Visions for the Future of Associations

Think ahead to 2030 and imagine what the association world could look like. Three association thinkers did just that, and they share their dreams of what could be. Will associations be decentralized, open sourced, or solving the world's problems? One thing's for certain: We're the ones who will decide. (Titled "Future Visions" in print version.)

Prediction can seem like a fool's game. We've all seen the funny quotes so often cited in presentations about the future—"television is a flash in the pan" or "there is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home." Who wants to be the prophet future generations will laugh at?

But dreams are different. They inspire us to work harder, reach farther, and run faster. You could even argue that association mission and vision statements are dreams put into words—not always the most inspiring words, but they do tell you what dreams that organization would like to turn into reality.

In the following pages you'll see three visions of what the association world could be like in the year 2030, each presenting a very different perspective. Are these dreams something you want to work toward? Or do you picture the future of associations in a very different way?

The Open-Source Association

By Rebecca Rolfes

Charles Handy, the famed British economist and author of The Age of Unreason, says that when he was a young executive with a major U.K.-based multinational, they mapped his career out 20 years into the future. When those 20 years had passed and he had long since left to become a self-employed consultant, he looked back on that career plan and realized that the company, the job description, and the country to which he would have been posted had all disappeared.

Things change while you concentrate on the work you have to do today. You look up 20 years later, and the world has moved out from beneath your feet.

Looking at the association of 2030 means looking at the companies of the future and how work will be done. The global economy will continue to be knowledge based—no secret there—and, according to Erick Peterson, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and head of the Seven Revolutions Initiative, "Information should be not only available to all, but also modifiable by all."

This means more and more sophisticated uses of the "read-write web," aka Web 2.0. What McKinsey's third-annual Web 2.0 Global Survey calls "networked companies" enable employees to collaborate on ideas and innovation via online tools. Importantly, such companies also link outward to vendors and customers. This kind of "co-creation" is already resulting in more of the management of innovation being delegated to outside sources.

Associations have always invited co-creation, with committees of volunteers working on standards, credentials, and so forth. And with members already reinventing the networking aspect of associations via social media, the future portends a truly open-source association.

What It Could Look Like

What is your vision of the future?
Conor McNulty and a group of colleagues in the ASAE & The Center Leadership Academy for Young Association Professionals want to find out. They'll be collecting short videos of association community members talking about their visions for the future of associations over the next several months. For information on how you can contribute, contact McNulty at [email protected].

In open-source software development, users determine uses. Input comes from many sources; development happens among peers and is then thrown open for public collaboration.

In an open-source association, developer groups would have access to online collaboration tools where they could gather all that input, come up with ideas, and then put them out for the community of members to test and determine their value.

Open-source associations will be

  • Characterized by interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary collaborations;
  • Less vertical;
  • Organized into multiple administrative models to meet the needs of a diverse array of challenges and opportunities;
  • More flexible and better able to rapidly redeploy resources when and how members need them.

If you approach the design of association products, services, and programs using the open-source model, you take the volunteer infrastructure you use now but expand it to the full industry or professional ecosystem—vendors, customers, suppliers, labor force, and so forth. You give them better, web-based tools and a secure environment in which to work—operating as a third-party platform with no stake in the outcome.

In the process, you flatten out your organization and gain the speed to market that most associations now lack. This transforms open source from a design method to a competitive advantage and clearly ups the ante.

Networked companies enjoy "more innovative products and services, more effective marketing, better access to knowledge, lower cost of doing business, and higher revenues," according to the McKinsey study. This could be the evolutionary change that associations seek.

The biggest change from an association management and governance standpoint will be cultural. To use open source, you have to be open. The developer community needs to see the fruit of its labor, and the larger membership needs to vet the process so that everyone can reap the benefits. If you control the process, it will shut itself off.

It is a vertiginous idea to take what has always been proprietary (and often closely guarded) and throw open the doors to just anyone, or even a controlled set of someones, especially if they are outside your trusted core of committed volunteers. Association development processes are laborious. It can take years for a great idea to bubble up from wherever and work its way through the maze of committees, board meetings, and budgetary approval—by which time most of the air has gone out of the original idea or the market has moved onto something else. An open-source association acknowledges that there are smart people out there, but they don't all work for you. Inviting them in expands the association in ways it will never be able to achieve through conventional means.

Rebecca Rolfes is executive vice president, association strategy, at Imagination Publishing and is executive director of Association Growth Partners in Chicago. Email: [email protected]

Associations as Engines of Change

By Ann Oliveri, CAE

Long known for what we are not—nonprofit—associations in 2030 are now known for what we are: trusted communities where leaders come to grow and learn, improvise and innovate, contribute and prosper.

Leadership is our purpose, not just the name of our governance groups.

And, by creating and sustaining mega-communities of business, government, and service-sector leaders, associations align the most influential to take on the most significant public policy issues.

In 2030, associations are engines of knowledge and learning, problem solving and innovation, social change and wealth creation.

Abandoning a quasiscientific model of education, associations are now recognized as knowledge ecologies, dynamically connecting theorists, practitioners, and clients in adaptive collaboration, continuous loops of experimentation, application, feedback, and refinement.

