September 20, 2014
The new question associations should be asking every day
Association TRENDS

If you feel so empty
So used up, so let down
If you feel so angry
So ripped off, so stepped on
You're not the only one
Refusing to back down
You're not the only one
So get up!

- Riot, Three Days Grace

I just saw this article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It details a fundamental shift in the way public colleges and universities are being funded and actually posits that public funds for higher education in some states may move to zero (ZERO) in the coming years. If nothing is done about the current system, income inequality will continue to drive the middle class to the brink of destruction and all the dues we complain about not getting now will disappear for good.

Obviously, I've talked about disruption in the secondary and post-secondary environment for a while now. Workforce development in the United States is floundering on stormy economic seas and our skills gaps are getting larger and larger. If all you do is think about how to serve your current members you are destined to fall victim to the forces of entropy, erosion and attrition.

More important is what to do with the thousands of young people who feel like they don't have any options, or their options are becoming more limited and fraught with the specter of increased costs for little demonstrable value. There are a lot of people out here who are angry about these conditions, and rightly so.

In my opinion, success today depends on asking new questions. "What is our value proposition?" is a legitimate question, but its an old one. It feels contemporary, but looking back through association literature from the last century, we've actually been hammering on "value" since the early 1900s. In light of changes in our economy and educational system, maybe we need to try a new question. What if we redirected some of our time into asking, "What does it take for an individual to become eligible to pay membership dues?" There are thousands of hungry high-schoolers, young adults and the long-term unemployed out there who need guidance that you may be able to provide. Maybe you have a fantastic gingerbread house, but if you aren't laying down the right kind of breadcrumbs how do you expect future members to actually find you in the middle of the woods?

Serving current members is important, but it's a strategy built around the past and present, not the future. Future strategy includes creating robust student programs and pathways into your industries and professions. You should be using data to get VERY specific about where your industry and professions are seeing shortages, and how you intend to solve those shortages. Without a major shift into that kind of predictive thinking, you will be forever playing catch-up and "selling" to a smaller and smaller audience.

There are a lot of angry, hurting people out here, but if we shift our gaze and start providing solutions for them instead of figuring out ways to feed off of them, we have a better shot of living up to a legacy that we can all be totally stoked about.

Let's not start another membership brochure, let's start a riot!

Alcorn is based in Sacramento Calif. She writes the Association Subculture blog, where this column appeared originally. Contact her at shelly@alcornassociates.com.


Association TRENDS