Breaking the Mold: Why Associations Outshine Traditional Corporations

Breaking The Mold: Why Associations Outshine Traditional Corporations
Reading Time: 3 minutes
Name a model organization. What did you think of? Probably a corporation, exuding strategy and efficiency, with an engine of innovation and progress, like Apple, Amazon or Google. You probably don’t think of an association; they have little in common with the corporations typically held up as beacons of organizational success. But is that a bad thing? Up-and-coming association leaders from corporate backgrounds are often shocked and bewildered by how their new organization works. They may ask themselves, “How does anything get done here at all?“ But anyone familiar with the association space knows that things do get done; not only that but they also get done well, and associations are built the way they are for a reason. The best leaders understand the things that make associations unique and often challenging, are also what make them successful. So how do you recognize and embrace those opportunities, and in the process, become a wiser and more effective leader?


Corporations work towards one bottom line: profit. Ultimately, a corporation exists to make money; the more you make, the better you are. Associations, on the other hand, have three bottom lines to manage at once – Mission, Member Value and Money. Each is just as important to the organization’s success as the last. As an association, you’re failing if you’re only good at one of these things. Great associations work at the intersection of these strategic imperatives, harmonizing their efforts in each area to maximize their results. If done well, the whole is greater than the sum of the three parts


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.


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.


If you did not know better, you would think associations are badly broken versions of corporations begging for re-engineering. In over two decades of working with associations, I have rarely come across an organization that is not convinced they are seriously defective in some way. Some of these are the most influential associations on the planet. And while associations are messy and maddeningly complex, often slow and inefficient, for a reason – it allows them to be great at what they do. So, how do they get anything done? In the most unbusinesslike way possible: consensus. Great association leaders maintain a loose, flexible consensus that balances all the competing priorities and the triple bottom line. It is often slow and only sometimes pretty. Some call it “Pathological Democracy.” But being unbusinesslike makes associations the only organizations capable of doing what they do. Strong associations, and strong leaders, own their mess and complexity. They embrace the need for endless consensus-building. They bring their many far-flung efforts together to drive all three of their bottom lines – mission, membership, and money- in harmony. They are unbusinesslike. And proud of it.

Surprising Similarities: How Young Members Resemble Boomers in 6 Ways

Young Members
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Young Members Are Not That Different From Boomers

In 2015, millennials surpassed Generation X to become the largest population in the workforce. The majority of the workforce is getting younger. Most membership organizations are seeing the average age of their members go up.

In response, nonprofit associations are prioritizing the attraction of young members. Young members are future volunteers, future dues-payers, and future leaders. But attracting young professionals hasn’t been easy.

Perception is the root of this challenge. Millennials are unlike the generations that have come before them. Technologically savvy, they sit on the cutting edge of change. Conversely, baby boomers are thought to be technologically unsophisticated and allergic to change.

6 Shocking Similarities

These generalizations suggest an insurmountable abyss exists between boomers and millennials. Associations believe they must reinvent their past strategy to attract millennial members. Recent AARP research shows that young members have much in common with boomers.

The distance between the two generations is converging. Associations will benefit more from noting their similarities rather than their differences. 

So what are these shocking similarities?

1. Consumer-Centric

Boomers are the original “me” generation. That thinking has filtered down to the millennials. Often raised by boomer parents or grandparents, millennials grew up around this idea. They expect everything is–-and should be– about them. Not only do baby boomers and millennials want what they want, but they also want to be able to do it themselves. 

Both boomers and millennials want a “customized” experience. So they will choose the association that can give it to them. That means more options and on-demand services that offer them what they want, when, and how they want it.

2. Overwhelmed by Choices

Boomers and millennials alike idealize choices. However, the abundant options make the decision-making process a burden for both generations. Their rejection of guidance from intermediaries further complicates this.

Associations don’t need different content to appeal to choice-fatigued millennials and boomers. They need to present and distribute their existing content in new ways. Associations need to expand content distribution to channels preferred by these generations. This will give them the best chance of capturing their attention.

3. Mistrust of Institutions

Young members and boomers are skeptical of institutions. True to their “me” instincts, they question what’s in it for them. Nevertheless, both generations want institutions to prove their value. Trust is key to loyalty. 

Boomers and millennials are loyal to institutions they trust—but that trust has to be earned. Associations can overcome their mistrustful nature by promoting defined and proven membership benefits. In addition, they can work to build confidence over time.

4. Experiences over Things

For millennials and boomers, things are just things. It’s experiences they are after. According to a study conducted by Eventbrite, 94% of millennials and 91% of boomers believe that experiences lead to a fulfilling life. 

Associations that provide opportunities to engage will draw in millennials and boomers. Whether digital or face-to-face, the prospect of an experience will entice them.

5. Social Sharing as Status

Experiences are the new status symbols, and social media is the trophy case. Young members’ affinity for sharing on social media is well known. But boomers are catching on, too. People aged 50+ are the fastest-growing segment on social media.

When associations provide meaningful experiences to their members, they share them on social media. This is especially true for millennial and boomer member segments. Social shares spread an association’s message and proof of value.

6. Pervasive Use of Technology​

Technology is not just a millennial thing. While millennials are technology natives, boomers have adopted technology readily. They consume it at a rate rivaling the millennial generation. If you’re not reaching out to boomers and young members digitally, you aren’t reaching them.

Associations using technology well to communicate with their membership will see higher engagement.

Young Members Predict Your Future

There are numerous similarities between millennials and boomers. But this crop of young professionals isn’t a special case. Millennials echo many of the needs of older generations—just in a more demanding tone. The older generations have been more tolerant in waiting for change. Yet their patience is wearing thin.

Associations need to do more than determine how they can attract young members. They need to change to meet current and future member needs. Fortunately, young professionals can tell us a lot about doing that.

When the needs of millennials are met, so are those of current and future needs of associations. Associations can attract young professionals and improve the experience of older members by bringing the generations together.

See: Who Needs Associations Anymore? 4 New Membership Models for more insights and ideas about young members.

Empower Your Association: Embrace 4 Forward-Thinking Membership Models

Membership Models
Reading Time: 3 minutes

How Have Association Membership Models Changed?

Associations have always been the trusted go-between. They convene people, connect resources, curate content, and mediate conversations. Or at least they used to do. Things have changed.

For as long as we can remember, membership organizations were exclusive mediators. They provided access to challenging, often impossible, resources to find elsewhere: information, services, political influence, and much more. The membership model as a must-have mediator cemented its importance in members’ lives. It was the primary reason members had to join, engage with, and pay dues to an organization. It was the fuel for most non-dues revenue – subscriptions, ad sales, royalties, etc. That is changing before our eyes.

The change has happened already. Technology has multiplied options for what to view, buy and engage. Today, choices overwhelm consumers. They face them in the palm of their hands, in every aspect of their lives they can access. So what has this meant for nonprofit membership models? And what are the leaders doing about it?

