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(June 12, 2006) In order to function effectively, all Associations have the following major functions:
The degree to which the functions are formally recognized is usually a function of size. When you are looking at a branch/chapter level operation with 20 people actively involved, it's hard to identify the changing roles. The hyper-large associations with hundreds of thousands of members have lots of people executing these roles.
Essentially, an association leverages the power of its membership and returns that benefit to those members. In order to function effectively, the team at the association's heart must take membership dues (and other revenue) and return value to the members in a like amount. If the association does not return enough value, it begins to fail. There are no cases we've been able to unearth in which an association is delivering too much value to its members.
This means that associations are always fighting a losing battle to create membership value. You might remember The Myth of Sisyphus.
Operating a professional or trade association has a number of sisyphusian characteristics. At each step of the organization's evolution, the core staff must deliver more novelty and interesting experiences in order to convey additional value. Each year, the cycle begins anew. The largest risk in the association business is that the enterprise will lose its relevance while navigating the hamster wheel of ongoing operations.
The penalty for failure is mediocrity. The reward for success is rarely excellence. It's more like "a little bit better than mediocrity". It's a very tough grind.
These days, associations are under pressure from technology itself. The fundamental premise of an association's existence is that it can collect and distribute information faster and better than its members. This is no longer necessarily true.
Before there were email lists, blogs, instant messaging, webex, webinars, powerpoints, adobe acrobat, web pages and podcasts, associations were able to exploit the difficulties inherent in human networks. Periodicals, conferences and seminars used to be the only way to transmit technical (or subject matter specific) information and provide networking opportunities. The new communications tools stand that foundation on its head.
In today's rapid communications environment, associations can be caught in a death spiral. Their traditional roles are under assault. The new competition is not alternative organizations, it's better ways of doing things. The real question is whether associations can continue to provide value in the 21st Century.
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