The Next-Generation Power Play for Associations

Associations can’t function like they used to, laying out a few rigid ways in which members may participate in the community. Now, members want to define the terms of engagement—or they won’t join at all. Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms have a vision for what next-generation nonprofits look like in a “new power” world.

Early in their book, New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World—and How to Make It Work for You, Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms deliver a warning to associations.

“People are less likely to be card-carrying members of organizations or to forge decades-long relationships with institutions,” they write. “This shift has big implications for organizations large and small.” If you’ve been trusting your authority in your industry to carry you through social and economic changes, they caution it may not be enough.

The shift involves social media, of course, and the many ways in which people can more comfortably and speedily affiliate online. But beyond that, Timms and Heimans explain, people now have different perceptions of how power should be wielded. Expectations for transparency and collaboration are much higher, and the formal governance of the traditional association model is more suspect.

“If you just have your annual event and a membership and a newsletter, and that’s all the engagement you offer, then in a world where everybody’s expected to participate, things are not going to go in your direction,” says Timms, who recently became president and CEO of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and previously was CEO of the 92nd Street Y. “But we’ve never before needed more of the kinds of collaboration and expertise that associations create. The question is how you reimagine that model for new generation.”

In their book, Timms and Heimans, CEO of the social advocacy organization Purpose, lay out examples of what new-power models can look like, as they will do as opening keynote speakers at the 2019 ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition in August. Their solution involves embracing a number of seemingly contradictory instincts: leading while ceding control, for example, and fostering online connections while recognizing that crowds can be unruly. Navigate those challenges and you can potentially unlock new audiences—and a deeper loyalty from them.

Old Power to New

Power, as Timms and Heimans define it, is never absolutely “old” or “new.” It exists on a matrix relating to an organization’s values and structures. It can be like Facebook and manifest old values—top-down control, central management—under a new model. Or it can be like Wikipedia, which emphasizes leaderlessness and collaborative systems in all its operations.

A company can succeed under old-power models and values—think of Apple. But every organization, they suggest, ought to be actively assessing what power system works best for it.

That’s a question Timms says he faced as the 92nd Street Y—a classic, old-school New York City institution built around performances and events—was launching #GivingTuesday, an initiative designed to promote charitable giving during the holiday season. If you had no idea the campaign and its well-known hashtag were launched by his organization (with the United Nations Foundation), that’s by design, Timms says.

“We built a new-power capacity inside an old-power institution,” he says. “We never branded it. We encouraged people to shape it and share it, so it never looks the same as it moves around the world.”

The Y’s board required some persuasion on that front: Where was the Y’s logo in the #GivingTuesday materials? What’s the ROI? But making the campaign leaderless, Timms says, gave participants a sense of ownership and creation that would have vaporized under the familiar guilt-inducing nudges of many charitable campaigns. And big-ticket donors grasped its power: Timms credits #GivingTuesday with attracting a 5 million gift to the institution.

We’ve never before needed more of the kinds of collaboration and expertise that associations create.

“It brought us a lot of relevance,” Timms says. “The real currency for entering the new-power world is if you prove you can speak to the world we’re in, that holds a very high degree of value for associations.”

The benefits redound internally as well as externally. While forming the first campaign in 2012, the Y assembled an “innovation hub” made up of current staff members who had been “underleveraged” in terms of contributing new ideas.

“It sent a message that you can change organizations through the existing people,” Timms says. “You don’t have to parachute in some outside wizard to change organizations for the better.”

Building Networks

In New Power, Timms and Heimans speak to the need for all organizations to cultivate “connected connectors.” These are “people who are connected to each other and connected to the world,” says Heimans. Organizations looking to expand their reach might consider looking at people who have that kind of “dual citizenship” online.

Consider the crafting site Etsy, Heimans says, which has attracted not just a craft community but a feminist one. Appealing to both helped expand the site’s reach.

“There was a network of online feminist crafters who were quite well networked and able to spread the word peer to peer quite quickly about this new platform, but were also connected to the world,” Heimans says. “They were the kinds of people that could reach beyond their networks very effectively. They had large followings, they were connected, they were tech-savvy.”

Those connected connectors, though, have particular expectations about how they’ll be treated by the organizations they choose to embrace. In an association context, Timms suggests, leaders may need to rethink their attitudes about the members and volunteers who support the association’s mission.

You might see around certain industry sectors a much more diverse set of actors making up an association.

“There are too many people in governance roles who see their job as: how do you keep people out?” he says. “That’s the wrong question. The right question from a governance perspective is: How do we strategically let people in? Which is not the same thing as blowing up the model and crowdsourcing in the future. But it is to say there’s a world of people who are engaging in your mission who are not part of your membership. How do you engage with those people? How will you open up to create value for those people? And by doing so, create value for your association?”

Will the Association Model Survive?

So, no, associations aren’t dead yet. But Timms and Heimans say association leaders ought to think about how to attract people who aren’t in the fold but ought to be. That will be a challenge in many cases, because many social movements are defined by their leaderless capacities.

“You can’t invite the head of the #MeToo movement to your meeting because there isn’t one—there are many leaders,” Heimans says. “The forces of energy are quite diffuse. You might see around certain industry sectors a much more diverse set of actors making up an association beyond a traditionally constructed organization.”

And those same leaders may need to develop their own skill set for building new connections and getting comfortable with wielding power in more open, less top-down ways.

“It can definitely be a learned skill,” Timms says. “Many retreat into the old-power world because the new-power world feels very challenging and very chaotic…. But there are thousands more people who need to be meaningfully engaged in your work. That presents a real problem for you as a leader because you have to shift your professional identity. But I think that’s something that leaders have to try and have to practice every day.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect Henry Timms’ new role as president and CEO of Lincoln Center.

Henry Timms, CEO of the 92nd Street Y, and Jeremy Heimans, CEO of Purpose.

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!