Democratization of Content
Members historically looked to their associations first for unique, trustworthy content. However, 40% of membership organizations now report competitive sources of information as the biggest challenge to growing membership. [1] Google is not the only problem, either. Businesses focused on curating high-quality content are working to take associations’ share. Sage Open, for example, provides open access to papers and contributors across a broad spectrum of social sciences.

Spontaneous Networks
Associations’ membership model has long been to act as the primary conduit for connecting far-flung colleagues and helping them collaborate. Yet professionals most want to interact with others who share their specific interests. This is easier and more efficient online. LinkedIn and other platforms allow people to create, join, and interact with professional communities. Doximity offers a free, secure collaboration platform for physicians in the medical field. It has amassed more members than the American Medical Association in a few short years. There are dozens of vibrant LinkedIn groups catering to any profession or interest area.

Marketplaces Replace Experts
Human experts like travel agents were supplanted years ago by sites like TripAdvisor. They have become a critical part of the consumer experience. An association’s endorsement pales in comparison to the influence of user reviews. The trend continues as platforms from Uber to Etsy connect sellers to buyers. Users can evaluate options and choose for themselves, and now almost always prefer to do so.

There is Always a Sale Somewhere
For years, affinity discount programs were an essential benefit for members and a source of income for associations. Today, the number of accessible, uncomplicated online discounters is countless. For example, Honey automatically applies the best discount code at checkout for hundreds of brands. As a result, no affinity program can compete with its services. As a result, the affinity business model is increasingly in question. For more on this, see: Are You Doing Affinity Products Wrong? Member Value Comes First.

As in any market disruption, there are winners and losers. Some associations have embraced new membership models to succeed. The first step is accepting that your role as the valued mediator has already changed. It will change still more in the future. Then, ask the hard questions:

Significant market changes call for extensive organizational responses. The most forward-looking organizations have responded in several ways. First, they find ways to deliver more and better value in the new, un-mediated world and rethink the membership model. Second, embracing the mission even more and in ever new ways. Third, tightening focus on the areas where they cannot be displaced—even revamping the non profit membership model itself.

The Power of Intention: Elevating Your Association Decision Making

Association Decision Making
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Intentional Choices in Association Decision Making

Intentional choices can be hard in the best of times. What’s a necessary choice as opposed to one that would be nice to make? How do we choose between things that are all necessary when we can’t have them all? How can we be confident about the decisions we make? How can we explain our choices to other people? These things are infinitely harder in the face of fear and uncertainty. 

I spoke with Rich Harwood, a Public Innovator and Founder of the Harwood Institute. It is the go-to place for people and organizations looking to fight against the conditions stifling societal progress. They coach people from all walks of life on moving society forward by building stronger communities, bridging divides, and creating a culture of shared responsibility.

Rich shared three fundamental things we must do to make better choices in association decision-making.

The First is Basic: Breathe

When we get scared, we literally, physically, stop breathing. We have to remind ourselves to breathe because it calms us. It centers and grounds us and helps us manage the anxiety we feel.

Sometimes, we have to stop to get started. Slowing down and taking a breath will allow you the clarity you need to orient your organization to its new surroundings. The old ways of operating may not fit in this new context. To figure this out, you first have to take a step back and assess the situation.

The Second: Become More Wakeful

We have to open our eyes and become more attuned to our surroundings. Leaning into discomfort instead of leaning away from it. Like children that hide under the covers from monsters, we have to pull the covers back and look around. We make good choices when we turn outward, but when faced with pressure, we instinctively hunker down and turn inward.

Catalyzing change begins with broadly recognizing our position within our organizations and communities. Where do we sit in relation to those around us? How have our working relationships changed since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic? How have your organization’s shared values and goals changed along with this?

After reflecting on this, you’ll probably be surprised to find that while the way we relate to one another is different after the pandemic, the values guiding you as an organization are not. So, despite how much things appear to have changed, you can still unearth this common ground to unite upon. From there, small steps towards catalytic change emerge. 

Orienting yourself to your new surroundings and setting smaller goals in support of your shared mission can unleash a series of chain reactions, catapulting your organization towards a more connected and defined future.

Finally: Be More Intentional

This means making discernments. This is to say, we need to make thoughtful judgments about our priorities and possibilities. The more discernments we can make, the more explicit our choices become. As a result, we become more confident that we are taking our best shot. 

Telling someone to be more confident is like telling someone in a panic to calm down. It only makes them panic more. So we can say that the first step to growing your confidence is becoming more intentional and making better discernments.

You can’t accomplish anything while trying to accomplish everything. Discerning the capabilities, you possess at this moment and being intentional about the benchmarks you are working towards in response to that will allow you to focus your energy where it will be best served.

To learn more about better association decision-making, watch my interview with Rich Harwood here:

To read more about decision-making in associations, see Nonprofit Strategy: 3 Signs Your NonprofitNeeds to Start Stopping.

Future-Proof Your Membership: 10 Essential Steps for Success

Future-Proof Your Membership: 10 Essential Steps For Success
Reading Time: 8 minutes

This report was originally published as Ten Ways to Futureproof Your Membership.

Are You Ready for the Membership of the Future?

To say the year 2020 was unprecedented is an understatement of epic proportions. The COVID-19  pandemic created global upheaval and unexpected change for all companies and organizations.

Membership-driven associations were severely impacted. These organizations were forced to transform their time-tested, tradition-steeped member operations and launch new content, education, and meetings with unprecedented speed.

And now, with the end of the COVID-19 pandemic in sight, associations are asking how member expectations have changed. What can they learn from the often painful lessons of the pandemic? How can they integrate newfound entrepreneurial spirit into their culture and continue to innovate new member benefits and experiences?

We conducted research with top executives from leading organizations that navigated the pandemic experience successfully towards the membership of the future. Here is what we learned.

Margaret Mueller Executives Club Of Chicago
“We Launched an new and explosively popular program at eight in the morning a few times a week. During ‘Coffee and Connect,’ members share peer to peer advice, connecting with one another.”

Margaret Meuller, PhD, CEO, Executives Club of Chicago

Do Digital First

Adopt a digital-first mentality with visionary leaders who can deliver great member experience.

The pandemic delivered the long-sought digital membership, but all the new digital engagement came at a high cost when the digital revolution came. Since the dawn of the Internet, associations have worked to improve digital engagement, striving for more web traffic, more email clicks, more video views, and more online forum discussions. However, with digital meetings and online education, members lost in-person interactions and a sense of community that had previously defined their experience.

Those who continue to treat the digital experience as a nice-to-have have already been left behind.

Membership organizations are sorting themselves into two classes: Leaders that are going all-in on the digital experience with new systems and content and laggards unable to overcome their system limitations and staff skill deficits.

