How to Lead a Successful Spinoff

Associations can often struggle to launch a foundation or sister organization. One persevered by sticking to its vision.

Every association that launches a foundation does so with good intentions. Perhaps the idea is to serve charitable goals, such as providing scholarships or conducting public outreach.

But the process can be fraught with complications. People might confuse the mission and goals of the two groups; members of the association, often the target of the sister foundation’s fundraising efforts, might come to resent being dunned to open their wallets beyond their dues and event fees.

We are leaders in the industry and this is what leaders do.

Jane Balek has seen those challenges firsthand, running foundations at the National Association for Music Education and the School Nutrition Association. Since 2018, she’s served as executive director at Think About Your Eyes (TAYE), a spinoff of the Vision Council that’s designed to encourage people to get eye exams. It’s been remarkably successful: Balek says the organization attributes 11 million eye exams since 2014 to its efforts, with 300,000 people searching its database of eye doctors so far this year.

But that doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Balek shared a four tips on what gets a spinoff foundation running well.

Put strategy first. “The organizations that are thoughtful about how a foundation fits into their overall strategic plan are the ones that are successful,” she says. “The organizations that establish a spinoff because they think it’s the right thing to do or they think they should do it—it never works out great. Like any other startup, it requires resources, coordination, and an articulation of how its mission or purpose actually serves the greater mission of the organization.”

Consider an alternative structure. TAYE’s mission to promote eye health supports the members of the Vision Council, a trade association that represents manufacturers in the optical industry. But TAYE’s structure also helps—it’s not a separate nonprofit but an organization under the Vision Council’s umbrella. So instead of a separate board it has an advisory council, which is a “huge, huge advantage,” Balek says.

Think multiple revenue streams. The Vision Council is the main funder of Think About Your Eyes, which relieves some of the pressure to constantly fund-raise that many association foundations face. But the effort is also supported by contributions by Vision Council member companies, which consider them “part of their marketing budget,” Balek says. “These are not charitable donations but it’s actually a marketing initiative for them.”

Expect some friction. Companies participate in TAYE under the sensibility that a rising tide lifts all boats: More eye exams means more business for the entire vision industry and the products it uses. But Balek notes that TAYE’s supporters are often direct competitors with distinct marketing goals, and some of the large contributors may resent smaller companies that contribute less while still reaping the benefits. In such cases, open conversations that focus on mission are important. With the help of a consultant, TAYE recently assembled a task force to talk about concerns and emphasize the shared mission.

That required a lot of face time, she says, but it got results. “We’ve made some changes in the way that we’ve run our advisory board meetings. We’ve made some changes in a way we engage people. And we developed a relationship with the industry through face-to-face conversations. We said, ‘This is what this campaign is, you’re a leader in the industry, you have to be part of it.’”

Promoting a culture within TAYE that promoted the value of a shared partnership, not just marketing benefits, has been key to its success, Balek says. “One of our board members said this in a meeting and it really stuck with me: She said, ‘We are leaders in the industry and this is what leaders do.’ And that, to me, is the sentiment around that table.”

(Krigerix/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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