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What will be the significance of associations like ours in 10 or even 20 years? Will we still have an impact on society? I believe associations today are seeing a new horizon unfolding. We’re realizing that in order to remain relevant in the future, now is the time for us to be more forward-thinking. We need to break away from the old image of associations and craft a new one.
Associations have been around a while; some are more than 100 years old. In 2010, the U.S. had 92,000 trade and professional associations according to ASAE. But have associations really changed as they’ve multiplied? Many now find it is increasingly challenging to persuade members to attend their conferences, seminars and networking events. Most people today would rather connect remotely instead of face-to-face. It’s probably safe to say that most members or volunteers of an association have witnessed these changes as well. Associations need to position themselves for the next century.
The dominance of digital communities has resulted in a precipitous decline in the number of members associations can attract and hold. American Medical Association, for example, has 25 percent of all physicians as members today; in 1965, that number was 75 percent.
In June 2011, NPR correspondent Linton Weeks explored the current state of associations. In the piece “Time for Associations to Trade in Their Past?,” Weeks contends that associations are stagnant, that they haven’t evolved with a planet that’s addicted to and fascinated by iPads and iPhones. People still find themselves drawn to connecting with like-minded people, but that interaction for the most part has moved online.
All of which leads me to wonder - why should people continue to associate with associations? At ASME, we sense that members and volunteers want associations to captivate them with new possibilities and information for their fields, for the future, and for the world.
We believe the key to staying relevant is to emphasize strategic areas: embrace social entrepreneurship, support transformational technology, aim for global impact, and develop an international workforce. I am suggesting that associations should show, once again, the value of actual social networking- in person – by re-engaging their members, volunteers and others who are passionate about being involved in these areas.
Historically, people have been drawn to associations because they want to feel that they’re a part of a community, devoted to making the world a better place. I believe associations can be that place now and in the future, if they re-position themselves as organizations that can inspire collaboration and knowledge sharing.
I like to say that ASME is a hybrid organization – we’re market-oriented and mission-centered. Engaging with more than 125,000 members, we’re supporting a vast range of efforts by engineers worldwide, including in Engineering for Change, www.engineeringforchange.org, an online community devoted to sharing engineering knowledge and solutions that advance global development. Efforts like this allow engineers – including many members of ASME – the opportunity to participate directly in developing solutions, whether in energy infrastructure, clean water technology, or in so many other areas that the world relies on us, the engineers, to solve.
Yes, our members are digital, but they also gain an amazing sense of community when they attend our conferences, workshops and seminars. There’s a strong sense that everyone who attends is a participant in making the world a better place. That is one powerful advantage, one amazing tool and the main reason why I think digital connections can never replace associations.
I imagine that in five to 10 years from now, associations will have reinvented themselves and will play a key role in positioning fresh ideas on issues and problems that concern all 7 billion of us - for the next century.
Loughlin is executive director of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, New York. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. ASME is a not-for-profit professional organization that enables collaboration across all engineering disciplines, while promoting the vital role of the engineer in society.