Leaders recognize that their digital experience must be strategic now and prioritize the necessary and often painful changes. Real vision and strategic leadership are required to position an association to meet the escalating expectations of digital membership. Modern systems, updated staff skills, and agile processes are necessary to deliver the vision. Inevitably, leaders will need to re-evaluate their organizational design to meet the unique demands of a digital-first membership of the future.

Crank Up The Content

Build an online publishing engine that can deliver high-speed, high-quality, high-volume content to members.

Many organizations that prided themselves on peer-reviewed, committee-driven, printed publications with impeccable accuracy and prestige discovered that their content was ill-suited to members’ needs for relevant information in the moment. The past year ushered in a new velocity of content production and member value many organizations previously considered impossible. It was accomplished by abandoning time-honored traditions and demolishing inefficient processes that added little value.

The best Associations did more than digitize their printed magazines and move committee meetings online; they made important changes to content development workflows and experimented with gate and paywall strategies. Many organizations leaned into their missions and opened valuable COVID information to the public. Some eliminated fee gates to valuable content such as annual meetings or journals. These efforts vastly increased awareness and engagement with an ultimate hope of growth for the membership of the future.

Now, associations must continue to deliver increased content volume and variety to meet their needs. Member expectations have been reset. They will have to rethink long-established paywall approaches and re-engineer their digital platforms and processes to operate differently.

Ian King Apa

“Standalone in-person meetings are a thing of the past. You’re going to need an online and in-person offering, and they will be differentiated in some way.”

Ian King, Chief Membership Officer, American Psychological Association

Embrace Your Scrappy Side

Create a culture of rapid deployment and experimentation through simple solutions that spark member engagement.

Driven by the unprecedented pace of current events and a need to respond to unforeseen member demands, organizations turned to small-business commercial tools like Zoom or Eventbrite to deliver immediate member value. In addition, the COVID crisis pushed organizations to break the shackles of their long planning cycles, technology system limits, and bureaucratic management styles.

These technology solutions offer speed over structure with a low cost and learning curve for those associations with adaptable infrastructure. Organizations used these software solutions to deliver immediate and good-enough information in a good-enough format, “throwing things out there” and doubling down on the things that worked. This way of working was unthinkable before, but it has opened many Associations’ eyes to what’s possible and sparked their imagination about what they could do next in the membership of the future.

Understanding your members no longer requires comprehensive surveying and analysis. Test-and-learn approaches using simple tools empower membership leaders to try new ideas with little financial or reputational risk. This has opened the door for rapid-cycle innovation and accelerated member value for organizations that have embraced it.

What Is An Event Anyway?

Reinvent events without concern for traditions in order to grow membership through uniquely valuable digital experiences.

COVID quickly eliminated most organizations’ ability to hold large conferences. As the meetings were canceled, lost registration and sponsorship revenues compounded the Associations’ financial woes related to work-from-home expenses and softening membership renewals. A big conference’s reliable annual economic life ring disappeared nearly overnight for many organizations.

While some organizations create lackluster digital replicas of their traditional conferences, others looked to gather through technology in wholly new ways. The American Medical Association recognized they could secure top-tier event speakers freed from the need to travel commitments and reach a bigger audience and create more memorable experiences. The AMA hosted a nationwide medical school graduation ceremony online, with Dr. Anthony Fauci, past Surgeons General, and recognizable actors known for medical roles. More than a million people tuned in to watch.

More than any other association function, meetings will never be the same. Creating new digital events requires a creative mind and fluency with technology unhindered by the history of in-person conferences. Meeting planners traditionally lacked the digital expertise or project management skills necessary to produce a sizeable virtual event with a remote team. As a result, many meetings failed, with many more nearly failing. Associations would be wise to engage non-event experts to conceptualize new ideas and create unique and fun experiences for the membership of the future. 

Everyone Has a Strategy Until They Get Punched

Strategic planning is essential, but serving members in a crisis requires disaster preparation.

COVID was not part of any association’s five-year plans. Year after year, association boards engaged in strategic planning that carefully considered the competitive landscape, member needs, organization capabilities, and financial constraints, leading to detailed strategic plans. All organizations were forced to pivot and adapt, planning on the fly and replanning when the next thing hit.

The organizations that weathered the storm best kept their long-term goals firmly in view while shifting to a highly fluid planning style to drive business decisions on the ground. Is this the end of traditional strategic planning? Not necessarily. Some of the most successful strategies shifted to scenario plans: “If this thing happens, we will do that, and if another thing happens, we do something else.” Empowered with the ability to react rapidly and scale financial decisions, organizations learned the flexibility to survive and respond quickly to changing market conditions.

This style of leadership calls for changes in culture and organization. Volunteer Boards and other leaders must step back from tactical operations and refocus on outcomes. Organizations should implement and operationalize new strategic planning paradigms based on lessons learned from COVID, which allow for quick reaction time and rapid innovation while keeping long-term goals front and center. They will be more successful in good times and more prepared for the next crisis in the membership of the future.

Keep Your Promise

During confusing times with member needs changing, following your purpose may be all the strategy you need.

The pandemic presented organizations with myriad decisions that had to be made in the moment, surrounded by chaos and uncertainty. Forced to abandon their drawn-out deliberative decision processes, successful associations doubled down on their purpose.

Your purpose is not the mission statement. It is who you are for and how you serve them. In business terminology, it is your Brand Strategy. It is the promise you make to your audience about who you will be for them. Every association has a mission and vision. Unfortunately, very few think seriously about their brand promise. Crucially, the successful leaders we spoke to had invested deeply in their brand strategies before COVID hit, which made all the difference. Their promise became the decision lens  — the stake in the ground for the organization to rally around.

Associations need to define and embrace their brand promise in the new membership of the future and align all their efforts to it. A saving grace in bad times is their competitive advantage in good times.

Margaret Mueller Executives Club Of Chicago

“We launched a new and explosively popular program at eight in the morning a few times a week. During ‘Coffee and Connect,’ members share peer-to-peer advice, connecting with one another.”

Margaret Meuller, PhD, CEO, Executives Club of Chicago

Let No Good Crisis Go To Waste

Drive future membership changes under the protection of chaos with reduced opposition and lower cost of failure.

The COVID crisis led to many wrong turns and failed projects–and all was forgiven. New ways of doing nearly everything were necessary, and organizations found themselves working in ways and delivering things they never thought possible before. Decisions got made faster. Innovation happened. Mistakes were forgiven. Pent-up demand for change was unleashed. Crisis flings open a window for change—a brief burst of energy and possibility that soon closes and reverts to old ways. The best organizations know this and have moved quickly not only to push change through but to build structures that will keep the changes in place long-term.

