An association president said, “we will never again be so unprepared as we were when the pandemic hit. Our newly formed strategic plan has a new goal named, ‘Well-Honed Association,’ dedicated to being as prepared as possible for any future disruption to our association. At the root of our plan are strategies and performance measures identifying the top areas of preparation.”

In a previous article, the “Elements of a recovery plan,” we talked about role-model leaders. In speaking to this association president, he took his role seriously.

“Role-model leaders recognize the need for transformational change when warranted and then lead the effort through to full fruition. They demonstrate authenticity, admit to missteps, and demonstrate accountability for the organization’s actions.” — Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award

The following are the top ten signs of a well-honed association that require strong role-model leadership.

1. Technology Investment: Invest in technology in the association as it is the No. 1 delivery mechanism for the organization’s programs, benefits, and services. Most associations are underinvested in technology. In an article in The Wall Street Journal, the average IT spend is 3.28% with education and nonprofits dedicating 5.77% of their overall budget to IT spend.

How does your IT measure up and does it line up with the digital transformation that is currently needed or expected? Expect to ramp up investment in this area to provide value and relevance to members.

2. Reserve Building and Utilization: Build a savings’ reserve in case a crisis occurs or an opportunity presents itself. Fifty percent of operating expenses is the rule of thumb. Use the reserves by investing in both established strong and new programs. Eliminate programs that are not providing a high level of impact or value to members.

3. Board Competency: Nimbleness has always been the key to successful organizations. Examine the board and consider downsizing for efficiency while also looking for competencies that are needed right now as they relate to change management. Employ virtual tools to conduct business more frequently and efficiently. Continuously bring data to board meetings to make critical value decisions.

4. Strategic Plan Development & Deployment: This is not the time to say, “we can’t afford to expend the resources and budget to develop a strategic plan.” This IS the time to say, “we can’t afford not to plan!”

Given the uncharted waters ahead, a plan will establish critical guideposts for success in the short and long term and allow the organization to pivot if it is not meeting key performance measures. Without a plan, there is no vision and without a vision there is no organization.

5. Value Creation: Don’t wait until dues renewal time to demonstrate value. By then, it is too late and you have already lost members. Value is demonstrated through listening (focus groups, surveys, one-on-one conversations, etc.) and deploying resources that will help right now, and not six months from now.

Immediate gratification can be had through a virtual town hall meeting, small group problem solving, the collection and dissemination of data, and many other ways. The key is to show the organization is present, active, and prepared for whatever may come its way.

6. Sponsorship Leverage: Sponsorship Opportunities should be transformed to Support Opportunities. There are so many ways to help sponsors provide valuable support to members. Allow them to share best practices, develop targeted webinars, roll out support programs, and other opportunities. Ask sponsors how they would like to be involved in a support and recovery effort.

7. Competition Identification & Mitigation: Competition is fiercer than ever. As we all know, associations face competition whether it be for time or limited dollars. Now, more than ever, knowing the competition is important as this is the time when market share is at its highest risk.

Change and uncertainty breed new competition that is focused on capturing the organization’s members. That is why understanding and delivering value is so critical to retention and mitigating this risk.

8. Balanced Events: Develop a balanced portfolio approach to events. Grow revenue streams for live events along with hybrid (live and virtual) and virtual. The biggest mistake is to think virtual events are free. If value is delivered, then value should be paid for regardless of the format. The value of convenience is very important given travel restrictions and social distancing.

9. Market Research and Integration: Associations should be the source of information for their respective industry or profession. Collect and aggregate data that can be shared during the recovery and beyond. Informing members, industry partners, the government, and other stakeholders is what a leading organization does. Monitoring trends and integrating them into strategies is what a well-honed association can do.

10. Innovation Focus: In a Forbes article, “Why Innovation is Crucial to Your Organization’s Long-Term Success,” there is an important message:

When a company has an innovative culture, it'll grow easily, despite the fact that the creative process isn't always simple. Tried-and-tested methods may be reliable, but trying out new things is a worthwhile experiment.

The key message is, “tried-and-tested methods may be reliable, but trying out new things is a worthwhile experiment.”

Think about the association’s programs, services, and benefits and how long they have been around.

Have they been on autopilot for three, five, 10, or more years? Are they getting stale? If we listen to our members, what innovations are they looking for that they don’t even know they need? How does the association find and deliver them and the associated value?


In looking up “well-honed” synonyms, the following words rose to the top:

Discriminating, quick, shrewd, wise, brilliant, clever, and sharp.

If we think about an association, how can we be more brilliant than ever and identify opportunities to help the industry or profession grow? How can we be shrewd with our reserves and develop programs and services that are enduring and transformative?

Finally, how can the association be quick and wise in its decision-making so that it doesn’t get bogged down in politics but is allowed to run at warp speed? These are the questions to ask as board and professional staff leaders. Making change happen is hard, but when it happens, it is truly transformational.