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It Takes an Association... Make Your Association Irreplaceable
By Terry Paulson, PhD, CSP, CPAE

"Associations and corporations will become even more influential and crucial as networks of people with common professional, cultural and social interests. They serve many of the functions now performed by governments." John Naisbitt

In today's competitive global economy, it truly does take an association to sustain hope and opportunity for the members it serves. No one can rest on past successes and ensure survival. The best associations aren't looking at just adding members; they are looking at adding real value—impacting attitudes, capturing vital trends and threats, developing strategic skills and generating network power for their members. Are you a catalyst for positive change and emerging opportunities for your members? What value must you provide to stay relevant? Here are eleven critical functions for your association to consider in helping your members thrive in the 21st century:

"Only the paranoid survive." Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel

Help turn emerging threats into opportunities. You either help invent the future, or you fall victim to it. Significant competition and change can come from anywhere at a moment's notice. When people wait for a crisis to change, they seldom have the money or time to do it well. Do your part to monitor and identify threats and opportunities! Resist being a comfortable association. If people don't go far enough, they will never know how far they can go. While noting the cost of doing nothing, sell the value and hope involved in embracing strategic change as a way of life. Telling the truth about the problems and the emerging solutions helps keep your members at the head of the curve!

"Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great." Mark Twain

Keep hope alive for your members. Every association has a challenge to move beyond the threats to build a vision for the future that members can believe in and work towards. The biggest difference between a vision and a hallucination are the number of people who can see it! In every message and meeting, promote the vision and the attitudes your people need to deliver on your dream. Not all members will win in the great game of life, but it's your mission as an association to help make winning more likely for those you serve. As ambassadors of hope, challenge your new and existing members to take strategic risks, to learn from their mistakes and to bounce back with resilience to earn the success they desire.

"The fastest growth industry in the U.S. will soon be continuing education of adults because things are changing so fast in every field and occupation." Peter Drucker

Drive lifelong learning for all your members. Success in the global economy requires strategic skills positioned for tomorrow's opportunities. Alvin Toffler said it in Future Shock: "The illiterate of the future are not those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn." Learning is not compulsory, but neither is survival. The Center for Association Excellence suggests that ninety percent of post graduate training is coming from associations. Don't let your members rest on outdated business models or skills. Encourage every member to invest 5% of their time in lifelong learning at all times. By continuing to raise the bar for professional development in your association, you give real value to your members. Provide programming that sharpens strategic competencies. It's time to go beyond "happy face" evaluations to making a difference where it counts in professional development.

"The internet is not about technology. It's about connecting with people. The challenge facing associations is finding the best way to stay connected with their members while creating an environment where members can connect with each other." Jerry Gitchel

Make technology work for your members.
Technology and the information highway are impacting everything associations do. If your current members aren't demanding that you make technology work for the association, your future members will. At the National Speakers Association, members can create an individualized website at allowing them to link to their own personalized information sources, access their own professional development plan and member profile, identify programs and articles designed to meet their development goals, and link to other members to encourage collaboration. Structure your systems to allow access to whatever information members need any time, anywhere.

"Nothing focuses the mind better than the constant sight of a competitor who wants to wipe you off the map." Wayne Calloway

Foster international involvement. Globalization is here to stay and technology has diminished the importance of international boundaries. If your members aren't competing against the brightest and the best everywhere in the world, they soon will be. Sixty percent of ASAE's members work for organizations that serve an international constituency. If your association does not have active international affiliation, seek to secure one. Help your members bridge the international divide to encourage cooperation, best practice sharing and collaboration. Don't limit your focus to local membership; help your local constituency find their place in the world economy.

"I don't like that man. I must get to know him better." Abraham Lincoln

Make diversity work for positive change. The changing demographics will change your association membership. As members live longer, work to help older members retool and refocus their business model to match the times. While benefiting from the experience of older members, integrate the innovation and expertise of younger members who will demand a voice. As more and more women and racial minorities join and take leadership positions, help members get beyond existing biases and the resulting distance to foster constructive interaction and common causes that can unite the association. There is power in associations who can successfully get beyond the factions to capitalize on the diversity mix that makes a difference together!

"So many of us have lost sight of the vital importance of dealing with people we can trust. Much can be gained by enlisting partners and colleagues who are committed to the same goals." Howard Schultz, Starbucks Coffee Company

Use bridge-building skills to make your net work! Networking and communication skills remain invaluable. Communicating across the digital divide by e-mail may be important, but the ability to sell, explain, persuade, motivate, influence and lead others still holds first place as a winning strategy for today's association leaders and professionals. Build networking opportunities into every meeting. Challenge your members to become network-savvy practitioners who can get results through cross-functional, and where possible, global teams built on trust, collaboration and empowerment. Encourage every member to bridge beyond their comfortable relationships to form new relationships and sustain cooperation across the association.

"Show me relevance to my job, my career or, best of all, my paycheck. Once you have done that, I challenge you to bore me." Chris Lee

Work to make members' lives and businesses better. By leveraging the Association's group purchasing power, associations can provide members with high quality investment, insurance, credit, discount products and consumer services. Such member-only programs offer prospective members an additional reason to join the association and current members an incentive to retain their association membership. Each program should meet rigorous selection criteria based on service, accessibility, price, features, and stability.

"The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you're still a rat." Lilly Tomlin

Help members make a living and a life. Time remains your members' most valuable resource. Never let maximizing the effectiveness of your volunteer leaders become permission to burn out your best people. Encourage everyone to work, live and volunteer smart. On a positive side, associations have become a second family of choice for today's busy professionals. Researchers talk about the importance of "the third place"—that place between work and home where people can unwind and find support. For many, associations have become this generation's "third place." Work to encourage a sense of "family" and community within your membership. Encourage all to take time with family and friends, but take seriously your role as a caring community where people can serve, learn and laugh together.

"The best executive is one who has sense enough to pick good people to do what he wants done and self-restrain enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it." Teddy Roosevelt

Run a professional association.
Your association's volunteer leadership must be involved in drafting your association's vision and the strategic priorities, but let your association executive and staff deliver on the implementation of the strategic goals established. They are there to provide the continuity that will ensure the long-term viability of the organization. Volunteer leaders and the boards they lead come and go, taking their strengths and weaknesses with them. Find and empower your association executive to build a healthy reserve, drive cost containment where they can and strategically invest resources where they can make the biggest difference for your members. With the Sarbanes/Oxley changes impacting corporate boards, more transparency from association boards cannot be far behind. Build in transparency and accountability systems before you are required to do so.

"We teach collaborative problem-solving. In school, that's called cheating." Edward Bales, Motorola

Partner with other associations to make a difference. No association is an island; collectively associations can make an even bigger difference. Look for associations that can help you deliver on your mission. As a past president of the National Speakers Association and the International Federation for Professional Speakers, I know the value of partnering with other associations to make sure the meetings industry prospers. After all, you don't just want another speaker; you want professional speakers who will partner with you to deliver what your members need to hear! For your association, by working together we can and will prepare the members you serve to thrive for years to come.

"Excellence isn't a sometimes thing. You have to earn it and reearn it every single day." Vince Lombardi

Byline: Terry Paulson, PhD, CSP, CPAE. Past-President NSA & IFFPS and CAPS honorary member. Speaker, author, and columnist, Dr. Paulson helps leaders, teams and organizations make change work. Visit for more articles and information or contact us: 800-521-6172 /

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