Issues To Keep Association Executives Awake At Night

Paulette Vinette, FASAE, CAE
Jack Shand, CMC, CAE 

Strategic discussions (or at 3 am, strategic musings) about the future are vital to association leadership. This article doesn’t revisit the transformational issues that others have ably addressed as potential game-changers for the sector, such as redefined membership models and customers who may prefer to buy over belong. What this article does address are specific issues that will be on the list in the next year or two as many not-for-profit leaders develop strategy. This list can be shared with your planning teams. The content is based on direct input from attendees at the 2014 CSAE conference in Niagara Falls and other sector-specific research. 

The Research Says 

A 2013 research project (Portage Group – among over 100 Canadian associations asked not-for-profit organization leaders to identify the key issues and trends they are currently addressing, and future ones they see on their agenda in the next few years. 

Where Associations Are Focused – Today’s Strategic Issues Where Associations Are Focused – Tomorrow’s Strategic Issues
  1. Non-dues revenue generation
  2. Time pressures and the impact of these on volunteers
  3. Balancing the need to generate revenue with providing value to members
  4. Adopting and implementing an effective communications strategy in a world where communications are real-time and all-the-time
  5. The growing demand by members for tangible return on investment (ROI) for their membership dollars
  1. The ability of our organization to adapt and be nimble in our rapidly evolving environment
  2. Challenges in attracting, retaining and engaging members across generations and/or in different career-stages
  3. Using the right metrics to measure progress
  4. Finding experienced, quality staff leadership to sustain our organization moving forward
  5. Board structure and practices that are in-line with the organization, its strategy and its membership

A number of attendees at the CSAE national conference in Niagara Falls were asked by the authors about the key issues that preoccupy their organizations today, and what they see at the top of their strategic planning agenda in the next 2-3 years. There are recurring themes from the 2013 research.

A number of CSAE business members in the meeting sector, and association executives who rely on meetings to deliver programming to members, also identified issues at the CSAE 2014 Conference for us that are addressed in the sidebar.

Issues To Ponder In The Night


Central to all strategic discussions in not-for-profit staff meetings and board retreats is member demand for R-O-I and calls to “show me the money”. While some organizations have good reason to be concerned about whether they’ll survive the next decade, more are determining what is value, and for whom. Strategic planning without information and research is like swimming without water. Like a good retailer, executives are determining what are their ‘loss-leaders’ (stuff to get ‘em in the door even if it costs you money) and where the enterprise will earn the biggest margins. Some of those ‘get-‘em-in-the-door’ examples shared by CSAE members included on-line communities, money for grants and scholarships, free content such as materials and resources to learn and help get a task done (handbooks, templates, publications, etc.).  So where does one figure out “value”? : A commitment to having reliable data (not relying on volunteers’ intuition).

Keep in mind that what may be perceived as high value to a customer group may be delivered at little or no cost to the association.  Blogs, social media posts and online communities don’t cost a lot of money (after set-up) if volunteer managed and staff monitored.  

Technology: Large (if not Big) Data

The discussion a few years ago was all about social media; a topic that still has prominence on the education calendar at CSAE. CSAE members consulted for this article suggested they’ve moved on from a preoccupation with social media, indeed with other “tools” that may have been seen as solutions to issues (e.g., member engagement). What preoccupies association executives today is accessing and organizing the right data. The need is to be able to have, to link, and to leverage data about members and customers. The implications are the required investment in quality research (not your average Survey Monkey poll) and the capability, in-house, to populate a database and connect all of the “intelligence” about customers so it can be used strategically with laser focus on what each customer considers relevant. There are plenty of examples in the corporate world that we see every day: Amazon (among others) reaching out with offers based on where we’ve shown prior on-line interest.  Associations have to build that capability.

Young Professionals: It’s Still About Connections 

Associations are rightly concerned about how to manage shifting demographics. The issues include practical ones: Will the leaders of tomorrow join and renew? They include strategic ones too: Is the next generation adequately equipped to lead?

