As part of our Membership Matters week, we invited Seth Kahan, author, change agent and founder of Association Transformation, to comment on his experience of working with societies and the different business and membership models he has encountered.
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In my work with over 100 association executive directors I have come across three different types of societies. They build on each other, and so represent an evolutionary scale. The first is built on an old-school business model and needs to be updated to one of the other two to remain relevant and vibrant in today's market. Here they are:
These are the societies whose primary focus is getting a good deal for their members. Their leaders, volunteer and staff, are always on the lookout for products and services their members will pay for. The transactional model has generated everything from the latest, greatest analysis of pertinent policy dispensed in real time to the discount buyer’s club.
As a metaphor, consider a retail outlet, always looking for products to sell that will serve its market. Occasionally a loss-leader is used because it appeals to customers, but on the whole the driving force is gross profit, which is what keeps it alive.
When it comes to volunteer leadership the transaction is this: those members that spend years building their social network inside your organization demand a place at the board as a reflection of their commitment. This worked years ago, but today it undercuts the excellence of your leadership pipeline.
These societies focus on knowledge as a unique differentiator. Leaders of these associations have figured out they can mine the expertise, know-how, and experience of their members, and they can grow it. They have learned to develop the kind of proprietary, unique value that only subject matter experts, thought leaders, policy makers, and influencers can cook up together. They have core expertise, bringing players together in a variety of venues and stimulating the best possible thinking, discussion, agreement, and action.
As a comparison, think of the Brookings Institution, a world-class thinktank. To thrive in the competitive knowledge market, leaders assume an active role in the development of knowledge in their area of expertise. This means going beyond collecting and coordinating; they are expert in listening and responding, catalyzing and growing, analyzing and communicating, convening and asking the tough questions that open up new value in the field.
Generative organizations successfully grow the future by stimulating innovation and doing the due diligence required to ensure value generation. When you activate generative capacity, you see the future before it emerges. You can even speed up its arrival, serving as a treasured catalyst to your members.
These organizations leverage member knowledge for a seat at other tables. Leaders of these societies actively break down barriers and form partnerships with other major players who can create ever greater and more authentic value. They see their members as agents in a much larger living system that depends on many others who will never join for a wide variety of reasons, but nonetheless play a critical role in amplifying growth.
Scalable impact means taking accountability for becoming a positive force in the world. When this happens, other players invest in the success of the association with their expertise, money, and energy because your success is their success.
An analogy is the World Bank. It could not be effective in 188 countries operating in every major sector simultaneously unless it partnered with other organizations and countries. When it does this well, its partners become invested in the success of the Bank and its programs.
Transactional, generative, scalable - these are three stages in the growth of a mission-driven organization. Each has its own culture, its own motives, and its own measures of success. Which kind of an organization is yours?
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