Reshaping your association for the 21st century.
Your next generation of members has already been born. Your leaders for the year 2000 are already members. In fact, most of the elements of 21st-century America are already in place--but there are still massive changes to come.
If we seize the opportunities in this emerging world of the early 21st century, associations can become stronger and more successful than before. If, on the other hand, we continue to apply 20th-century thinking to a 21st-century environment, we will be surprised by crises that keep us on the defensive and make us unable to create our own future. Reshaping your association in the image of the 21st century is not only possible, it's essential.
Preparing for tomorrow
Whether or not you agree that major changes are likely to take place by the year 2000, it would be prudent to act as if they were. Preparing for change can only make your association stronger and more competitive. You can operate more cost effectively, provide your members with more value than ever before, and define the terms of competition. Here is how to do it.
Commit your association to quality management. Start now to focus on the essential services that are vitally important to your core constituency. It's better to do a few vital things well than to do only a fair job covering dozens of special interests. In this time of fraying loyalties and self-absorption, the only way to get and keep members will be to provide indispensable services at affordable prices. Discipline yourself always to regard members as customers.
Achieving customer satisfaction requires a total commitment to quality management. Quality management means much more than quality control over an association product or service. Real quality management is a three-step process first introduced by management guru Peter M. Senge, a principal research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It involves achieving fitness to standard, then fitness to need, and finally, fitness to future needs.
The first step in becoming a member-driven association is achieving fitness to standard. This means determining with your customers and members what constitutes excellence in your existing products and services and then meeting those expectations. Quality standards differ among associations because they are determined by member expectations. You can determine what those expectations are by asking your members. For example, the Public Relations Society of America, New York City, recently asked a statistically representative sample of its membership to rate the quality of its services. PRSA discovered that the services it provided were not targeting areas in which the members felt the greatest need; among other things, members were future-oriented and interested in emerging technologies. The organization is now using the research results to change its focus and ensure that members' needs are met in all programs and services. The new PRSA strategic plan has met with widespread acclaim because it was based on actual member evaluations of association services.
Once fitness to standard has been mastered, the next step is achieving fitness to need. While fitness to standard is about making your current products and services better, fitness to need is about devising new products and services that appeal to your customers. This means doing your homework, asking members and potential members to identify their unmet needs, and then filling them excellently. Fitness to need is another name for the marketing approach: building a product or service that so perfectly meets the customer's needs that it sells itself without a lot of hoopla.
For example, the National Association of Professional Insurance Agents, Alexandria, Virginia, learned through an independent communication audit that its members wanted action to change the negative image they acquired during the insurance crisis of the 1980s. As a result, NAPIA was able to devise a creative outreach program aimed at adversaries in the consumer movement. NAPIA founded the Consumer Insurance Interest Group, a coalition of consumer groups and insurance agents, that identified 12 major areas where the two factions agreed. The resulting reports, including the Insurance Consumer Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, transformed the association's reputation and that of its members.
To determine what your members want, you can employ a variety of market research tools, from quick, electronically tallied polls of convention participants to comprehensive member needs surveys, focus groups, communication audits, and informal get-togethers. Share the results of this research regularly with the membership; make research one of the key motivators of your strategic plan.
The final step in becoming member driven is achieving fitness to future needs. This is the key to being a 21st-century association--a key that few know how to use successfully. Achieving fitness to future need means being a disciplined visionary and creating products and services that will be essential to your members in the future even if they don't yet realize they need them.
A good example of being attuned to future needs is ASAE's internal technology task force. It has been charged with anticipating the new technology of information transfer and being among the first to use it to make timely information available to its members. If fitness to future needs drives your strategic planning, you will always be a step ahead of your customers and your competition. You will therefore define the market-place you have chosen.
Streamline the policy-making process. Byzantine association policies and ponderous governance structures will be obsolete by the turn of the century. Smaller boards will have greater credibility because they have the ability to act. Fax, conference calling, and other communication technologies will make it possible for much association decision making to be accomplished instantly, without costly and time-consuming meetings of committees and governing bodies. Substantial sums of money and person-years of staff time can be saved by taking advantage of technology to streamline governance. These resources can be better applied to providing services to members.
Adopt a system of strategic management. Strategic management can be defined as "a rational process for setting objectives and managing to achieve them." Lots of associations do what they call strategic planning, but unless these plans drive the annual work plan and budget, they generally lead nowhere. The College Placement Council, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania is an example of an association that uses strategic management to tie policymaking to implementation. Assisted by staff and a strategic management committee, the board assesses future opportunities and threats in the political, social, technological, economic, and biological environments. It then assesses the association's strengths and weaknesses in addressing them and uses these insights to adopt a plan to guide the council's future.