There is a need for associations to seriously address succession and leadership gaps through formalized mentoring programs. It remains a key issue because few employers are doing anything meaningful about it.  As one interviewed executive commented, it is analogous to a generation unprepared for retirement: the solution won’t be found at the last minute.  It may even be a national competitiveness issue that crosses the private, public and non-profit sectors, requiring coordinated action (think ParticipACTION). 

What members suggested to us is that there is need, and there is demand, for formalized mentorship programs. While the succession topic almost guarantees predictable yawns, leadership development and connecting people remains a vital focus for associations. It is not that young professionals haven’t the ability to lead; it’s that they seek to build their experience in leading (as many current boomer CEOs were given in their 20s and 30s) and need help making those connections.

Coincidentally, at CSAE’s national conference in Niagara Falls, students and young professionals were invited to meet with “seasoned” executives/consultants for advice on career planning, marketing themselves, etc. By all accounts, the session was well received. Why? Young professionals want to get ahead as much in 2015 as the young professionals of 1985. The opportunity for us is to create networks that can help.

Jesse Brown, keynote speaker at the Trillium Summer Summit in July 2014, offered what may seem to be one solution: If associations want to engage and relate to young professionals, have 50% of your policy-makers comprised of young professionals.

Finally, let’s dispel the myth that young employees don’t want to work hard to get ahead. Some do. Some do not. The Canadian Association of Management Consultants involved a group of 20-somethings, each in a professional role (association management, big-four consulting firm, major bank, law firm) in a session with senior Boomer managers. The young professionals made clear they’ve worked hard at school, and work 12+ hour days at the office, to get ahead. They certainly are not checking Facebook from the office; they don’t think for a moment that they don’t have to earn their career progression.

Risk & Communication Management

While much exists on the Internet about how to manage risks and how to develop a crisis management strategy, what is changing is the list of risks that can catapult an organization into a crisis.  Think of key leader “dubious character” exposure (Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby – to date only tried in the court of public media, not convicted in a court of law).  How would you manage this happening to your Board Chair, staff Membership Coordinator, Vice President of Sales?  Or, could your organization be audited in this era of increased scrutiny of not-for-profit regulatory compliance (have you read the Competition Bureau’s latest Bulletin issued in September?).  Would your members presume your innocence, and how do you manage this new court of social media public opinion type of reputation risk?  Hurry and write that long list of what you and your organization and its people could be accused of, and be ready to risk/crisis manage those new angles. 

In our research among Canada’s corporate leaders some years ago, a prominent CEO observed about not-for-profits, “you can be average in some areas, but not marketing.” Brand management is part of marketing and being proactive Is simply prudent management.


Not every association or charity deals with regulators extensively but for those who do, a trend they have identified speaks to the larger issue of increased competition for organizations of all kinds.

The managers of professional associations tell us that regulatory “creep” is a real challenge. The fact is most regulators are affluent because membership (for their registrants, licensees, etc.) is mandatory. Regulators also have in many cases multiple levels of accountability, principally to the public through government (and media). They oversee business, health care, and other professionals from teachers to lawyers. As the result, regulators are very serious about their public interest mandate and to serve it they are expanding into territory that historically has been held by, or delegated to, associations. Examples include education to enter a profession or to maintain professional standing, as well as standard setting. There is a human element too: Regulators are managed by people (many are CSAE members) who want to be seen by their Boards to excel, and therefore look to expanded opportunities to grow their organization’s influence in serving the public interest.  The result is more competition from a source that has two significant advantages: the force of law and more money.

New Ways of Educating

On-line learning is not new, yet many associations are still grappling with content development, implementation and cost forecasting. Competition is also a very real: universities, colleges, private educators and other associations all want to build their market. Some universities and community colleges are looking for private sector  partnerships and have the know-how if you have the content. CSAE members are a great source of “how to do it” help too. 

At a more logistical level for meeting planners, a few people asked us at CSAE, ‘are panels passé’? An American technology conference was cancelled after an all-white male panel promotion caused upset, so some panels might be! The Internet news report stated “A media storm blew up in the tech world earlier this year {2013}, after someone questioned the lack of women on the roster at a conference and tweeted to ask the organizers why. The organizers’ response – read by many as “we’re happy with our selection process” – caused uproar, an angry Twitter mob and several articles and blog posts on the issue.