Organizations that would never consider virtual events or, God forbid, virtual Board meetings now do them routinely. Events that took years to organize now come together in weeks. Business units that worked happily in silos for decades collaborate daily. Offerings for members that would have never seen daylight because they might fail launch almost overnight. They work or don’t, and the failures count as learnings.

Now is the time to experiment with the membership of the future, while the window is still open and move quickly to protect your success. Try new communication channels, new content, and new formats. Pilot the ideas that get rejected year after year. Find inspiration from other industries and adapt them to your association. You may never have this chance again.

Build Capabilities and Outcomes Will Follow

Meeting the new expectations of the membership of the future will require a bevy of new capabilities requiring investment and nurture.

COVID exposed shortcomings in most associations. Organizations were ill-equipped and well behind the commercial curve, from meetings to content publishing to strategic planning. While many associations have discovered new ways to make do temporarily, they lack the advanced digital skills and capabilities for permanent pivots that this moment requires.

The associations that fared the best in the crisis had already invested in the right skills, technologies, capabilities, and strategies and only had to turn up the volume. Content creation, digital publishing, virtual events, e-commerce, and brand strategy proved crucial capabilities. They remain so today. One of the most important lessons of the COVID crisis is that we cannot predict events or outcomes. However, we can build the organizational brains and muscles to position ourselves to succeed, come what may.

The pandemic creates a short window to make broad changes with fewer organizational resisters. Organizations should unflinchingly evaluate their capabilities in light of the new reality they live in and make the necessary investments to fill their gaps and build on their strengths. Clear-eyed assessment and intelligent bets in the right places will allow you to seize this rare moment and win the next one for the membership of the future.

Unveiling the Future of Membership: 4 Key Insights You Need

Membership Of The Future
Reading Time: 3 minutes

This article was originally published in Associations NOW as Top Takeaways on How Membership Will Survive the Great Reset.

4 Top Takeaways On the Membership of The Future

The events that unfolded over 2020 and 2021 have brought about extraordinary change for organizations in nearly every industry. Associations, in particular, had to adapt quickly, assess old ways of doing things, and determine the best path forward while keeping up with evolving member expectations. The lessons associations learned in crisis will guide the next steps.

Our latest report, 10 Ways to Get Ready for the Membership of the Future Now, draws on research conducted with senior leaders of successful associations to highlight the changes you can make today to best prepare for the membership of the future.

Crank Up The Content

Speed up your cycle. Are you publishing engaging new content daily? It’s important to deliver content that adds value to your members every day.

Reboot your process. If your content and communications process cannot work at that pace and scale, get a new one. Out with the old and in with the new—go digital with content.

Repurpose, repackage, recycle. Reformat long-form reports, huge PDFs, event content, and other resources into more digestible content.

Let your members create it for you. User-generated content can be some of the most meaningful content you can get. Think beyond guest blogs to other formats and channels to give your members the stage. For example, member-hosted forums (online or hybrid) or member-created video and photography.

“Putting a stake in the ground and marking clear organizational boundaries and goals that the entire organization can rally around will change the game.”

Create Member-to-Member Experiences

Do it small but often. Frequent—even weekly—small group, member-driven interactions have proven to be some of the most valuable things associations can do. The Executives Club of Chicago hosts an informal virtual “Coffee and Connect” for members weekly.

Present less, discuss more. The most successful formats now keep the presentation time to a minimum and maximize time for genuine discussion. The American Psychological Association has landed on a winning format of 10 minutes of expert presentation with 30 minutes for open discussion.

Create spaces to connect. What many people love most about membership is the impromptu conversations that happen between scripted content and events. Members will create connections themselves if you create inviting spaces for them. Monthly discussion sessions for groups of like-minded members, private social media channels you provide that members can create for themselves, and small, in-person local gatherings that build on your annual event themes are all excellent examples of how this is being done today.

Keep Your Promise

Lead with brand strategy. A brand strategy is not a vision or mission statement, and it is not a logo or tagline. It is a deeply felt promise about who you are, how you show up in the world, and a solid plan for how you will live it.

Stake your claim. Putting a stake in the ground and marking clear organizational boundaries and goals that the entire organization can rally around will change the game. Name your purpose and stick to it, especially when times get tough.

Walk the talk. Your mission statement might only live on your website, but your purpose should shine through in everything you do.

Build Capabilities and the Outcomes Will Follow

Get real. In each of the areas above, do you have what it takes to execute at the highest level? When the next massive disruption comes, will you be able to adapt? Be honest about where you have gaps and get serious about the necessary investments you should make for the membership of the future.

Prioritize capabilities over outcomes. This sounds like a break from the traditional “goals and metrics” approach to planning (which still has a place). Organizations that had invested in first-class systems and processes before the crisis found themselves innovating in ways they never thought of and achieving outcomes they could not have hoped for.

One lesson we have all learned is: Expect the unexpected. It will not always be a health crisis, but the pace and scale of disruptive events will only accelerate. The most forward-looking organizations think through all the possible scenarios as their primary strategic planning process. The traditional five-year plan has become a directional “north star.” Proactively anticipating disruptions builds agility and financial stability at the same time. As we learned the hard way, the key to survival in the future is agility and responsiveness.

To learn more about exploring the future of membership, read our complete report, 10 Ways to Get Ready for the Membership of the  Future Now.

Take Your Content to the Next Level: Master These 4 Questions

Association Content
Reading Time: 3 minutes

How Can You Up Your Association Content Game? Four Big Questions to Ask Now

The online content your nonprofit creates tells a story. It highlights the importance of your work and accomplishments. Done well, it can further your mission by attracting new members and inspiring constituents to action.

Now that the pandemic has moved so much of our lives online, your association content strategy is more important than ever. And your audience expects more than ever: a static website, monthly newsletter, and occasional Facebook posts are not enough.

Sequence Consulting recently conducted a survey of national and Chicago-area associations to find out how the pandemic had changed their members’ expectations for online content. What we found almost certainly applies to most nonprofits, regardless of size and mission: the demand for timely and useful information is increasing and will likely remain high in a post-pandemic world. To decide if your nonprofit needs to level up its content strategy, ask yourself the following four questions:

1. Do You Publish New Association Content Often?

If not, you need to! In the past year, organizations that prided themselves on highly-produced, in-depth publications learned that this content style no longer worked for their members.

Todd Unger, chief experience officer of the American Medical Association, said that members were now asking for more frequent contact, and cared less about the production value of content than its timeliness. “We want to see you more and hear from you more,” members told the AMA.

All nonprofits should make new online content a priority, but the frequency depends on your goals. If your mission, like the AMA’s, includes being an up-to-date source of relevant news, then you should publish new association content daily. Advocacy organizations that aim to inspire members to immediate action on important issues should produce content daily, even if just through a social media post or a tweet. Even the smallest nonprofits shouldn’t neglect to communicate weekly if they want to be remembered. Fortunately, frequent communication has never been easier, and you no longer need to spend time and resources on perfectly polished content—members and contributors prefer content that meets their immediate needs.

