This article first appeared in Sidecar as “Be Unbusinesslike: Why Association are Better Than Corporations”
1. ASSOCIATIONS MANAGE MORE THAN ONE BOTTOM LINE
2. ASSOCIATIONS MUST BE MANY THINGS ALL AT ONCE
Associations are one organization in name only. They’re not one organization; they’re a conglomerate of businesses that share a mission and brand. Associations might have a membership business, a publishing business, an events business, an advocacy firm and a charitable organization all under the same roof. Each of these businesses has different goals that sometimes intersect but often don’t.
In its worst form, this manifests as working in silos, each organization doing its own thing and never mind the others. In its best form, it comes to life as strong independent organizations uniquely contributing to the same triple bottom line.
It’s the difference between Frankenstein’s monster and a duck-billed platypus. Frankenstein’s monster is built from parts that don’t go together, resulting in something ugly and frightening. A platypus, part beaver, part duck, part who knows what, looks so strange you might think it was fake. But it’s exquisitely adapted to its Tasmanian environment in a way no other creature is.
If the Googles and Amazons of the world are the “purple unicorns,” associations are the platypi. Unicorns are sexy, but they don’t do so well in the wilds of Tasmania.
3. POWER IS HYPER-DISTRIBUTED
Associations have more goals and faces than corporations – and more bosses too. In a company, business units report to executives, who report to boards, who report to shareholders, all focused on their single bottom line. Associations may have many hierarchies and power centers. The publications business may have its executive team, membership may have its executive team and the foundation will be a separate corporation altogether.
If this were not complex enough, the executives report to a board of volunteers (there may be more than one of those, too). These boards often have committees- often lots of committees–overseeing the association’s work in great detail. Finally, volunteer leadership changes all the time, as often as every year, and a new set of leaders comes in with their ideas.
On the face of it, this is madness. What sane person would contrive such an organization? A sagacious person who truly understood the role associations play.
The role of an association is not to achieve goals. It’s to empower large numbers of people with one shared purpose to achieve many different goals together. An association’s purpose is to serve its constituents’ shared purpose. It does not matter if the work gets done if it loses sight of that purpose or leaves people behind.