Race for Relevance: A must-read book that challenges leaders to implement radical change in their association

Race for Relevance cover
Race for Relevance: 5 Radical Changes for Associations by Harrison Coever and Mary Byers, CAE
Reviewed by Paulette Vinette, CAE, FASAE

A new ASAE publication entitled Race for Relevance offers reasons and a workable guide for introducing radical changes in associations. Why? “Radical change, rather than incremental change, is necessary because the environment has changed considerably, and associations have not kept pace. There are six marketplace realities … that have irreversibly changed the playing field for membership organizations: time, value expectations, market structure, generational differences, competition and technology.” The authors Harrison Coever and Mary Byers, CAE, elaborate the consequence of each.

The book espouses five radical changes, beginning by insisting that competency-based boards consisting of five people work best, and that associations should implement one radical change at a time. It walks the reader through the best ways to overhaul governance models, including committees. It confronts the traditional roles of staff versus volunteers and then launches into a full-on attack of traditional thinking about how to provide value by rationalizing the member market, programs, services and activities. It concludes by providing advice on how to bridge the technology gap and build a new association framework for the future.

In short, the book not only challenges the reader, but offers bold actions the authors see as essential for a prosperous future, these include:

  • Sizing your board for thoughtful, effective decision making
  • Focusing on member markets you can serve well
  • Zeroing in on the products and services that reflect your mission and those you can deliver consistently and effectively.

Some of my favourite quotes:

Member mindset regarding “it is our association:”

“Do CEOs in corporate America remind each other that the corporations do not belong to them … do they need to be reminded that the stockholders own the company? . . . Do we not want our association executives to be stewards, to be passionate and committed, to run the association as if it is their own? Or do we prefer our staff to be bureaucrats who couldn’t care less about the organization because ‘it’s not theirs?’”

About focusing on core markets:

“They must increasingly recognize the power of a tightly focused menu of services . . . Don’t worry about ‘having all your eggs in one basket,’ we say focus on getting your eggs in the right basket.”

“Government advocacy efforts could be strengthened with a stronger grassroots effort with additional staff allocated to identifying, recruiting and mobilizing members.”

“The reason volunteer leaders continue to inject themselves inappropriately … it is easier to manage than to govern . . . The classic example of the charade of staff doing the committee’s work is the budget or finance committee.”

“Most associations complicate [members’ time challenge] by trying to communicate too much, resulting in lower, not higher awareness . . . More stuff does not necessarily equal more value.”

“Research suggests that the generational disconnect can be bridged and declining engagement can be reversed, but only if associations recognize the growing difference in member needs, preferences, and values and do something about it.”

The book offers valuable tools, such as:

  • Provocative questions leaders can use to get “buy in” on why and how to introduce radical changes
  • A number of matrixes to allow for critical evaluation of intended decisions
  • Case studies to better understand the benefit of the proposed radical changes.

In summary, the 152 pages of thought-provoking ways to rethink how your organization can best succeed in our changing environment can stimulate insightful discussions between staff and volunteers. That, in itself, is reason to read the book.