2. Are You Taking Full Advantage of Technology?

Thanks to the unprecedented use of web conferencing platforms like Zoom, you now have the opportunity to secure higher-caliber speakers for digital events. Speakers and members can attend from anywhere, providing opportunities that would be impossible with in-person events. Whether virtual or in-person, there is significant value in live events. Margaret Mueller, CEO of the Executives Club of Chicago, finds that having high-quality speakers interact with members live allows “the connection to become more raw and real.”

These events don’t need to be elaborate to be effective. One of the hallmarks of The Executives’ Club’s new content strategy is Coffee and Connect, where members can log on at the same time a few mornings a week to get advice from an expert in residence about the issues their business is currently facing.

Ask yourself what information would be most engaging to your constituents, and what experts they would most like to hear from. Find a way to deliver that information to them quickly, in a live format. 

3. Are You Publishing Your Events As Association Content?

When the pandemic hit, many nonprofits had to quickly abandon traditional event formats and go digital with their conferences, trainings, and fundraising events. One benefit: any online event, large or small, can be recorded and repackaged as content. Quick highlights from a longer video can be excerpted and shared via social media, email, and your website. Key points can be summarized in a blog post or a great quote shared with a tweet. The recorded event itself can be made available online. By taking your event content, repackaging it, and distributing it online to those who couldn’t attend live, you can provide significant value. Again, video doesn’t need to be highly produced to be engaging and effective.

4. Are You Highlighting Constituent Stories?

Ultimately, people want to be part of organizations making a difference. Members of professional associations want to read stories about colleagues who have excelled while simultaneously making an impact. Supporters of any nonprofit would value hearing from staff and those they impact talk about challenges and victories.

Some highly successful associations have already adopted this approach. For example, the AMA publishes a short-form digital magazine that focuses on members who are moving medicine forward. Some of the American Bar Association’s most popular content consists of members telling stories about other members. The Executive’s Club of Chicago shares members’ stories online through short video segments.

There are many ways to incorporate personal stories into your association content strategy. Find the strategies that work best for your nonprofit. You will see engagement, membership, and revenue grow when you do.

For more information on how top associations are using lessons learned during the pandemic to transform content marketing for associations, read our complete research report, Ten Ways to Get Ready for the Future of Membership Now. 

This article was originally published by the Association of Consultants to Nonprofits

Why Your Affinity Product Strategy Might Be Missing the Mark

Affinity Products
Reading Time: 2 minutes

The Future Ain't What It Used To Be For Affinity Products

Are affinity products for associations a thing of the past? Or rather part of a future that looks very different?

Membership organizations have always offered third-party products to their members. This usually means a discount, sometimes bearing the association brand. Affinity products have served essential roles. They provide value to members, giving them a reason to join and renew. They also serve as a critical source of non-dues revenue. Associations could count on affinity products to boost membership and income.

No longer. Across the board, the old affinity product model is no longer productive due to market forces beyond associations’ control. As a result, what worked in the past works no longer.

Yet there is a solid and clear path forward for organizations that are open to change. For example, they can shift their expectations for affinity products from revenue to favor of member value.

The Decline of Affinity Product Revenue

Affinity Products As Member Value Strategy

Because shifting the affinity model increased revenue for business partners, they are willing to sweeter offers for members. Better offers with stronger consumer brands also elevate the association’s brand. Two elements are key to successfully transforming an affinity program:
Affinity products are alive and well in organizations that have embraced a “member value first” mentality. Successful associations have collaborated with their partners to create a new win/win/win. The organization, the partner, and the members all benefit from putting member value first.

To learn more about these market trends and how leading associations are responding, see Nonprofit Disruption: 5 Choices for Nonprofits   and Going Back to the Basics in the Affinity Market.

Nonprofits in the Age of Disruption: Embrace These 5 Choices to Thrive

Nonprofit Disruption
Reading Time: 4 minutes

This article was originally published in FORUM Magazine as A Tale of Two Disruptions

The Truth About Nonprofit Disruption

Nonprofit disruption has been a topic of conversation for what seems like forever, but at what point does a disruption become the status quo for nonprofits?

We used to talk about disruptive technology. Now, we call them iPhones. Demographics are shifting, markets are globalizing, and social trends are reshaping our world. 

On top of all that, those dang Millennials disrupt everything they touch. We’ve been talking about them forever, too, but Millennials are now turning 35 and firmly entrenching themselves in all sectors of business and society. 

Disruptions surround us. We are immersed in the constant, rapid change of nonprofit disruption. The question is, “Which ones truly matter?” 

Not all change is disruptive, and not all disruptions change things. Humans are constantly looking for patterns and tend to find them, whether they are genuinely there or not. Unfortunately, not everything has a pattern. 

The following are two examples of nonprofit disruptions that upend our perceived patterns. 

A Disruptive Exit

Membership drives products, advertising, fundraising, and everything about membership as an ecosystem. The more people engage with the ecosystem, the better for membership and vice versa. If you disrupt one part of the system enough, the whole system gets disrupted.

That’s what makes it so complex.

For example, look at insurance. Many associations offer insurance, and it is often one of the top reasons to join. It is also one of the strongest predictors of renewal: Non-buyers renew at 70 percent, one product renews at 90 percent, and more than one renews at 95 percent or more. This is especially true with first-time members.

Some of these relationships go back decades. Hundreds of millions of dollars of business are shoved off onto other carriers or left behind. What gives? For one, it’s a lot riskier than it used to be—a raft of new regulations in the last few years.

AARP invented the affinity insurance model in the 1950s to get insurance for retired teachers, and we’ve all been doing it pretty much the same way ever since. We let an insurance carrier use our brand and member list, and they do most of the work; we get paid a royalty, and our members like it.

So, insurance is an excellent thing. It makes money, and it drives membership. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

In the last few years, most major insurance companies have either exited the affinity business or are headed for the door. Voya is out. AIG is out. Hartford dumped a massive chunk of business. AXA left the US life business. MetLife and Transamerica rolled it into their employer business, as did Assurant. Liberty Mutual stopped doing direct mail.

Some of these relationships go back decades. Hundreds of millions of dollars of business are shoved off onto other carriers or left behind. What gives?

For one, it’s a lot riskier than it used to be. In the last few years, a raft of new regulations has made life a lot harder for insurers, and it’s made associations scarier to do business with.

Of course, if you dig deep, the truth is it’s just not worth it for insurance companies anymore. Your list is not as valuable as it used to be. They can find your members for themselves, and they probably know more about them than you do because they’ve invested millions in data and analytics.

“Understanding how these nonprofit disruptions are affecting your organization is the first step in creating new patterns that will keep you ahead of the curve.”

