Ask the Hard Questions – Advice for Associations to Succeed in 2020



Association management’s strategic planning is very different than that of traditional corporation. A business may be directed by a CEO, or a board, that often has a singular driving force behind its goal: profit. However, the world of associations must walk a unique tight rope: keeping in mind the needs of the industry and those of their members while responding to the focus of the current board and the potential for what will happen under future leadership. Ideally, the mission is the guiding light, but even missions can be fulfilled by a variety of paths – which is why there are many competing interests at any given time and one budget to do it all! What is an association to do?
It makes sense that an association will pick a lane and stick to it. They select the perceived best path to success that checks off the most items of interest and keep their focus there until further notice. Of course, a strong association will still have other things at play such as regular events, maintaining member benefits, producing publications, or legislation. However, the priority will always be the problem they have chosen to solve. How an association gets to this point is clear, even understandable – yet when an association stays there that is a choice and maybe not a good one.
I would like to challenge associations to ask the hard questions in 2020. To look in the shadows, under the rocks, and in the corners of the filing cabinets and pull what they find out into the light. Let’s say you have chosen to focus as much time, energy, and resources to a new certification program. Thus, when someone brings up a concern regarding the membership structure the response is “SHHHHH – that isn’t for right now.” I would like to argue there is still value in noting the struggle. Chances are if you all are aware of that membership hiccup, others are too.
The first benefit of bringing any potential problem forward is that you and your team are aware of it. It would be way worse for a member to be the one to share the news of what is not working. By acknowledging any areas of concern the surrounding sting can be removed. Being open to these realities the association moves out of a place of being worried, and even defensive, to one of awareness and a solution orientated mindset.
Secondly, when an association chooses to face their struggles by acknowledging and cataloguing them, they have concrete examples when it is time to choose another area of focus. This will help deter from choosing the newest most exciting trend, or to the area of concern that happens to be the loudest at that moment. Instead, the organization can collectively look at what they have experienced and make a decision that will best support the mission.
However, there is one more opportunity that exists within this mindset – maybe you don’t have to wait to fix it. If an executive and their team decide to keep a running list of areas for improvement and they also opted to review the list together regularly? A quarterly or monthly review of the issues, how they have evolved, or what is being added – they could also see little tweaks that are available to aid in addressing these concerns throughout the year. Yes, when you are in the middle of certification launch, restructuring membership may never be a possibility – but what about running a membership special that month to test a new approach to membership? That could provide the data you would need when you are ready to tackle a new membership structure.
When a problem is initially discovered it may see big, disastrous, and impossible to solve a simple solution may come to mind if given some time, or the opportunity, to revisit it throughout the year. Solutions that are never going to be a possibility if that problem stays hidden in a closet. Make 2020 the year you ask the hard questions!
You might be surprised how many of them get answers too!


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