The staff role in strategic management is to develop action plans, budgets, and procedures, and to implement the plans within the policy guidelines set by the board. Standing committees are abolished in favor of temporary task forces that disband when their assignments are completed. A strategic board-staff partnership works and costs much less to operate than traditional association governance.
Empower your staff. Association staffs should be given responsibility for achieving the goals and carrying out the policies set by the board, and should serve as a support and resource for the board in carrying out its responsibilities. As boards become more strategic, they will cede more responsibility to the staffs and be less involved, or interested in, the tactical micromanagement that so frustrates association executives.
Just as the board needs to be more sensitive to the needs of members, association staffs need to be galvanized from the bottom up. As chief staff executive, you need to learn how to become a coach instead of a boss. Encourage staff members to develop their own action plans and budgets so long as they carry out the goals set by the board.
Walls between departments need to come down. The pervasive curse of office fiefdoms needs to be replaced with interdepartmental task forces of volunteers and staff that come together to develop and implement plans that cross department and committee lines. Staff must come to believe that they serve the members, not a particular department.
Make peace with your chapters or affiliates. If there ever was a no-brainer, it is the ridiculous competition many national associations have with their affiliates for member revenues. The national and local organizations are indispensable parts of the same system, and like boards and staffs, they need to form mutually beneficial partnerships. Do your strategic planning and member research jointly. Divide up responsibilities, building on the strengths of each of the partners. For example, the national organization could use its resources to develop regional educational modules for chapters to implement, or set up a central electronic catalog of products and services that could be accessed by chapter members using an 800 number.
Chapters and affiliates, in turn, are closer to the members. They play an invaluable role in helping the national organization identify and meet member needs and deliver the customized products and services specific to different membership segments. The first step is to break down suspicion and hostility through ongoing two-way communication and joint planning.
Reconsider your nonprofit status. Government is under increasing pressure to find new revenue to offset the ballooning budget deficit, and it will intensify its targeting of association income. The recent attempts by the Internal Revenue Service and Congress to narrow the tax-exempt status of associations' unrelated business income are probably just warning shots of greater pressure to come. This may appear heresy, but it may become advantageous for some associations, particularly 501(c)(6) organizations, to convert to for-profit status. Although their taxable income will increase, they no longer will have to worry about staying within their exempt purpose, can seek venture capital, and can more easily eliminate burdensome governance structures.
Make your service corporation a cash cow. The new communication technology will make it possible for association for-profit service corporations to become powerful sources of revenue. For example, instant interactive communication technology will enable for-profit service corporations to offer customers an electronic catalog of their products and services. The catalog can be instantly updated to provide real-time information, and can be supported by listing fees and line charges. Such a system could become an important source of income. Treat your service corporation like the profit-making entity it is. Listen to your customers and employ an aggressive marketing strategy, and you will be successful.
Rethink your membership marketing. When most of us think of building membership, we think of sales gimmicks: contests, telemarketing, and direct mail. It is time to stop thinking of ways to sell memberships and start thinking about marketing them. Selling means convincing someone to buy what you have to offer. Marketing means working with users to develop a product or service that so perfectly meets their needs that it sells itself. According to Peter Drucker, the concepts of selling and marketing are antithetical. If your association consistently identifies and meets member needs in a culture of excellence, professionalism, and enthusiasm, you won't have much selling to do. Prospects will beat a path to your door.
Move from confrontation to cooperation. Borrow a leaf from the National Association of Professional Insurance Agents, and start talking with all the consumer advocates, environmentalists, and public-interest groups that have been harrying your association. Look for common ground on which you can begin to build mutually beneficial coalitions. In Congress, even Jesse Helms and Ted Kennedy form temporary alliances when their issues coincide.
In your relations with the government, think about how you can contribute solutions to problems before Congress and the administration feel obliged to address them. The studies produced by the Consumer Insurance Interest Group, the industry-consumer coalition created by NAPIA, are considered definitive by regulators, the media, consumer advocates, and the insurance industry.
You can have a real impact on policy if you form coalitions with interest groups and work with government to find solutions before a groundswell for political action develops. Once that happens, you will be fighting a rearguard action against the inevitable.
Stay on the cutting edge of communication technology. Becoming a learning organization is critical to becoming a 21st-century association, and communication technology is an essential prerequisite. Today's associations use old technology to communicate with their constituencies. Even associations that have invested in high technology, such as desktop publishing to prepare information, are using low technology, such as printing, paper, and the mails, to deliver it. This will change rapidly. Access to information is becoming user driven instead of provider driven.