A Disruptive Entry

Most associations have a handful of products or partnerships that drive their business. Content. Publishing. Advertising. Education. What if someone could disrupt every piece of that equation in one fell swoop? 

Much to the chagrin of organizations that have been around for decades, a six-year-old online startup has a 60 percent market share of one of the most prominent professions. As a result, it is now aggressively stealing business from dozens of leading associations. 

Worse yet, they’re getting away with it. 

Doximity launched in 2011 as the “LinkedIn for doctors.” Since then, they have grown to 600,000 members by building on groundbreaking partnerships and platforms that: 

You could try to beat them on price point, except that membership is free. All members have to do is validate their profile because Doximity already has their data. 

The company currently has 180 employees, half of whom are developers, and a cool $80 million in funding. They’ve partnered with US News, Cleveland Clinic, and others, and now they are expanding to include all licensed medical professionals. 

Nurses, dentists, pharmacists, social workers, physical therapists, chiropractors — anyone licensed by the state. This year alone, they’ve added 200,000 members. 

They, and other groups like them, are coming after parts of the core association value proposition with a radically different, never-before-seen model, and they are doing it at internet speed. 

What Can You Do To Solve It?

There are several different ways to address the coming nonprofit disruptions:
There is no one correct answer, and none of them are easy, but understanding how these nonprofit disruptions affect your organization is the first step to creating new patterns that will keep you ahead of the curve.

From Surviving to Thriving: Proven Strategies for Associations

Association Success
Reading Time: 9 minutes

This report was originally published as Tacking Into the Headwinds of Association Growth

Headwinds for Association Success

We heard it again and again from our clients at leading membership organizations. It was harder every year to reach association success. 

Some knew the market was shifting around them. Some had thought they were immune. Instead, all felt the pressure on their numbers, which told them that the way they had always done things was not working. When we think of headwinds, we think of slow and halting progress against forces beyond our control. Today, membership organizations’ headwinds come in many forms: increasing consumer demands to get anything they want “on-demand,” considerable shifts in the data economy and everything it touches, and pressure from every angle on the affinity marketing model.

These headwinds have been building for some time. Unfortunately, the effects are rippling through the association world – putting downward pressure on membership, lowering advertising, royalty, and other revenue sources, and impacting the dashboard metrics of most organizations. Faced with these inexorable realities, organizations have chosen various responses, from defensive and incremental to innovative and bold.

These headwinds will not abate. Laggard organizations have fallen further behind, and many will continue to do so. Moreover, the accelerating rate of change will prove too much for some large, long-standing organizations that have been too slow to adapt, and they will be forced to merge or find other ways to exit the market.

Meanwhile, winners who embraced these changes keep winning, sticking to their association success formulas while adapting to the new realities.

Upended Expectations: The On-Demand Economy

Consumers expect immediate and easy access to whatever content, product, and services they want. Moreover, they expect access to be free or part of a low-cost, subscription-based service that offers highly unique and relevant value. Examples of hugely successful on-demand-type services include discounts, travel, insurance, content, and others.

In short, the paradigm of membership, in general, is less appealing because it is less well-aligned with the daily experiences and ensuing preferences of today’s consumers, especially those who are younger. This is not to say membership is dead. However, the bar for thriving membership is higher. Organizations must come to grips with the increased competition and consumer loyalty around even their most tried and true core offerings, including their mission-based work.

Options on causes to support are merely one example of the “on-demand” economy that has upended consumer expectations across the spectrum of modern life, including the core business of membership organizations. The gap between winners and losers will be measured by their ability to adapt to these new realities.

On Demand Discounts

On-demand discounts. Honey has been downloaded over 5M times and can automatically apply codes from more than 21,000 stores during check-out. Of whom 67% are Millennials, users have saved $170M+ this year. 

Honey earns a small commission on every coupon code used. The secret to Honey’s success is fulfilling consumers’ need for confidence that they’re getting the best price before completing their transaction. The resulting increase in completed sales is a huge benefit to retailers.

On-demand insurance. Slice provides on-demand insurance for home-sharing. The homeowner can buy customized levels of coverage just for the term the home will be rented. Other providers offer “microinsurance” for high-value items like phones and computers.

These new insurance companies are targeting Millennials and have taken pains to simplify and streamline the application process so coverage can be purchased in minutes through a mobile device.

On Demand Insurance

Data Is THe New Oil

The most tectonic shift facing membership organizations is the meteoric rise of the new data economy. Some say that “data is the new oil.” It is the fuel that powers nearly every aspect of the world we now live in. However, it is also a vast, complex, largely untapped, highly fragmented, and impossible-to-control resource for which the world has an insatiable appetite. New data sources come online daily, and a multi-layered industry to extract, refine, and distribute data has grown exponentially.

In the past, organizations could capitalize on their exclusive access to their members and prospects to drive their recruitment efforts, create communication channels to drive advertising revenue and monetize their lists through royalty agreements. In essence, as “owners” of an exclusive and valuable audience, membership organizations were in the driver’s seat in offering access to them, giving birth to an entire industry in affinity marketing.

This role as a privileged gatekeeper has been progressively eclipsed by the realities of today’s data economy. The sheer wealth of consumer data that is widely available allows marketers to target the consumers they want in many ways. These marketers, who in the past would have eagerly signed up for royalty agreements for access to a member list, can now find, understand, and target those same consumers and do so more cost-effectively.

Faced with the inevitable reality of these challenges, organizations have taken a variety of new directions, ranging from incremental and defensive to radical and innovative.

Outdated Affinity Models

Many major insurance carriers that were once mainstays of the affinity industry have exited the industry or significantly reduced their involvement. Seeking to streamline their operations, minimize their regulatory exposure, and maximize their marketing ROI, they have reorganized and re-invested in ways that have left their affinity relationships behind, often after decades in business together.

A few years ago, the affinity market represented $60B in annual premiums. Insurers are not abandoning this outsized opportunity but are increasingly abandoning the model, which formerly provided great value in terms of unique access to marketable groups of strong buyers. As the calculus has changed, so have insurers’ approaches to the market and their affinity partnerships.

Outpaced By Insurgents

While membership organizations and their marketing partners have been questioning their models, insurgent organizations have been reinventing them without them. For-profit start-ups that have mastered the new data and digital realities have quickly stolen significant shares from larger membership organizations that cannot yet compete on this new playing field.

At the same time, smaller, more nimble, not-for-profits have successfully undermined larger “umbrella” organizations through a relentless focus on understanding their key segments and delivering them strong, unique value.

New Insurgents

Doximity, a for-profit, online startup focused on physicians, raised $85 million in venture funding and amassed over one million physician members in six years. Their membership now includes 70% of all US physicians, 90% of fourth-year medical students, and nearly half of all nurse practitioners and PAs. 

Their revenue model, which has been cash-flow positive for some time, is based on the free membership and no advertising, monetizing the membership by selling access to recruiters. 

