Why Your Concept of Power Can Use a Rethink

New Power authors and 2019 ASAE Annual Meeting keynoters Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms see a world where people are less inclined to engage with associations. That can change, if associations are willing to loosen the reins a bit.

Power isn’t what it used to be. And that can be a good thing.

In the latest issue of Associations Now, I interview Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms, who will be the opening keynote speakers at the ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition in Columbus in August. The ideas in their book, New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World—and How to Make It Work for You, are designed to push executives to take notice of how they lead.

Its message is particularly pointed for association executives, because members and potential members are increasingly looking for a reason to justify joining associations. What can you provide that smaller, self-organized groups can’t? If you’re not going to let members have a say in how the organization is run, why should they bother with you?

The power of associations as a means to connect people in both technological and human terms, I think, is very significant.

“People are less likely to be card-carrying members of organizations or to forge decades-long relationships with institutions,” they write. But Heimans, CEO of the social advocacy group Purpose, and Timms, president and CEO of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, haven’t come to write an obituary for associations. Rather, they’re urging associations to think about more inclusive structures. People crave connection, especially online, they argue, and associations are well-positioned to be brokers of those connections.

That is, if they don’t manage their members in a top-down manner.

“One of the great challenges and ironies of our hyperconnected world is that we’re often actually less connected to each other,” Timms told me. “At an individual level and institutional level, people are feeling more divided than ever. But the power of associations as a means to connect people in both technological and human terms, I think, is very significant. So the opportunity here is immense. But I think that the danger is, if associations don’t embrace a new-power mindset along with the old-power mindset, then they’re going to find it very hard to engage in a world which is moving so much more quickly than they are able to.”

A few definitions are in order. By “old power,” Timms and Heimans are generally referring to top-down, command-and-control-style management, while “new power” reflects a willingness to crowdsource some of the management of an organization or cede control of parts of it. But “old” and “new” exist on a spectrum, and you’ll notice that Timms isn’t advocating for the removal of the old-power model entirely. Rather, his point argues for a rethinking of some of the structures of your association. Are the barriers to entry for your association too high? Does the leadership ladder for your board and committees look too forbidding for some members? Does your credentialing program reflect the work of practitioners who are pioneering in their field?

Thinking about new power, Timms and Heimans argue, begins with being candid about the people who should be within your association’s fold but aren’t, and then thinking about what engagement with that group might look like. Timms set an example for this when he was CEO of the 92nd Street Y, which has a reputation as an important but somewhat staid community organization. But by helping to create the #GivingTuesday movement, which promotes charitable giving during the holiday season, it harnessed attention to the organization in new ways organically, without a pushy branding campaign.

Efforts to embrace new power don’t necessarily require a new initiative or a major break from tradition, though. Timms points to the example of Independent Sector, an association of charitable organizations, which shifted the focus of its latest annual meeting from familiar panels to sessions built around connections between members.

“Instead of it being all about the experts there, they  made the whole conference about how members of the community we’re connecting with each other and connecting with their local communities,” Timms says.

Creating that environment required accepting a certain level of risk: One of the questions Timms and Heimans asks leaders to consider regarding new power is “Are you willing to cede some control to the crowd within parameters you set, and accept outcomes that are unexpected or suboptimal?” But even small steps, Timms suggests, can help organizations become more open to the benefits of new power.

“No one’s going to flip from old to new power overnight,” he says. “But by beginning these experiments, you’ve actually started to make great progress.”

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

(Toms93/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

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!