Many associations are developing on-line computer data bases. The problem is that computer data bases can be difficult, time-consuming, and costly for members to use. However, recent technology--interactive fax--can provide similar on-demand access to information at low cost, using only a Touch-Tone telephone and a fax machine. Members won't have to wait until the association publishes its newsletter or magazine to get the latest information. Instead, they can tap interactive fax libraries of articles, newsletters, issue papers, technical specifications, supplier product listings, job listings, pending legislation, and regulations, instantly, from anywhere, 24 hours a day. Interactive fax also makes instant polling possible. Service bureaus offer interactive fax on a fee basis, so an association's initial investment is small because no new equipment or personnel are required.
Video fax will also become common by the turn of the century. Videos can be compressed and sent in bursts over data networks to receivers about the size and cost of today's VCRs. A two-hour video can be transmitted in 15 seconds or less, for less than it costs to rent a video today. Also on the way is interactive video that will permit two-way communication. The coming of video fax and interactive video will bring new education opportunities and may supplant some small association seminars or even larger conventions.
Compact disc-read-only memory technology will become a standard feature of personal computers. Associations will use CD-ROM to offer back issues of journals and libraries of information to members for a modest fee. This information will be retrieved by personal computers in color, with video motion and sound. Users will also be able to access the information on inexpensive Sony Discman players or manipulate them on Apple Newton computers.
Lead the education revolution. Your association probably knows what skills your field requires and has experience in delivering educational programs to its members. The entire educational system is being put under the microscope, and by the beginning of the century a new one will be largely in place. You can take the lead in transforming the way those in your field are educated and trained by developing working partnerships with federal, state, and national governments, as well as with teacher and advocacy groups. Someone is going to be making those decisions about how your field will be educated, from kindergarten through college and beyond. You should be in on the decision-making process from the beginning.
You also have the opportunity to establish association-run interactive job banks that link employers and prospective employees instantly through fax-on-demand job listings and fax mailboxes. This service can also generate substantial income for your association.
You don't need a crystal ball to determine the shape of the new century. After all, it is only seven years ahead. Most of the trends are already visible to those who care to seek them out. It is likely to be a tough but exciting time, filled with great challenges but unparalleled opportunities for strategic thinkers. And that need for strategy and adaptation is the nub of the challenge.
Most associations tend to be focused on short-term, tactical problems. This is natural, given the constant leadership turnover and the need to keep up with downsizing and mergers that create impossible workloads for the remaining staff. But strategic management and quality management principles, combined with staff empowerment, provide a model that works.
What it boils down to is this: Be a forward thinker and train your leadership to see beyond today's crises. Scan the future for social, economic, political, technological, and environmental opportunities and threats.
Then look at your association's strengths and weaknesses in addressing them. Erect a "Great Wall" between governance and staff; have governance set policy and let staff carry it out. Concentrate on providing a limited number of vital services to your core constituency, and do it excellently. Listen to your members and be responsive to their needs. Do all this while taking an axe to your hierarchical structure and slimming down your association to fighting weight. Stick to these few principles, and your association will be in a winning position as we enter a new century.
The New World at the Turn of the Century
* Government-business partnerships will be emphasized to develop leading-edge industries and maximize American competitiveness.
* Domestic priorities, recently neglected, will be highlighted, but with more emphasis on individual responsibility and less on handouts.
* Leaner structures will emerge in government, business, and nonprofit organizations with greater grass-roots participation.
* Less influence will be wielded by special-interest politics; instead, partnerships among erstwhile adversaries will work more subtly to achieve desired outcomes.
* A single worldwide competitive marketplace will develop in which the deciding success factors will be advances in knowledge and technology and the ability to cut the time between concept and production.
* Education will be recognized as a nation's single most important investment in staying competitive and prosperous. Lifelong learning will be here to stay.
* America, already a "salad nation," will become even more multicultural, multiracial, and multilingual, but we will become more adjusted to our need to work together and will see our differences as strengths.
* The world will become an increasingly dangerous and unstable place as ethnic groups no longer feel threatened by the superpowers and feel free to pursue long-suppressed animosities.
* Preservation of the natural environment will become an overriding international concern as exploding populations deplete resources to the danger level.
Paul S. Forbes is president and Bruce Butterfield, CAE, is executive vice president of the Forbes Group, Fairfax, Virginia, a strategic management counseling firm for associations.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||includes related article|
|Article Type:||Cover Story|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1993|
|Previous Article:||Conducting a technology needs assessment.|
|Next Article:||What's up the pike?|