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How do you think associations need to reimagine themselves for the next decade?


On August 25th, Fonteva welcomed Lowell Aplebaum, FASAE, CAE, CPF, Mary Byers, CAE, CSP, Jeff De Cagna FRSA FASAE, and Gayathri Kher to tackle some of the big questions facing associations as they look toward and plan for the future.

As a precursor to that event, we asked each to share a brief answer to the question, How do you think associations need to reimagine themselves for the next decade? Answers are listed as shared with Fonteva directly by the panelists.

If you haven’t seen this can’t miss panel, you can do so now.

Jeff De Cagna FRSA FASAE
Executive Advisor
Foresight First LLC

As I wrote more than two years ago, the 2020s were always going to be a turbulent decade. Unfortunately, when that turbulence arrived with full force and much sooner than expected, associations were not ready. Organizations in our community were forced to adapt urgently under conditions of radical uncertainty, volatility, and risk unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic and other disruptions that I call “the discontinuous next.”

Nearly eighteen months later, it is crucial that we make a clear-eyed assessment of where we are: the pandemic is nowhere near over, there is no “new normal” ahead, and the discontinuous next is not going away any time soon.

From this point forward, then, association decision-makers must shift their focus from adaptation to reinventing their organizations for the rest of this decade and beyond. Specifically, I believe associations must reinvent themselves to become 21st societal institutions capable of focusing their energy and attention on building the cooperation and social capital required to confront the most serious forces of turbulence facing both our country and our world.

Gayathri Kher

Unfortunately, I think planning for a decade out is just that; imagination. If there is one thing that the last 12-18 months taught us, it is that there is no such thing as long-term planning… especially a decade out. A lot of association professionals, myself included, treated this last year as one of reflection. What we’ve learned through this last year is that associations need to be nimble and “comfortably uncomfortable” with change. Even though it is imperative to set a vision and have long-term goals, associations need to be okay with shifting goals and priorities based on the changing environments.

One of the most troubling things I heard recently is that many associations actually do not think the pandemic has demanded any long-term change in strategy. I’m not sure how that is possible given the disruption that has been caused.

Associations are going to have to evaluate and sometimes even redefine their mission. Reimagining purpose, the value you bring to your members, and your impact on the community, both in the short and long term should drive the future.

Mary Byers, CAE, CSP
Association Advisor
& Author
Race for Relevance

The COVID-19 pandemic has given us a once-in-a-century opportunity to take advantage of what I call “The Power of the Pause”—the interruption of business as usual—in order to think about what “business as unusual” will look like going forward. There are three main areas I believe we should be focused on:

  1. Governance: Associations can benefit from being more intentional and deliberate as they recruit volunteer leaders. Competency-based governance is an invitation to think about the make-up of ideal board members (which may vary depending on identified opportunities or shortcomings) and to solidify the nominations and elections process. In ASAE Foundation research, 67% of the 300-plus association executives who responded believed that improvement could be made to their Board nomination, recruitment, and selection process. In their book Recruit the Right Board: Proven Processes for Selecting Critical Competencies, authors Mark Engle, CAE and William Brown write, “Frequently during this [ASAE Foundation] study, researchers heard that far too many board members were not up to the task of governing 21st-century associations….Too often board members approach their work with outdated conceptions of the association, the industry, and their role. These sentiments were shared by executives and volunteers, many of whom recognized that their board members lacked the right skills, training, or expertise necessary to lead the association.”
  2. Programs and Services: Making sure the right mix is offered—and sunsetting the programs that no longer make the grade (or never did). (A complimentary “Program and Service Matrix” is available at under “Free Resources.”)
  3. Technology: Adopting a digital first mindset—and resourcing accordingly (both staffing and financially—is a must on the reimagination journey. Most associations give lip service to this but now it’s time to double-down to make it actually happen. This needs to be viewed from a member-centric lens: what do we need to do to be able to take the association to the member rather than always asking the member to come to the association? And how we can we provide easy access to programs and services, organized in a way that makes sense to members? Many associations are falling behind in this regard.

Lowell Aplebaum, FASAE, CAE, CPF
CEO & Strategy Catalyst
Vista Cova

I think there are three key areas where associations need to focus:

  1. Strategy: The past 18 months has served to confirm the emerging truth of this century – we live in a world of ever-faster change. Strategy is still needed to guide an organizations mission-focused decision, investments, actions, and culture, but it must not limit an organization’s ability to adapt to disruption and opportunity. Instead, a strategic ‘plan’ should be a vision, direction, and central goals that can serve as a mission-nexus, through which
    a. The organization can build an action plan that can shift with factors of change without losing the tie to what those actions are trying to achieve
    b. Organization partners – from committees to components to allied organizations – can map how their own work can advance the goals and mission
  2. Governance: As we emerge from a period of crisis response and forced innovation, many organizations will take a fresh look at their leadership structure and culture. A key factor in considerations of diversity & inclusivity is access and inclusion in leadership. Governance structures where leaders are chosen by nepotism and who-knows-who will continue to shift to competency-based leadership tied into the strategic needs of the organization balanced by diverse representation. This will provide a greater transparency to those within leadership and a greater membership on how leadership is sought and chosen.
  3. Definition of Member – Our member-based organizations have traditionally been structured around a singular definition of who is a member – those who pay dues. Crises at the start of this decade has opened the door to opportunity for associations – where many have been able to be a broader voice and resource for an industry while navigating crisis. This has translated to once- or never- members that have come back out of need. Associations that recognize that there is a path to belonging before one feels that they belong, that membership is not just a budget line but also a differentiated community, and that the definition of member doesn’t need to be singular will see growing and vibrant cohorts of supporters, customers, advocates, and champions.

Find all the questions we asked and meet our panelists.

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