April 18, 2014
2014: A better year for associations

By Stephen C. Carey, PhD, CAE and the AMMR Staff | 01/30/2014

This is our 16th year of providing key future trends and issues we see in the trade and professional association marketplace. The list of trends, issues and predictions for the future is based on current and proposed practices evident from a program and facilitation attendee input (over 400 for 2013), a client base of 500+ trade associations, professional societies and foundations, surveys and benchmarking research conducted during the past year with 20 professional and trade associations and input from a variety of association and nonprofit executives and other management consulting firms. We hope these trends and issues continue to give the readers food for thought as they continue to plan for the future.

This Past Year

The association community continued its recovery throughout 2013, with many seeing modest growth, some at pre recession levels. Even though there are still economic concerns with the job market and growth, industries and the professions seem to be more willing to provide associations more support. The caveat is that many companies are limiting participation to fewer attendees to save costs on education, training and development as indicated below.

Additionally, a number of associations are going through industry mergers and consolidations affecting their ability to collect more dues from merged entities as a result of larger companies continuing to refuse to raise caps on dues and the loss of medium to larger dues payers due to these consolidations. This continues to be a worrisome trend that has not abated, and does not appear to be slowing down in the near future.

Although many executives think this is a trade association phenomenon, it is beginning to affect professional associations as many industries and professions are cutting back on their memberships and conference attendance in order to save funds. Our ability to attract members and attendees will be more dependent than ever on their perception of the association’s value equation.

Consequently, this will continue to force many associations, as reflective of their industries and professions, to remain in “stabilization and cost cutting” mode, as many continue to lose or are beginning to lose dues and nondues revenue, reflective of the marketplaces they represent. As discussed last year and above, this continues to place much more emphasis on the quantified value equation and the ability of the association to articulate it (over and over) to their core constituencies.

Finally, for the fourth year in a row, strategic research and planning continues to be the number one trend, along with financial concerns, among all associations as board and staff struggle to set a course for the future to address these and other key issues.

Below find the new and continuing trends and predictions we see on the road through 2014 – plan accordingly!

Summary of Association Key Trends and Issues for 2014

Communication with younger members and students will continue to be a major concern. Associations which develop infrastructure and better communications methods with these constituencies will be rewarded by more fealty to the association. Continuing to develop networking opportunities both on line and face to face will be a continuing challenge. Associations willing to pay the price to develop more infrastructure in this area will be rewarded, while those that do not substantially invest in research and infrastructure will find that these constituents will go elsewhere in the next few years.

Strategic planning is again, for the 4th consecutive year, the #1 trend among associations (again along with financial concerns), and continues to be a priority for most boards. Planning by committees will be more research-based than in years past. 2014 will continue the trend of looking for more research to be required by the planning team in the form of detailed environmental scans, web-based data collection instruments, quantitative member value needs assessments and good old fashioned in-depth interviews and focus groups.

It appears as if many associations are seeing legislative and territorial battles moving from the national stage to the state arena. Associations see the states as the next frontier to affect legislation favorable to their longer term strategy. Many associations have not yet opened the resources necessary for their key states to fight these legislative and other battles, which will not bode well for them nationally in the long run. Many medically related associations are using this strategy and ramping up these resources.

Competition by both for- and not-for-profits will continue for the foreseeable future. More and more associations, however, are willing to form partnerships and liaisons than in the past. This spirit of cooperation seems to be replacing the extreme competitiveness of the past. Associations are paying more attention to widening their liaison activity and devoting more infrastructure to monitoring both the competition and partnerships.

As reported for the past several years, dues caps and maintaining fair dues structures continue to hinder trade associations as more industry mergers and consolidations are on the horizon, and smaller to medium sized companies are demanding more equitable structures and value for their dues dollars. Larger companies continue to leverage their participation asking for more concessions and leadership participation in exchange for dues dollars and other financial assistance.

Several novel dues structures and benefits programs are being tested by some associations in an attempt to engage and entice members to join and stay in the association. Some advocate a points system, others are based on monthly/quarterly utilization of benefits and services. Trying to capture and involve younger members and prospects and building content are main goals of examining dues structures of the future. Understanding that more infrastructure, capacity and creative thinking will be necessary to capture and retain members is key to recruiting and retaining members.

Association member companies and individuals continue to cut back in the travel, training and association membership areas. Associations must continue to ensure that their value equation is strong and tailored to each of their diverse segments.

The association value equation stays front and center and will continue to play a key role in recruitment and retention efforts as members remain concerned with their pocketbooks. The value equation today is defined as any one or more programs or services that ensure members will take out their checkbooks and write a renewal check because there is no question in their mind that the association provides extraordinary value to them personally or to their company.

Finding leaders for the future continues to be a problem for a majority of associations that have neglected succession planning for years. Continuing a trend from last year, boards appear to be conducting more governance training and developing more infrastructure than in previous years to ensure that board members are trained in their duties and responsibilities and that there is a good succession plan in place. Board size has been stable with 12-18 directors with few boards willing to further reduce size for fear of under representing all constituencies.

Associations continue their struggle to seamlessly integrate IT with all functional areas, the website and social media applications. Double entry is still an issue and lack of integrated systems still plague departments continuing to use work-arounds. Critical is the association’s willingness to commit significant funding for business and social media infrastructure to capture and retain younger and future members.

Members in some associations complain of too much email and other electronic communications, and in some cases just delete or file and forget. Over-communicating can cause as much damage to the value equation as under-communicating, and associations must find the right balance with their members through good research.

Staff-to-revenue ratios appear to have stabilized this past year with associations averaging between 180K -240K per staff member (includes outsourced major components). If your ratio is above this bracket, you may be adding stress to an overworked staff and if you are under, you may be overstaffed for your program.

Take a look at these trends and use them as general guidelines to ensure your association is taking care of business in 2014!


Association TRENDS