November 20, 2017
    Innovation and reengineering the association

    How do antique associations stay relevant to their members and/or their mission in the 21st century?

    By Eileen Johnson, Esq. | 04/11/2014

    Is your association an antique? Some associations date from the 19th century. The majority were founded in the 20th century. If your association’s constitution or articles of incorporation were written by hand or typed on something other than a computer, then your association is likely an antique.

    How do antique associations stay relevant to their members and/or their mission in the 21st century? How does an association executive shake things up, re-engineer or repurpose an association so that it still provides value to its members or others who provide its financial support? This is a question many association executives are asking as they face declines in membership, conference and tradeshow attendance, and revenue.

    There are no one-size-fits-all answers. But staying the same and not taking chances is not a solution. Here are some options to consider:

    1. Reexamine your association’s membership. Don’t look at your current members, or membership program and benefits. Instead, think about what you would do if you were launching the association in 2014. Would you want to have members? Who would they be? What value would they bring to the association and what would they expect in return? Would they have a role in your association’s governance?

    2. Reexamine your association’s purpose. That’s right, question your association’s very reason for being. Is your association’s purpose relevant in today’s world? If not, should you try to identify a new purpose, one that is not currently being filled by anyone else? Or should you declare victory and dissolve?

    3. Apply zero-based budgeting to everything you do. Don’t assume that just because your association has always done something (or always done it one way) means that you should keep doing that same thing the same way for eternity. Ask some basic evaluation questions such as:

    – Why do we need this program?

    – Who does this program serve?

    – What does this program cost?

    – What measurable results do we get from this program?

    – Is the cost of the program justified by the results we receive?

    – Is there a better use for that money?

    – If we were forming our association today, is this a program we would want to roll out?

    4. Challenge your board. What value does your current board add to the association? What is the best governance structure for the future?

    5. Make friends with your competition. This works better for professional associations and other nonprofits than for trade associations. But if there is another association that you have been partnering with over the years, give serious thought to whether 2014 is the year you should talk about a potential merger.

    Executives who are willing to take risks and explore new options will be the association leaders of the first half of the 21st century.

    Johnson is a partner at Whiteford, Taylor & Preston LLP and a frequent writer and speaker on association issues. She can be reached at 703-280-9271 or


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