In 2030, tradeshows are open-source marketplaces where unmet needs and user problems are identified and resolved by prototyping innovative products and services onsite. Certification programs authenticate free-agent members' experience, credentials, and references, not just validating course completion.

Auditing business performance against accepted global environmental and social metrics is the fastest growing fee-for-service revenue source. Income streams generated by such triple-bottom-line audits offset the substantial costs of standard setting and benchmarking.

In 2030, association leaders are selected from those leading their industries and professions, the people admired and recognized for advancing responsible business practices.

By redirecting the efforts of nominating committees and changing the criteria for leadership, associations now actively seek out and groom both emerging and recognized industry and profession leaders.

Leadership development is the primary benefit of membership. Roles and recognition are earned by participation, not by member category. Nondues revenue is an oxymoron, as contributions to the body of knowledge are made in lieu of dues payments.

After 20 years of working to attract the best talent to leadership roles, associations are genuine advocates for responsible practice, continually raising the bar. Leading-edge practices differentiate members in meaningful ways to clients and customers, regulators and supply chains.

In 2030, associations serve the larger good by standing up for the interests of those their members serve.

Advocacy now means fighting for those our members serve. Associations advance the values and causes that first attracted members to their careers or enterprises and still call to the next generation.

Credited for looking beyond self-interest to the larger good, associations attract the support and interest of influential thought and market leaders. And as leaders attract leaders, membership is at record levels worldwide.

An authentic mission that matters is at the heart of the association business model. By cocreating meaningful opportunities for participation, practice leaders, social entrepreneurs, and legendary gurus eagerly compete for the most difficult assignments.

In 2030, associations align across sectors and industries to take on intractable social and environmental issues as dilemmas to be managed, not just problems to be solved.

In 2030, associations are a platform for service and community building—a learning laboratory, not a rung on a ladder.

Rather than minimizing the consequences of government rules for narrow, special interests, associations have emerged as the means to share responsibility, spanning disciplines, borders, and cultures.

Associations now fill the space between other sectors and bring us together to address the most pressing public policy issues. And because impossible dreams attract the most-fervent, single-minded support, this safe space is sustained by the energy and will of members, sponsors, allies, and gatekeepers alike.

By welcoming all stakeholders, we are working at acknowledging what divides us and finding common ground. By observing the whole, the paradox, we see the value in both sides of every polarizing argument and discover the both-and option.

In 2030, we will look back to 2010 as the year everything changed, the year associations stepped up, and the year you stepped up.

Who do you inspire? Is your mission authentic? Does anyone care? Does it tap into your members' passion and courage?

Where will you start? Will you stand up for those your members serve, fighting for a larger good? How will you seek out and acknowledge those who are advancing responsible practice and game-changing innovation?

What will be your legacy? Whether you choose to pursue universal access to education, social justice, emergency preparedness, or socially responsible practices, you can start now.

Use your power for good. Make leadership your purpose. Be more. Now.

Ann Oliveri, CAE, is a recovering association executive, now mobilizing thought leaders at Gensler, an employee-owned, global architecture firm. Email: [email protected]. For more ideas on how associations might achieve this vision, see Ann Oliveri's article "Shared Responsibility: Collective Action for a Sustainable Future" in the spring 2009 Journal of Association Leadership.

Associating Without Fear

By Conor McNulty

It's 8 a.m. on a typical workday. An association member looks at his watch and sees that he has 10 minutes before his bus arrives. It's the perfect time to do some volunteering.

By the time the bus has arrived, he's offered some edits to a proposed article and answered a technical question for a fellow professional. He's just one of thousands of volunteers involved in his association. And his association is just one of thousands benefitting from the distributed volunteer model that predominates in 2030.

A Look Back

Back in 2010, most associations used what we might call the traditional volunteer model. Volunteers applied for specific volunteer positions with specific job descriptions and specific lengths of commitment. A position on a committee or task force might last for a year; a position on the board might last three or more.

This structure gave associations the benefits of loyalty, historical knowledge, and some predictability. But the hierarchical nature of the system also made it difficult for many to contribute, to mobilize volunteers quickly, and to reach deeply into the membership ranks when buy-in was needed from a larger group.

Outside of the association sector, the world was quickly changing. The web, mobile technology, and social media redefined how individuals interact with organizations, both for profit and nonprofit. You could order a book from and have it mailed in two days or downloaded electronically within minutes. Balancing a checkbook could be done in minutes via a mobile web browser. Smartphones, Google, and rapidly evolving software made information available anywhere, anytime.

Everywhere they looked, members were taught to expect instant satisfaction and personalization from the businesses and brands they connected with, but few associations were ready to meet those expectations. The mismatch created rumbles of discontent that promised to grow over time.

The Changing Face of Volunteerism

Luckily, associations seized the opportunity to adapt to changing expectations and began to purposefully offer new options for engagement—in some cases supplementing the traditional volunteer model and in other cases replacing it altogether.

