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Associations Now

The Future, Here and Now

ASSOCIATIONS NOW, October 2008, Feature

By: Interview by Lisa Junker, CAE

You don’t need a time machine to see the future, but the hard part is knowing what to do with the information you have. Rohit Talwar, an expert futurist and leading participant in ASAE & The Center’s Association of the Future initiative, explains how asking the right questions and exploring current trends can help your association get ready for what’s ahead.
Summary: Will your association ask members to pay dues in five or 10 years? Will your association even exist? Futurist Rohit Talwar shares his vision of the challenges and concerns facing associations.
If you were in a tunnel, walking along a set of train tracks, would you want to know if the oncoming train was going to have its light on? For that matter, would you like to have a pair of night-vision goggles—or a map that showed you a safer route to your destination, one that didn't include the tunnel at all?

The Association of the Future project was developed by ASAE & The Center's strategic research department to give associations those night-vision goggles (or that map). Using input from stakeholders, workshops, and electronic participants, a list of 50 trends affecting the association sector emerged. These trends are profiled in detail in the book Designing Your Future. Rohit Talwar, president of Fast Future Research, says that the process used to develop Designing Your Future was "probably the most detailed process we have run in terms of consultation on the environmental scanning, and certainly the most participative and extensive scanning consultation I've ever run, or that I'm aware of anyone ever running, in terms of scale." Talwar recently sat down with Associations Now to discuss some of what he learned from the process.

Associations Now: Throughout this process, the participants told you they didn't want answers, they wanted questions. Why do you think the questions are more valuable?

Talwar: Maybe it's a self-selecting group, but the executive-level participants were very aware that the world has changed quite dramatically in recent years and most expected the pace of change to actually quicken before it slows. They recognize that there are no silver bullets now. There is no magic three-point plan or seven-step formula that is going to guarantee that if you just follow the recipe, you'll get success.

What they want so much more are the kind of questions they need to be asking themselves and their boards—deep and probing questions that force them to look at the world in different ways, enter into a zone of discomfort where the answers aren't obvious and force themselves to come up with new insights, and more appropriate and sustainable solutions for the world we heading into.

The book identifies 10 key patterns of change. Can you talk us through those patterns and the implications for associations and nonprofits?

As part of the project, we profiled 50 key trends and identified a further 100 emerging trends that could have an impact on associations over the next few years. Every pair of eyes that looked at the trends would probably pull out different patterns. We picked out 10 that we thought were of most relevance to the association community.

One of the most important patterns is around demographic shifts; we will see dramatic growth of population globally from around 6.4 billion today to 9.2 billion by 2050. We are also experiencing a dramatically changing ethnic mix of the population, particularly in Europe and the United States; for example, Hispanics could be one fourth of the U.S. population within 10 years.

The growth of population globally is creating new wealth and driving the second most important pattern—a changing economic landscape. The research highlights that China's GDP could overtake that of the United States as early as 2015 and identified that a number of emerging nations were developing stronger economies. Growth of international markets raises some key questions for associations about what their international strategy should be and whether they need one.

The third pattern of change really came out of those first two: The political agenda itself is becoming more complex. We have wars, and, potentially, new conflicts coming along. We have more actors on the global stage wanting to have a political say, so the United States' voice isn't as distinct or as loud anymore. China and India are increasingly becoming spokesnations for the developing world, and fault lines are beginning to appear as the old and new worlds collide on a range of issues from trade rules to environmental policy.

Domestically, there are complex political challenges that come from things like funding the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, an estimated $1.26 trillion bill for infrastructure improvement over the next five years, rising healthcare costs, and the subprime crisis, which is estimated to have a cost of almost a trillion dollars. The policy and spending choices governments have to make at the federal and state level are becoming more and more complex. For associations and nonprofits, we have to scan for what's coming next that could have relevance to our audience, focus on how we can help our members respond to what's coming, and explore new models and mechanisms to be effective in lobbying going forward.

These big patterns of change are in turn feeding into the fourth pattern, an expanding business agenda. The United States has slipped to ninth in The Economist's competitiveness rankings, and U.S. businesses can no longer assume leadership in every sector. At the same time, the pressure is on business to put an increasing focus on work-life balance and pay much closer attention to our broader responsibility—the triple bottom line of profit, people, and the planet.

The fifth and related pattern recognizes that science and technology are becoming increasingly critical to innovation in business products and processes. Fields like nanotechnology, green technology, and biotechnology all hold the promise of becoming trillion-dollar sectors. For associations, this raises questions about what our role should be in helping to identify and evaluate both the state-of-the-art and emerging developments in science and technology that could affect our members.

A sixth pattern is around people and the recognition that we've reached a generational crossroads. With longer lifespans, increased ethnic diversity, baby boomers working past retirement, and millennials entering the workforce, workplaces are changing radically. The question for associations is, how can we help organizations and individuals address the challenges of working in increasingly diverse environments encompassing four generations with all the different preferences they have?

There's also a talent challenge, which is our seventh pattern. With up to 70 percent of the valuation of public companies being based on their talent pool and intellectual property, there is growing concern over the gap between demand and supply in almost every sector. The retirement of the baby boomer generation is taking 70 to 95 million people out of the workforce. The millennial generation is coming in already, bringing about 40 million into the workforce. So, there are talent shortages there. At the same time, nearly 60 percent of people in manufacturing industry say they are not happy with the quality of K-12 education. At the top end of the spectrum, we're not finding fast enough ways to develop the new skills required for business to stay competitive. So, there's a real opportunity for associations around education—particularly bringing in accelerated learning programs for both basic- and advanced-level training.