Back to the simple question:  Are panels passé?  Simple answer:  NO, but. Consider the time honoured Q & A portion.  News flash:  Participants love Q & A opportunities that follow panel presentations and/or discussions, but too often organizers fail miserably at policing opportunities to fulfill their promise of time for a Q & A.  Don’t be guilty of this, please.

Deliver or Die

The Canadian Pallet Council of Canada is closing its doors in 2015 after 38 years.  Their website states: 

This decision has been very difficult, however it reflects the changing market environment and in particular, the substantial loss of support and participation in the pallet exchange program, most recently in the form of the planned withdrawal of Sobeys and Metro. 

This death knell is authored by CSAE Trillium member Belinda Junkin CAE, President.  Not that long ago, Electro-Federation Canada (EFC) announced the closure of its Canadian Appliance Manufacturers Association (CAMA) council. Their public statement which described the news as “regrettable” stated:  “This closure is a direct result of the Washington, D.C. based Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM) opening a Canadian branch office targeted for July 1st, 2012”. One of the largest, most lucrative association trade shows a generation ago was owned by the Canadian Retail Hardware Association. The show – and the association – are gone. Members decided to do their own thing (buying groups, etc.). Read between the lines. Choices are being made (you do it yourself at renewal time) and corporations are looking for every opportunity to save money (which extends down to permission for individual employees to join their professional association or to attend a seminar).

What about Chapters that are more about gathering socially than delivering compelling value – are they soon to be declared irrelevant?  Committees:  do you still need a local convention planning committee?  One real estate association asked a couple of years ago why they can’t attract more volunteers to serve on committees. This organization kept renewing, year after year, the mandate of 10+ committees with no justification other than “we’ve always done so” (including a by-law committee that had just the year before done a major, successful overhaul of by-laws and had no more work to do). Members are asking about your organization what you should be asking of every aspect of your operation: Is this necessary?

In conclusion, what is keeping association executives awake at night?  Your answer might be found in a SWOT analysis (what are your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats).  We found it relates to knowing what your target audiences want, having the right people on your team, taking advantage of technology (everyone else is – get in the game) and be proactively prepared.  Peter Drucker said decades ago that one path to success is to do a few things very well, know your competence (and customers vote on that every day), and stick to what you do best. Old rules – new game. 

Side Bar:  Our Association Suppliers Are Feeling “The Change” Too~

Overheard at Starbucks:  I would like a Grande Chai Tea Latte, 3 Pump, Skim Milk, Lite Water, No Foam, Extra Hot

Overheard at Starwood’s Properties:  We demand chef-baked muffins made with ingredients that were sourced from labour-friendly counties and that came in recyclable packaging, and we want them just out of the oven (no more than 5 minutes before serving) with fat-free butter.

Seriously, our venue members are reporting increasingly quirky demands from association clients.  Gluten-free is mainstream; made from scratch is trending.  Association clients also want:

  • Multi-year contracts for diminishing numbers of delegates and bedrooms, with crossed-out attrition and cancellation clauses
  • More perks like free Wi-Fi, complimentary parking and other promises for reduced-size meetings with less Food & Beverage
  • “Experiences” versus food served in three courses for the same price as the lowest banquet menu selection.

Venues have increasing costs too; they deserve that we as clients have reasonable demands


We heard from one delegate that he could not sign a conference contract because the association is not located in la belle province, and that his organization must remit provincial sales tax for fees charged to delegates who are Quebec residents.  

Jack Shand, CMC, CAE, is Executive Partner, Leadership Consulting & Executive Search, for The Portage Group ( Previously Jack led three national associations as CEO before establishing his management consulting career, including at CSAE where he was president and is an honoured life award recipient. He has been a CAE® instructor and presents regularly to groups on strategy, leadership, trends and HR issues. Follow Jack on Twitter @associationhelp

Paulette Vinette, CAE, FASAE is President of which offers strategic consulting to not-for-profit organization leaders.  As a bilingual professional, she strives to do purposeful work that helps advance her client associations’ missions through business strategy, management consulting, strategic planning, and organizational development and reviews. Follow Paulette on Twitter @wwwsolutionstud 

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