First Steps for Going Global

Taking your mission outside the United States can be full of uncertainty, but so can standing pat. One expert shares some advice for starting the process. 

This can be a tough time to have a conversation about taking your association global. Many associations are only just now regaining their footing in terms of serving their domestic members. COVID-19 remains a threat. So does inflation. Conflicts in the Middle East and eastern Europe drag on. 

But that uncertainty has also created opportunities—more adults pursuing degrees, credentials, and other education, along with a growing eagerness to connect in person after a couple of years of remote and hybrid meetings.

Going global is a notoriously tricky business. But Francisco Gomez, CEO of the consultancy Factum Global, suggests that it can be done well today—so long as leaders spend some time interrogating their assumptions. “Associations can think, ‘There’s a lot of interest in country A, therefore we should be there,’” he says. “That’s not necessarily true.”

No single approach to going global will work for every situation. But Gomez offered some baseline considerations for organizations to think through as they develop their strategy.

Look both externally and internally. Associations need to do their due diligence about potential countries to connect with, Gomez says. “Is there market potential? What are constituents and members looking for outside of our home market? What is the size of that market?” But the initial conversations should also involve a gut check about the association’s position and comfort level with expanding. Without some level of buy-in from the top, initiatives can fall apart quickly. “The board may or may not be fully committed, but they need to at least be open to the conversation and understand that this is something you’re exploring,” he says.

The board may or may not be fully committed, but they need to at least be open to the conversation.

Francisco Gomez, Factum Global

Avoid “We tried that once” thinking. Lots of associations have a horror story to tell about a global initiative that went bust: the membership drive that didn’t take off, the conference few people attended, the book translation nobody purchased. The past isn’t prologue, Gomez says, and such failures should be scrutinized instead of used as excuses to do nothing.

“People will say, ‘We did a conference in China 10 years ago and it didn’t work,’” he says. “But when you dig into it, more often than not we find that they don’t really know why the China meeting failed. Was it because they didn’t have the right partner? The right topics, the right speakers, the right marketing? What was the reason? Also, how did you evaluate success? That’s another thing to think about.”

Assume you’ll be learning, not just teaching. Though many U.S. associations begin their global efforts by noticing a broader interest in their knowledge and credentials, a certain humility can go a long way. Especially during COVID-19, different countries have developed approaches to professional practices that represent real innovation for U.S. professionals.

“The traditional approach was, ‘Here’s how we do it in the U.S. and we’re selling the U.S. product,’” Gomez says. “But now we’re also seeing the other side of that coin, where they’re trying to learn from the markets where they’re operating and bringing those best practices to add value to U.S. members.”

“Pilot” is a plural. First efforts should be cost- and risk-conscious, Gomez says. But one small meeting or credentialing effort won’t provide enough usable data to build on. “You may be better off selecting two or three different markets, so you’re not thinking that what works in one place is going to work in all of them,” he says. “What if one market isn’t good? Then your pilot is only giving you partial data. Try it in multiple markets, and have a little bit of diversification while still minimizing the risk.”

What have your forays into globalization looked like during the pandemic? Share your experiences in the comments.

(Yakobchuk/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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