NPR (National Public Radio) recently did a story Time For Associations To Trade In Their Past? which discussed the sustainability and relevance of today’s trade associations. The Linton Weeks piece detailed the genesis of the association in the late 1800’s and the shaky ground the community now finds itself in due to the enormous acceptance of social media and free internet services.
The expose details Jim Carroll, author of Ready, Set, Done: How to Innovate When Faster is the New Fast and his extensive work in the association community over the years in conjunction with ASAE (American Society of Association Executives). “In 2010 Carroll wrote that many of the trade groups remain stuck in a rut of complacency. They deliver the same old program. They focus on the same old issues, generate the same old knowledge, plan the same old conference, and have their agenda managed by the same old membership has-beens.”
Carroll warns that if an association “doesn’t evolve at the same pace” as our rapidly changing environment, “or doesn’t keep up, or doesn’t define the future,” that “it risks becoming obsolete.” Unfortunately, Carroll contends “they (associations) bemoan the fact that membership is declining; that the Millennials seem to have little time or inclination to join them; and that the world is just becoming, well, too complex to deal with.”
The conversation based on Carroll’s observations is quite rampant amongst association professionals. After all, these bread and butter contentions will either evolve the community to a new and greater relevance in American society or without action see the demise of a movement that in many cases provides a forum that an industry or profession will only realize it’s importance upon its demise.
According to ASAE there are over 92,000 trade and professional associations in America with 2,500 of them residing in Washington DC alone. The non-profit community is a massive job creator and for those in an employment search, the private sector forum not only provides services and products to millions of members (think of AARP and their enormous reach) but sustainability for an enormous number of working professionals who advocate, communicate and educate on the behalf of their dues paying members and society as a whole.
If Trade Associations and Professional Societies are to survive into the next century they will need dynamic thinkers and “out of the box” advocates who will use the successes of the past for the needs and demands of the future. Success in associations will mean a new and robust approach to all facets of what is expected of them.
In the true community spirit of association members working together to solve mutual concerns, association executives will need to look beyond traditional educational conferences and newsletters for the answers. Immediate and digital interaction and information sourcing must be the means to solving the ills of today’s associations. Social Networking will be the cure for associations if advocated appropriately. The surviving association will be one that can communicate with its membership on an on-going basis and an entity that can provide information, services and products instantaneously.
An Association website will need to be more than just a promotional venue; the website will need to be a portal of unique perspectives and knowledge that will not be able to be accessed from anywhere else. The value of membership will be the response to a driving need of the dues paying member. Customer service is vital and though much of what a member needs can be found on Google these days, it is the perspective and the accommodating approach that can make an association even more valuable than ever to its membership.
As a job seeker looks for a new future it is important to understand why Associations need to change and how the survival of hundreds of thousands of jobs is at stake if such a progression doesn’t take place. As you position your own unique capabilities in a Cover Letter or in an interview, make sure you profess such a changing environment and how you would advocate for the future.
No matter your experience or age, to have serious consideration for an Association executive position in 2011 one needs to emphasize how you have changed so that you can assist an association in their approach for tomorrow.
Dan Borschke is a Certified Association Executive who has been a CEO for 3 distinct trade associations in his distinguished career. He is one of only 230 Association Executives internationally who has been granted the prestigious designation of Fellow by the American Society of Association Executives. He currently is between positions and has written more than 50,000 words or 85 blog postings on the topics of job search and career transition.
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