Groups of volunteers used wikis to develop books and technical standards. New members were connected to mentors through online communities. Ideas for products and services were developed through online brainstorming tools and vetted by any member with an interest in participating. Crowdsourcing allowed association publications and websites to respond quickly to members' needs and interests. Policy work and grassroots legislative efforts relied on quick and efficient communication with and mobilization of support from the general membership through a variety of platforms. Some volunteers had only a few minutes to engage, while others spent hours every week serving as the backbone of member communities.

Not every association jumped on the bandwagon, of course. Some organizations held back out of concern for the risks involved. What if someone edited that book being developed on a wiki and added inaccurate information? Could the association be sued? What if that new online community became a platform for people to say negative things about the organization? How could you put the genie back in the bottle?

Ripple Effect

For associations that did begin to update their volunteer model, the changes didn't stop there. Members who experienced personalized calls to action as volunteers expected equally personalized marketing materials. Individuals whose questions were answered quickly and directly on Twitter expected the same thing when they called or emailed their association for help. Associations struggled to decide what parts of their structure were essential to their missions and what parts should be updated in response to changing member expectations. Was it really possible to have a completely decentralized association that was also decisive and effective?

Twenty years later, no one is asking that question anymore. Instead, we're reaping the benefits of volunteers who engage with us at any time and in any capacity that works for them. All these slices of engagement add up to more than we could have dreamed of back in 2010. Associations may look very different in 2030, but the members' desire to associate remains the same. 

Conor McNulty is recruitment and retention administrator for the California Dental Association. He is a student in the inaugural class of the ASAE & The Center Leadership Academy for Young Association Professionals. Email: [email protected]

flaming web finger


Online Extra: A World Without Associations

By Lisa Junker, CAE

What if the world of 2030 didn't include associations?

Chances are, at least some associations would still survive; the very largest nonprofits would have resources to withstand whatever blows caused most associations to fade away. But let's posit a future where most associations—and the association sector as a vibrant part of U.S. society and economy—are no more. What would that look like?

Advocacy. First and perhaps foremost, the U.S. lobbying and advocacy environment would be irrevocably changed. Associations would no longer step forward as knowledge resources for legislators and regulators; they would also no longer be there to fight for or against legislation or regulations that could impact a particular profession or industry. Coalitions formerly led by associations would have to come together without association support.

Certainly U.S. citizens would still communicate with their legislators on the federal and state level. Perhaps would be a model for citizens with important issues on their minds but no association to lobby on their behalf. But such grassroots efforts, conducted by part-time advocates, might find it challenging to build relationships with legislators over the long haul in the same way full-time association lobbyists and government relations staff do today.

Education and certification. Career development and professional certification will continue to be important needs 20 years from now. In the absence of associations, for-profit companies would certainly spring into the void.

For-profit organizations would likely focus on areas where the most potential profit is to be made—continuing medical education, for example, and similar large industries and professions. Other education or certification companies might concentrate on a broad swath of smaller, related professions. Colleges and universities would also ramp up their extension programs and graduate education offerings. However, small subspecialities in larger fields or professions that are too small to offer much profit opportunity might find themselves missing the education their associations formerly provided.

Informal educational opportunities will of course exist in 2030, and we can expect them to be much richer than today. A motivated individual learner will have the opportunity to research a topic as deeply as he or she desires. But will such informal education "count" for purposes of certification, licensing, or resume building?
Smaller groups that aren't being served by for-profit education or certification companies might develop education cooperatives, to provide more formal learning opportunities than those available through individual reading and research. Such education cooperatives could focus on online learning opportunities, but could also offer local educational meetups, much like association chapters do today. Such cooperatives might also come together for national meetings—perhaps by partnering with for-profit educational meetings, or perhaps in a kind of "educational cooperative bazaar," where a number of otherwise unrelated cooperatives join together to reserve space in a convention center or hotel and run simultaneous events.

Awards and recognition programs. For-profit organizations would readily take over the oldest, most prestigious, and most profitable awards programs formerly run by associations. Awards programs without an application fee attached might simply disappear, or they might be taken over by either a dedicated group of volunteers. Some might even be taken over by a supplier company that had sponsored them in the past; where, for example, the Jane Smith Distinguished Service Award had been sponsored by XYZ Corp., the award might be taken over by the public relations department of XYZ and run as a community service.

Networking. In the absence of associations, individual professionals will step up to the plate and form their own networks, electronically. However, the leading social networking systems of 2030—whatever they will be called—will certainly have capabilities we haven't even dreamed of today.

In the absence of association meetings, future social networking companies might have more motivation to help their users facilitate in-person connections. Spontaneous meetups over lunch or coffee could even be automated, with networking systems connecting to personal calendars and noting that you and several of your connections are all in the same two-mile radius with the same block of free time.

(Or, just possibly, electronic communication will have advanced to the point where in-person meetings are considered superfluous. But that seems like a much more radical change to human nature than the other changes imagined in this article.)

What would be different in a world without associations? Would it be very different from today, or could associations vanish without a ripple? I'd love to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment below to share what you think an association-free world might look like.

Lisa Junker, CAE, IOM, is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. Email: [email protected]