Member value is delivered through simple but powerful digital tools doctors need and use daily and high-profile partnerships, including US News and World Report’s Hospital Rankings. 

One key to their meteoric growth is their mastery of the market data, including data on every US physician before becoming a member.

Obsolete Royalty Models

As the royalty model erodes, organizations of all sizes are forced to rethink their product portfolios. Once reliable passive income sources, their product suites have been devalued by the exit of their traditional royalty partners and an absence of new partners interested in the “standard” affinity marketing arrangement.

This leaves many holding products and services that do not contribute much revenue and that members do not value. Retrenchment takes the form of drastic pruning, leaving only “signature” offerings uniquely aligned with their mission and having commercially competitive advantages.

In other cases, the model of “products as revenue” has given way to “products as member value,” which leads to new, highly flexible commercial arrangements to secure products members love first and foremost, sometimes with minimal or even no revenue attached.
Several prominent associations have dramatically reduced their product portfolio. They have eliminated products with low engagement and weak member value. Instead, they have consolidated their royalty streams around high-value, highly unique products with high revenue—for example, profession-specific insurance products.

Instead of their old, unproductive royalty relationships, they have launched new marketing relationships akin to sponsorships. Providers with high-value products for members can promote them through a straightforward marketing relationship — exclusive access to highly responsive marketing channels for a negotiated fee.

The primary driver is delivering member value to the end of acquisition and renewal, with revenue as a secondary consideration. This model is far more comfortable and attractive to most modern marketers, which opens up a whole new range of potential relationships and offerings that would have been out of reach in a traditional royalty model.

The bar for association success is higher and organizations must come to grips with the increased competition and consumer loyalty around even their most tried and true core offerings.​

New Formulas for Association Success

In response to the unavoidable reality of these challenges, organizations have adopted a range of different approaches, spanning from cautious and reactive measures to bold and inventive strategies, all in pursuit of achieving success for associations.

Seeking Growth Globally

Organizations that have reached saturation in their markets or faced insurmountable competitive pressures in the US have turned to international markets for new audiences, including members and subscribers, buyers, event attendees, etc. Membership models in these countries are often less mature, and competition is less intense than at home.

In addition, US-based organizations often have considerable advantages in their intellectual property and access to American networks and resources. Far from a panacea, buying power and business methods disparities require adaptability and will. Still, strategically patient and determined organizations have successfully offset pressures here at home by advancing into untapped markets abroad.

From Surviving To Thriving: Proven Strategies For Associations

One prominent engineering association, like many organizations, saw its value proposition erode due to the confluence of market forces, particularly pressure on their publishing business. 

However, unlike many organizations, they recognized and reacted to the trends early, in their case, by shifting focus to international markets in search of growth. As early as 1995, they began investing in marketing operations internationally, leading with publishing, technical standards, and events, which drove membership. 

Taking a long view allowed them to enjoy sustained and diversified growth. Fully 1/3 of all of their business, including membership, is international, where they have seen a predominance of their development while the US market has mainly remained saturated and flat. 

Growth THrough Acquisitions

Some organizations with money to invest but need more internal resources to develop critical new capabilities have bought them instead. These organizations seek out and acquire capabilities that complement the mission and elevate the organization’s position but would be impossible or impractical to build themselves. 

Not for the faint of heart, acquisition and integration are complex and fraught with risk. But wisely done, small purchases of niche players with unique assets or intellectual property can transform an organization’s profile and give it a real competitive advantage by cementing its hold on uniquely valuable spaces in the market and often provide new sources of revenue and relationships. 

Sae International

SAE International has made a series of acquisitions of for-profit companies that bring unique capabilities to their industry offerings, from cybersecurity to quality control to training and certification. 

These strategic acquisitions allowed them to quickly build an entirely new, industry-facing arm of their enterprise, providing new revenue streams and competitive advantage alongside, but independent of, its membership. 

Organizational Memberships To Accelerate

As the individual membership model becomes less and less fruitful, some organizations have opened a new avenue of membership for employers. Far from the “group discount” offered in the past, the new institutional membership includes individual membership for employees but layers on new B2B benefits uniquely available from the association and only offered to group members. 

Intelligent program design offers clear financial benefits to the employer, with calculable ROI and intangible benefits that are important to the executives who decide to buy. In addition, successful programs can more than offset declines in individual membership and potentially foretell a future in which group memberships surpass individual memberships in importance. 


AMA, recognizing that nearly half of US physicians are now employees of large health systems, created an entirely new group membership for large health systems, loaded with benefits for the group and its executives. These benefits and discounted memberships for all their physicians were easy for executives to justify. Member growth will surpass individual member growth this year.

The New Look of Association Success

One of the most important lessons the market teaches us is that organizations that have thrived in the face of often tectonic changes responded boldly and did so a long time — even decades — ago. The pace of change is only accelerating, not only in velocity but in the sheer number of fundamental shifts and unforeseen threats facing every organization, even the most venerable and entrenched.

It is often not one new development that imperils a business model but rather a nexus of powerful but fragmented changes that overwhelm old ways of doing business and create entry points for a potential swarm of new competitors.

From our market survey, it is clear that the pressures associations have felt are neither transitory nor entirely within their control. The pace of change will increase.

The unexpected should be expected. And the fundamental forces at play go deeper than messaging and positioning.
Instead, they encroach upon the elements of the business model itself, which entirely revolves around an organization’s ability to build and monetize an audience, that is to say, a membership.

Headwinds mean challenges and opportunities for association success and for those who can tackle them while others struggle to stay afloat. The most successful associations have seized the moment to consider their options and courageously turn their threats into opportunities.

Nonprofit Alignment: Are You Inside Out or Right on Track?

Nonprofit Alignment
Reading Time: 2 minutes

How Can You Know if Your Nonprofit Alignment is Inside Out?

Most organizations are unconsciously designed to be inside out.

I say “unconsciously” because no leader would intentionally blinker their organization. I say “designed” because layers of decisions stack up to create a nonprofit alignment built to spend most of the time thinking about itself—decisions about how to communicate, what gets rewarded, and what information is essential.

A history of malalignment can be challenging to turn around. These three questions will help you figure out how to get started.

Eighty percent of executives say creating an “outside-in” culture is a high priority for the future. Outside is where the good stuff happens. Buyers buy. Inventors invent. Competitors compete. An outward-focused organization has its eyes on the action. They see what’s happening now and what’s coming down the pipeline.

But, equally important, it sees itself the way it is, how it stacks up, and what futures are possible. Looking from the outside in brings a clear view of whether what you’re trying to be stacks up with what you are to your members.

Stepping back and looking at your organization from this new perspective will allow you to define what’s stopping you from achieving the growth you know you’re capable of.

How can you know if your nonprofit alignment is inside out? Start by asking yourself these questions.