Delivering more online must be part of the solution, because more and more people want online delivery. The challenge is, how we ensure our members are willing to go online, and how should we start taking our own content online and creating effective online learning solutions?

The rise of the global internet is the eighth pattern of change—with estimates of 1.5 billion total users and 400 million social network members by the end of 2008, the web has to become a central tool for associations to reach and serve members. One of the biggest challenges here is the cost of staying up to date with the technology and the choice of whether to build in-house or use third-party applications.

The ninth pattern reflects one of the biggest challenges. Society itself is in a period of major transition with many inherent conflicts and contradictions becoming apparent. On the one hand, we have people becoming increasingly interested in ethics, responsibility, and transparency, and we have the highest-ever level of volunteering amongst young people. On the other hand we have the lowest level of trust in government around the world for some time. For associations it raises questions about how we build a trusted brand, whether we should support particular social causes, and what role we should play in helping members facing financial difficulty.

All of the other nine patterns feed into the tenth pattern, possibly the most important long term—the challenge of managing natural resources and reducing our environmental footprint. We know that current consumption rates are already exceeding the planet's capacity; if the developing world wanted to consume at the same rate as California, we'd need eight planets. Energy demand is far exceeding our ability to supply it and could grow almost 60 percent globally by 2030. So we know we're running into a number of resource barriers that are forcing us to rethink our whole environmental approach. This creates opportunities for associations, firstly, to drive down their own footprint; secondly, to identify models of best practice within their industry and share them; and third, to take a leadership position in getting the industry to set best practice standards to implement locally.

Among the 50 trends, were there any that really surprised you or that you found counterintuitive?

I guess the one that surprised me most was that, while North America is growing quite dramatically, the vast bulk of that is expected to come through immigration. I didn't realize quite how big the immigrant component of that population growth was likely to be. The demographic, ethnic, religious and social mix of America is going to be very different in 10 years' time, with some suggesting the white population could be in the minority within 20 to 30 years.

Another factor that stood out was that dealing with some of these issues is not going to be easy for a lot of associations. Partly, their board structures and focus can actually prevent long-term thinking and new strategic developments. Also, even when they do take bold moves, events can turn on them quite rapidly. For example, if you take international strategy, a month ago [at the time of the interview] no one would have criticized an association for starting to look at expanding into Russia. It's a growing market, with huge oil wealth, high general levels of education, and a need to professionalize sectors that have been left behind.

A few weeks later, Russia has invaded Georgia, generals are being wheeled out to deliver Soviet-era style, saber-rattling speeches to the West, and we're now talking about a heightened potential for nuclear conflict. As an association executive, it's pretty hard to manage an agenda when it's changing so fast. What that means is that you can't just have a plan A. You've got to be prepared for a range of different scenarios, think about what your strategy would be under each scenario, and make sure you can still deliver to your members whatever it is you're going to do for them effectively under each scenario—which may include a scaling back of plans.

Based on the information you got through this process, do you have any thoughts on what the association of the future is going to look like?

I think there will be a full spectrum of different models encompassing what we have today, ideas that are starting to emerge, and totally new concepts that have yet to be seen anywhere. I think we will see dramatic growth in virtual associations, where the members come together via the web and all service delivery is done electronically; there may be nominal fees but the bulk of revenues will come from users paying for whatever they want to buy from their community. We will see publishers, conference and exhibition companies, and educational firms all entering this space along with lots of new start-ups—both for profit and not for profit.

At the other end of the spectrum we'll continue to see the "guild style" specialist professional and trade associations where entry criteria are tough and members place a great value upon the service and education they receive and the research undertaken on their behalf. It is on the points of the spectrum in between these two extremes where some of the most interesting hybrid developments could emerge.

I think we'll also find a lot more small specialist associations emerging, run almost on a no-fee basis by interested groups in very specific niche areas, whose members want to use each other largely as self-help networks. Then, I think you're still going to have the big, corporation-type associations such as IEEE and PMI, which have key industry standard setting and accreditation roles, and which have a globally recognized branding of their content, training, and qualifications. They're going to have to evolve as well, but they'll still exist because they're so big and there's so much desire around the world to have this common certification.

I think a lot more associations are going to be challenged around membership fees and how they spend them, and more and more may be moving to a very low-cost fee model. Because if the bulk of your revenues are coming from nondues, then why restrict the number of people you can sell to? Why not have a much bigger membership who are willing to buy those other products and services?

The book is designed to be a call to action. We see leaders using it to ask tough questions about what we do, how we do it, and about every aspect of how we run the organization and testing the answers against the trends to say, "Is what we are doing right? Is it appropriate?" It also means looking at our current plans and plans for the future and saying, "How well do they stack up against these trends?" We see leaders using Designing Your Future to create a powerful call to action among their staff, members, volunteers, and the board and to encourage them to start to think about what we need to do to make sure we have a vibrant association to serve the needs of our current and future members, not just today and tomorrow, but in five and 10 years' time.

Rohit Talwar is CEO of Fast Future Research. Designing Your Future is available through ASAE & The Center's bookstore at Updates on the Association of the Future initiative are available at online via ASAE & The Center's Strategic Research department. Email:

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