Forget Unicorns, Think Platypi: Why Associations Are Better Than Corporations

Association Leadership
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The Myth of the Unicorn: Why Your Association Doesn't Need to Be One

In the realm of successful organizations, Silicon Valley’s “purple unicorns” – those rare, highly valued startups like Apple, Amazon, or Google – often steal the spotlight. Their strategic efficiency and innovation engines seem unmatched. Yet, another type of organization, less flashy but equally effective, deserves recognition: associations. Think of them as the platypuses of the organizational world.

While unicorns are celebrated for their mythical allure, platypuses, with their duck-like bills, beaver-like tails, and egg-laying habits, are often misunderstood. Yet, these seemingly bizarre creatures are perfectly adapted to their environments, thriving where others fail. Similarly, associations with unique structures and goals frequently outperform corporate giants in their specialized niches.

Newcomers to association leadership, especially those from corporate backgrounds, might find this surprising. But associations’ seemingly chaotic nature is intentional, and it’s precisely what makes them thrive.

1. The Triple Bottom Line Advantage

Newcomers to the association world, especially those from corporate backgrounds, might find this surprising. But associations' seemingly chaotic nature is intentional, and it's precisely what makes them thrive.

Unlike corporations, where profit reigns supreme, associations dance to the rhythm of a different drum – the Triple Bottom Line. This unique approach to success is an association leadership balancing act that requires juggling three equally important factors:

      • Mission: The North Star of any association. This is the fundamental reason for its existence, the change it seeks to make in the world. A strong mission guides every decision, from strategic planning to daily operations. It’s the soul of the organization, the driving force behind its work.

      • Member Value: More than just a membership card or a newsletter, member value encompasses the tangible and intangible benefits that members receive. It’s about providing relevant resources, fostering a sense of community, advocating for their interests, and ultimately, enriching their lives and careers. Associations thrive when they consistently deliver value that exceeds member expectations.

      • Money: While not the sole focus, financial sustainability is essential for any association. It enables the organization to invest in its mission, provide valuable services to members, and adapt to changing needs. But money is a means to an end, not the end itself. Associations must always remember that their financial decisions should align with their mission and serve the interests of their members.

The Triple Bottom Line is not just a buzzword; it’s a holistic approach to measuring success. It recognizes that associations have a responsibility to their members, their communities, and the broader world. By focusing on mission, member value, and money, association leadership can create lasting impact that extends far beyond the bottom line.

2. A Conglomerate of Purpose

Associations aren’t monolithic entities like the sleek, streamlined unicorns of Silicon Valley. They’re more like platypuses, a curious amalgam of seemingly disparate parts. Associations are ecosystems of interconnected businesses under a shared mission. This might include membership programs, publications, events, advocacy initiatives, and charitable foundations.

While this structure can lead to siloed efforts, when done right, it creates a powerful synergy where each part contributes uniquely to the overall success. Think of it as a diverse team with specialized skills collaborating towards a common goal. 

This diversity of functions, like the platypus’s varied features, enables association leadership to adapt and address a broader range of needs than corporations typically do.

3. Distributed Power: A Strength, Not a Weakness

Associations often have multiple power centers, with various boards, committees, and volunteer leaders contributing their expertise. This hyper-distributed association leadership might seem chaotic, but it serves a vital purpose.

Associations are not just about achieving goals; they’re about empowering a collective to achieve many diverse goals. Their purpose is to serve the shared purpose of their constituents. This democratic approach ensures that the organization remains focused on its mission and the needs of its members. 

This distributed power structure, like the platypus’s decentralized nervous system, allows association leadership to be more responsive and adaptable than corporations with more centralized leadership.

Associations are not just about achieving goals; they're about empowering a collective to achieve many diverse goals.

4. Consensus as a Superpower: The Art of Balancing Priorities

While corporations streamline decision-making, associations thrive on consensus. This approach may be slower but fosters buy-in, inclusivity, and a deep understanding of diverse perspectives.

Great association leaders understand that their role is to facilitate consensus, even when faced with competing priorities and the complexities of the triple bottom line. It’s a “pathological democracy,” a unique characteristic like the platypus’s electroreceptors, that allows associations to navigate their environments and achieve what other organizations can’t. 

This consensus-driven approach often leads to more equitable and sustainable outcomes than the top-down decision-making common in corporations.

Rather than trying to fit into the corporate mold, associations should embrace their unbusinesslike nature, recognizing that it's their greatest strength and what sets them apart.

The Platypus Paradigm: A New Model for Association Leadership

In the world of organizations, forget the mythical allure of unicorns. Instead, embrace the platypus – the strange, misunderstood creature that thrives where others fail. Associations, like platypi, may appear messy and complex, but their unique structures are what make them resilient, adaptable, and remarkably effective in their own way. 

Their distributed power, consensus-driven approach, and focus on multiple bottom lines enable them to address complex challenges, serve diverse needs, and achieve long-term success. 

Rather than trying to fit into the corporate mold, associations should embrace their unbusinesslike nature, recognizing that it’s their greatest strength and what sets them apart.

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