wanted to be part of. And then they began to inquire about joining.”

Turner says it was critical to make IALD staff available to help coordinate the events without actively managing them. But any American association looking to establish a presence overseas has to demonstrate that it’s engaged in the work there.

“You need to have a local context and presence that continues the relationship after you’ve taken your trip back home,” says Alfons Westgeest, managing partner at Kellen, which works with IALD on implementing its global strategy. “There’s nothing worse than zooming in and out of the country and nothing happens—it’s out of sight, out of mind. Yes, you need to have your top leadership involved, your chief executive or chief volunteer leader, but you need to fill the gap and continue the relationship with local presence.”

IALD began its events efforts in Europe with four gatherings in 2014; it held 12 in 2016, with a sponsorship program to cover costs. A few caveats ought to be mentioned here. First, Turner says, IALD’s presence in Europe are mission-driven, not profit-driven; breaking even still counts as success. Second, another European lighting-design association went defunct around the time that IALD was ramping up its efforts. But IALD didn’t change its strategy or tactics in response to that, Turner says. It had always planned to make the path to membership easy for professionals—no convoluted review process—but it’s never led with a membership pitch or aggressively tried to poach members from the old association.

“Community and connection” were the main themes of IALD’s global strategic framework, and its emphasis has always been on supporting groups that would ultimately self-organize with the association’s help.

“The strategy always was to leverage local interest, and the tactic is to get those people to organize activities,” Turner says. “Then to get them to get their buddies to come, get them to promote it, get them interested. Then they are the ones who are driving the growth.”

What does your association’s international or global strategy look like, especially when it comes to challenging markets? Share your experiences in the comments.

(imaginima/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

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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