There is no crystal ball to predict the future of associations. Abraham Lincoln described it this way, "The best way to predict the future is to create it."

An elective at the Institute for Organization Management is "Associations of the Future." The program is sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

A group of executives shared their perspectives and innovative practices to remain relevant.

Governance and Efficiency

Associations often appoint a task force to evaluate governance, with a focus on bylaws, board composition and meeting frequency.

Expand the charge by adding "efficiency." Have the task force delve into inefficiencies associated with governance practices.

Intellectual Property

Protect the original works and content of the association with copyright, watermarks and footers. Increase assets through IP — don’t give it away or let others take credit.

Committee Flexibility

The bylaws prescribe committees. Consider being more flexible. Appoint only the committees you need when you need them.

Adjust their purpose statements to meet current year initiatives. Eliminate or merge unnecessary committees. Employ short-term task forces and quick action teams.

Golden Handcuffs

A benefit so valuable and exclusively offered by the association is a golden handcuff. Not all handcuffs are tangible.

One organization created a 501(c)(3) with a purpose of convening and driving community diversity discussions. Whereas the advocacy issues of the organization might conflict with the diversity discussion, the subsidiary foundation brings together the broadest number of parties to champion diversity.

Use the resources, expertise and member concerns to develop a golden handcuff.

Restate Networking

When it comes to networking, reposition it as "Connections and Opportunities." Members want meaningful facilitated connections that result in access to opportunities and success.

Vital Signs

Monitor the vital signs in the association. Most associations report on finances and membership.

Suggest new metrics such as the amount of revenue generated per member. Present the information as dashboards to help the board identify trends.

Board Alumni

When directors finish their board terms, they usually take a breather from volunteering. Offer them roles that interest and engage them.

If you have a 501(c)(3) foundation, position them on that board for special projects and fundraising. Don’t let them slip away.

Umbrella Organization

An association can serve as an umbrella to bring allied organizations under one roof.

After accounting and legal advice consider the right structure, such as creation of a for-profit management company. A nice example is the Global Cold Chain Alliance, which serves four entities.

Outside the Borders

Is the association limited by borders? Could a partnership be built with a neighboring organization for shared services?

Does the board create content and benefits that can be licensed to the other 49 state associations? Are national associations expanding global relations?

The Name

Say association and the receiver hears, "Pay dues, volunteer time." Transform image with a name change that might replace the word "association" with partnership, council, institute or alliance.


In general it might be said not all ethnicities are joiners. They may prefer to connect within their own culture (only) or not trust long established associations.

Be cognizant of cultural differences to be more inclusive. For example, if a culture of potential members prefers to do everything with their families, and the association has moved away from a family-friendly concept, re-evaluate how to accommodate differences such as family, foods, practices, etc.


One association identified more than 500 tasks for which the staff was responsible for managing. They performed purposeful abandonment to improve focus and value.

Evaluate every activity for return on investment (ROI) and alignment with mission and goals. The results should be a calibration of programs.

Determine Value

Members want to know about the return on investment compared to cost of dues. Determine ROI by identifying all programs and services and assign a value.

A nice example of an online benefits calculator is offered at the Florida Nursery and Landscape Growers Association.

Membership Ambassadors

Improve membership retention (exceed 90 percent for sustainability) by creating a network of ambassadors.

Identify motivated, knowledgeable persons who enjoy serving as designated links between a group of members and the association. Undertake intensive ambassador training to ensure they understand responsibilities.

Maintaining strength and relevance for the next decade is a focus of every association.