By Andrea Pellegrino
When the so-called Great Recession hit a few years ago, it knocked most organizations off their feet. As the economic disaster rolled in, most organizations—for-profit and non-profit, associations and corporations, large and small, multinational and “Mom & Pop”—just tried to stay afloat. It was like treading water in a tsunami. Not going under was the only goal.
Now that the recession wave has receded a bit, most organizations are starting find their feet again. For many (but not all) associations, revenues are inching upward from recent lows. Membership is stabilizing, trade show and conference attendance and exhibit sales are incrementally improving. Many associations are breathing a sigh of relief: They have survived. They can relax now, and let the improving economy do its work. Full recovery is only two, four, six years away—at most. Right?
We don’t think so. Our ongoing research is identifying clear distinctions between associations that are growing and thriving, those that are just hanging on, and those that are still losing ground. Last time we talked about growing associations. (See: You Had Me at 100,000 Members). Now, here are some of the data emerging about the characteristics of “survivor” associations—those that are neither growing nor rapidly declining, but simply staying afloat.
Tunnel Vision: The organizations that we have spoken to that are just surviving tend to be focused on the present or immediate past, instead of the future. Vision and plans are limited to who their members are at this moment, rather than who they will be. These organizations have tunnel vision. They believe the only way forward is to continue straight along the path they are already traveling—the same path that led to crisis in the first place. Their “big picture” view is to return to some semblance of what they were before the crisis. In other words, survivor associations want to return to the past rather than imagine what they could be.
Bunker Mentality: Because survivor organizations are focused on the present, their response to continued revenue, membership, and value challenges is to cut or limit services, staff, benefits, and prices with the aim not of growing, but not losing too much ground. Most do not have anything other than vague plans and no strategies for a future beyond the next year or two. Instead, these associations are waiting in their bunkers for the economy to recover and their customers and members to somehow find their way back to the association from wherever they have been the past few years, and pick up where they left off.
Tactical, Short-Term Value Propositions: Tunnel vision and bunker mentality mean that survivor associations are focused on tactical, rather than strategic, solutions to their value proposition shortfalls. Basically, they are working very hard, with reduced resources, to get more blood from the same stones, i.e., traditional revenue streams, such as conferences, education and training, trade shows, membership dues, advertising, etc. Their tactic is to “add value” by tacking more of the same types of benefits onto current membership or conference packages.
- Partnerships in these organizations tend to be for the purpose of providing a wider variety of current benefits—webinar titles, journals, e-newsletters, etc. Rather than increase value, what these partnerships amount to is other organizations selling their products through the association, under the association’s aegis, thereby muddying the association’s brand and value proposition even further.
Limited Range of Motion: Survivor organizations in our research sample are not just being held back by tunnel vision and short-term vision. Their range of motion is limited by the very structure the association has worked so hard to maintain. We’ve found that in survivor organizations, departmental and revenue-based silos are alive and well. Individual departments may have been eliminated or downsized, but are still separate and working separately toward separate goals. In addition, archaic and unwieldy board and committee structures (one organization, with just 4000 members, had 20 committees and subcommittees!) inhibit the quick decision-making, planning, and risk-taking necessary to adapt to change or focus on the future.
While survivor associations have done extremely well to hang on in the current crisis, they are still seeing the world through the lens of the past or the immediate present, and not the future. They are focused on maintaining and recovering, rather than on growing and thriving.
Although this is understandable, the global economic tide has carried every organization—including associations—into totally new territory. The landscape has changed completely and forever. Unless survivor associations begin assessing their position and rebuilding in their new landscape, their recovery may be short-lived and threatened by every new wave of change.