Associations nearly always begin with an idea. Soon after, passionate volunteers step forward to develop a mission. The new organization grows from infancy to adolescence by adding structure and resources.

As it matures, an association relies on leadership, members, strategy and resources. Each aspect must be sustainable in order to survive.

In business, sustainability is defined as an ability to maintain or support an activity or process over the long term. This may lead people to think only of finances. For instance, do we have enough money to survive? Will our income support our growth and member service?

However, the term has broader impact in an association, affecting resources, governance, membership and strategy.

Sustainable governance

Every nonprofit requires leadership. As an organization matures, it must maintain a supply of dedicated volunteers to serve on a board of directors and committees. When the newness of the association wears off, will volunteers be available to lead and contribute time and resources?

Associations create programs to identify, encourage and engage future leaders. Finding the right people who share a passion for the mission can be a challenge. Sustainability requires consideration of tapping future leaders, as well as ensuring the work of the association is carried on and organizational values are respected.

Term limits are recommended, encouraging leaders to step down to allow new directors to serve. Staggered terms promote stability.

Policies and principles must be established and institutionalized. Training and orientation promote consistency as leaders transition.

Establish a young or emerging leaders' council to sustain governance. Ask experienced leaders to mentor new volunteers to facilitate knowledge transfer.

Strategic thinking

A strategic plan is a multiyear road map to guide the board, committees and staff. It offers the best ways to advance the mission and maintain a long-term perspective.

Seldom does an organization benefit by officers or a board members who have a short-term focus. A good board should be able to think beyond their term of office.

The plan promotes sustainability over a three- to five-year period. Without a plan, the organization may succumb to the interests of the current officers. Meetings begin to focus on tasks rather than long-range outcomes.

Elements of a strategic plan include a mission and vision to communicate purpose and intended results. Goals are identified and aligned with available resources.

Strategies are set to promote progress over several years, keeping efforts on course. To improve outcomes, performance measures are identified and tracked, often through visual dashboards.

The strategic plan communicates to future leaders and members the priorities of the association. It should answer the question for stakeholders, "Why belong?"

The board leads the planning process to create the document. Committees and staff provide the most efficient and effective methods to advance the plan.

Financial sustainability

As an association grows, its income must keep pace to cover costs. At the start it relies primarily on member dues and gifts.

Strength comes with diversification of revenue, expanding beyond dues to reliable streams resulting from events and education, sponsors and advertisers, gifts and grants. A healthy budget will reflect a balance of dues and nondues.

Savings should be another consideration. The association wants to build assets in the form of saving or investments in an office building. Many organizations work toward maintaining assets equaling 50 percent of the annual budget.

Another concern is the oversight of resources, a responsibility of the board of directors. Policies should exist to safeguard finances. And directors should expect consistent reporting and audit mechanisms.

Membership strength

Sustaining membership is another consideration. Will the purpose, programs and services be strong enough to draw the interest of prospects, convert them to dedicated members, and maintain a renewal rate of at least 90 percent?

The association wants to identify its population of prospective members and strategically reach out to them. A goal would be to have at least 50 percent or higher of the prospects join as members.

Programs must be developed and maintained that deliver significant and unique value. Associations face competition in many forms — thus communicating value is critical to stay relevant. Consider an online member-value ROI calculator or maintain a benefits value statement.

To sustain membership, organizations are looking at new models. For example, establishing tiered membership to invite new members in at lower fees, then upgrading them to access additional benefits.

Other organizations are viewing members as "customers" and inviting them to "invest" in the organization. The association hones benefits and services to appeal to nonmembers but at substantially higher fees.

An organization with a "golden handcuff" is more likely to attract and retain members. A golden handcuff is a benefit of significant value whereas nonmembers are at a disadvantage without access through the association. Examples include certification programs and access to exclusive industry forecasts.

In summary, sustainability is a platform for a long-term healthy organization. Boards and staff should keep the concept in mind during discussions and decision-making.