The Value of Knowing Your Association’s History

Association leaders need to think ahead. But don't dismiss looking at the past for ways to do that.

If you took the time to go through your association’s archives, what might you find?

One association found a vintage movie. When the Cedar Shake and Shingle Bureau was sifting through old file boxes in advance of its centennial in 1915, staffers made a peculiar discovery: A 1935 industrial film, The Home of the Wooden Soldiers, promoting the brand of shingles produced by the association’s members.

Looking at your history needn’t be an empty gesture, or an opportunity for a victory lap.

The movie boasted a couple of well-known, Hollywood Walk of Fame-caliber actors, Charlie Murray and Lila Lee (as “the wife who realized her fondest desire,” according to a promotional poster). The movie and accompanying documentation surfaced among stacks of old membership forms. “There were lists of actors and rates, and film reels. I was going, ‘OK, this is not a membership agreement,’” says CSSB CEO Lynne Christensen. The association ultimately donated the film and related materials to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

My point here isn’t to suggest you might find something Oscar-worthy in that storage room at your office that you keep meaning to organize—it’s that sometimes an excellent resource for new ideas for steering your association may be closer than you think.

That’s one theme that emerged while I was working on my feature for Associations Now on associations that have celebrated their centennials (as ASAE will next year). When associations have looked back on where they’ve been, they’ve often seen an industry change over time, and a willingness to change member categories, rethink who qualifies as a member, and expand the reach of the organization around the world. It’s a useful prompt for discussion: What was your industry like 100, 50, 10 years ago, and how has it changed in that time? What’s going to change in the next five years? Is your membership and leadership structure keeping up with that change?

And if there’s any common theme among those shifts, it’s in the name of inclusiveness. The association of 100 years ago could be a very hierarchical, if not outright elitist institution, and many organizations have worked to adjust. The American Association for Anatomy, for instance, made a deliberate decision in 1999 to include students and other emerging professionals on its board. That was a precursor to its decision this year to change its name to include members from a wider range of disciplines. That example is another useful prompt for your leadership: What groups feel excluded from the leadership of your organization? What groups are natural fits for your association, but haven’t been connected with?

Sometimes asking those questions means reckoning with an unpleasant past. NASPA, which represents student-affairs professionals in higher education, used its centennial this year to speak openly about coming late to diversity and inclusion—the first person of color didn’t join its board till the late 80s. A dedicated D+I fund was designed to sustain its efforts, and NASPA CEO Kevin Kruger said it was valuable to look at the past to understand the importance of improving on that work.

“There’s some pieces of our history that we wanted to put some sunshine on, and then use that as an opportunity to talk about where we are today and how it’s different,” he says.

It’s very common in associations to argue that having strategic discussions means intentionally forgetting about the past; just about any leader will tell you that “we’ve always done it that way” or “we tried that once and it didn’t work” are verboten phrases. Which is fair. To be sure, coming up with fresh ideas means learning not to cling so hard to the old ones.

But looking at your history needn’t simply be an empty gesture, or an opportunity for a victory lap for what your association has accomplished. A closer look might reveal trends in your industry that can be meaningful today, and blind spots that you can address, now that you see them a little more clearly.

What strategic lessons has your association learned by looking at its past history? Share your experiences in the comments.

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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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