1. What do people say are the three most important things to do for the future?

If all three are process, organization, or cultural changes, you might be inwardly focused.

2. What data do people bring to meetings?

If almost all of it is about your own performance, you might be inwardly focused.

3. Who do you focus your research on?

Ben Franklin once said: “three things are extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.” Once an organization has turned inward, it often clings to that view for dear life. 

In one extreme example, a prominent membership organization had seen a start-up insurgent out-innovate them. It grew to three times its size in a few years. Alarmed, one leader commissioned a detailed study of their new competitor. They wanted to know how they had built a new digital model that had undermined the way they did business. 

The rest of the leadership not only dismissed this reality but denied it. They refused to believe it was happening. External perspective becomes threatening if it challenges the status quo. These leaders failed to recognize that denial is just as dangerous, if not more.

Another client, a large membership organization, was long mired in old ways. We helped them take a radically inclusive and transparent approach to make external perspectives a lever for real change. The process was exhaustive. It encompassed their entire profession, members and non-members alike. They held in-depth conversations with admired and like-minded organizations outside their own space. 

A profound reflection on their competitors and similar, more successful organizations ensued. As a result, they came to an entirely new vision of who they needed to be and where they needed to focus. With great fear, the leadership opened themselves up to an outside view, only to be pleasantly surprised at the clarity it brought them.

You can’t read the label while you’re sitting in the jar. To improve, you first have to understand who you are from an outsider’s perspective. Becoming intentional about turning your nonprofit alignment outward could be the most strategic move you could make.

When Integration Becomes Overkill: 4 Warning Signs for Nonprofits

Nonprofit Integration
Reading Time: 2 minutes

Nonprofit Integration Has Been the Holy Grail of Organization Success. But What Does it Mean?

Integration means many things: Coordinating across multiple channels, cooperating as separate teams, bridging divides between disciplines, and coherently communicating around shared ideas. But ultimately, it means a unified member experience. 

Nonprofit organization leaders have tried long and hard to deliver on nonprofit integration in their organizations. They have revised processes, workflow, and organizational charts. They have created positions dedicated to facilitating integration. They have invested time, energy, and money into the quest. But, too often, it results in thoroughly produced and documented yet ineffective nonprofit integration processes. 

Integration is one of the chief concerns leaders bring to nonprofit organization performance consultants. They are struggling to achieve intelligent, efficient, and effective integration. Many are overwhelmed and fear they are doing too little. Unfortunately, it’s just as likely that they are doing too much. Yes, there is such a thing as over-integration. Here is what it looks like.

Over Engineered Process

A common pitfall is trying to employ a unified, well-structured, thoroughly documented process that looks great on paper. All too often, these plans never work in practice. 

It is not how the work gets done that needs to be super-structured and highly monitored. It is how people work together that does. Though simple, a framework defining how independent processes come together can be profound.

One Team In Name Only

A common pitfall is trying to employ a unified, well-structured, thoroughly documented process that looks great on paper. All too often, these plans never work in practice. It is not how the work gets done that needs to be super-structured and highly monitored. It is how people work together that does.

Though simple, a framework defining how independent processes come together can be profound. 

Technology As A Panacea

Implementing a software solution that forces everyone to share one system is not a fix for poor collaboration. Automation may help drive structure and standardization. But these things aren’t the key to integration. 

When striving to offer your members a unified experience, you most need agility and adaptability. You need to be equipped to tackle any challenge that might arise, which doesn’t necessarily begin with technology. Instead, it starts with people striving to accomplish the same goals.

Nonprofit Integration For Its Own Sake

Integration is not an end in itself—too much focus on how the team works can be a fatal distraction from how teamwork happens. Internal alignment is essential. Yet fixating on the logistics of how a team functions should not take precedence over enhancing the member experience.

Effective integration will remain the goal for nonprofits and can significantly benefit your members. Without internal obstacles bogging you down, your organization will have the freedom to turn outward.

Nonprofit organizations that are most successful at integration have a philosophy and a checklist. They don’t focus on designing time-consuming, exhaustive processes with multiple steps. Influential leaders and innovators work against a framework rather than a rigid process. They have significant values and demonstrate their commitment to pursuing them through their mission. 

In the tech world, for example, Apple has a laser focus on humanity-driven and intuitive design. GE strives to make life easier.

The key is to integrate what matters and only what matters — the defining ideas and the member’s experience.

For more insights and ideas on nonprofit integration, see 3 Ways to Tell if Your Nonprofit Alignment is Inside Out and What Does Integration Mean Anyway?

Nonprofit Strategy: 3 Signs Your Nonprofit Needs to Start Stopping

Non Profit Strategy
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Get Your Nonprofit Strategy Focused

There is a saying called Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands to consume the available resources.” Which is to say, your entire team will always be busy, and your total budget spent. This is especially true of nonprofit strategy.

So the question is, how do you ever do something new? Starting anything means stopping something else, which is often more complicated than it sounds.

In our nonprofit strategy work, we often hear leaders lament the difficulty of freeing up resources or concentrating on fewer but more important things. The status quo has a healthy immune system. The “corporate antibodies” swiftly move in to attack attempts at making way for the new.

Do You Need To Start Stopping?

If you don’t recognize this dynamic in your organization, ask yourself if the following are true:

If you answered yes to any of the above, it might be time for you to start stopping.

But how?

Focus on the Bottom Lines

Jazz great John Coltrane was known for his long-winded saxophone solos. When Miles Davis complained, Coltrane said: “I just don’t know how to stop!” Miles replied, “Try taking the horn out of your mouth!”

It’s a funny quote but an insightful one. It reframes the problem as something (in Coltrane’s case, pretty quickly) solvable. Organizations that succeed with nonprofit strategies do the same. They refocus from activities to outcomes.

In other words, asking not “Why are we doing X, Y, or Z?” but “How do X, Y, and Z create the outcomes we want?” You don’t measure strategic outcomes by work done but by a change in the business or world that moves the strategy forward

Nonprofit Strategy
“The key to nonprofit strategy success is to agree on the bottom lines before making resource decisions.”
We encourage clients to look at outcomes on a “triple bottom line.”

Agree On Outcomes First

In the words of Meghan Trainor: “Thank you in advance; I don’t want to dance.” Successful organizations focus their strategic planning on the outcomes they want and how they will measure them instead of what they want. As a result, they have a clearer view of things that are not delivering for them and an easier time saying no to them.

One large organization we worked with reduced its dashboard goals from more than thirty to six. By linking the budget process to the six top-level goals, resources with little impact or value did not get funded. This happened as a matter of principles established in advance, not on a case-by-case basis.

It is not easy. The example above profited from solid leadership, board partnership, and sustained planning discipline. The fruits of this effort are a strong focus on things that matter, the ability to shift resources among them as things change, and a level of organizational clarity that keeps everyone aligned when change happens.