Association Renaissance Counting on New Business Model

Author: Don Neal       

Don Neal

“Associations haven’t evolved enough to meet societal shifts in how people — and communities — interact,” writes Don Neal.

Don Neal

Don Neal

The way associations work hasn’t changed all that much in the past 100 years. The business model was rooted in an era when conditions were far different than they are today and needs to be reimagined. Here’s how:

Cost structure

Retailers like Costco and Amazon Prime, at their core, are membership organizations. Amazon Prime members get a personal concierge, same-day shipping, streaming music, and access to video, discounts, and other benefits for a modest membership fee, but with enormously high value and à la carte options. Using a similar model for associations, membership dues would be based on levels of involvement — a full membership might be set at one price, while more tailored packages, based on the interests of the individual member, might carry a different fee, and/or people could pay for the benefits or programs they want on an à la carte basis. Taking this approach will force associations to hone their product offerings to attract more members.


A primary draw for associations has been that they bring together people with similar backgrounds, goals, and career aspirations. That power of the collective can be a force to solve problems and make the world a better place. However, associations haven’t evolved enough to meet societal shifts in how people — and communities — interact, particularly younger generations.

There’s an enormous amount of demand on people’s time and attention, making attending a week-long annual meeting a luxury. The trend toward shorter, higher impact, and more inspirational live events and annual meetings is the new normal.

Plus, digital technologies have changed the way all people connect in online communities including Facebook, Instagram, and video game platforms. The basic human need for belonging is being met in other ways today. Associations must determine how to leverage their strength as conveners and create an effective digital substitute for people to engage, interact, and belong.

New generation of workers

There’s an opportunity for associations to fill a void left by the changing nature of corporate America. Companies used to hire for life, and provide opportunities for education, networking, and growth. That’s been gradually changing over the past 20 years — the new generation of workers may work for as many as 15 different companies over the course of their careers. Add to that shift the relatively new phenomenon of the gig economy, fueled by growing numbers of freelance contract workers, and those working in the sharing economy. According to Forbes, about half of U.S. workers will be part of the gig economy by 2027.

This presents a great opportunity for associations. If you’re a gig worker or you’re going to have multiple jobs in your life, having a central relationship with a professional society or industry association could be a lifeline. Associations need to do a better job of catering to those individuals and telling the story that they “can be an association for life.”

Ultimately, people turn to associations for three things: significance, connection, and growth. They want to be part of something bigger, they want to network with their peers, and they want to advance in their careers. Every association’s leaders and board members should look at how they are delivering on those three things to their constituents — not as custodians of the traditional association model, but rather, thinking deeply about how to influence the future of their profession and the membership they’ve been charged to serve.

Don Neal is founder and CEO of marketing, strategy, and experience agency 360 Live Media.

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