Foster Partnerships Within Your Industry

By: Mikel Smith Koon

Associations are uniquely positioned to give a helping hand to partnerships among their various industry stakeholders. Find out how the Association of Public Health Laboratories' Sustaining Member Program has benefited the industry and public alike.

When the H1N1 swine flu strain became a pandemic threat in 2009, buried beneath the headlines was the fact that an association-corporate partnership helped enable the immediate public health response, managing the spread of the disease. A manufacturer of diagnostic devices had been a longtime corporate member of the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL), and that relationship helped streamline distribution of the equipment needed for H1N1 detection.

Collaborations between association members and companies like this one allow both parties to achieve goals likely not possible without working together, and associations are often uniquely positioned to foster such partnerships. Through this same program at APHL, another company gained international relationships that enabled it to provide global services while helping expand the association's international reputation. Another company broke into a key market previously impossible to reach, becoming the leading provider in that market and supplying the resources necessary for association members to meet an unmet need.

As association leaders look for ways to increase marketable value with low investment, smart corporate leaders are looking for responsible ways to make a social impact while building a more sustainable business. A well-designed corporate partnership program can enable an association to provide a mutually beneficial opportunity for companies to make this kind of impact while increasing the association's own marketable value. APHL's Sustaining Member Program is a prime example.

Developing a Partnership Program

APHL is the national nonprofit organization representing governmental laboratories that monitor and detect public health threats. In 2005, APHL developed the Sustaining Member Program at the direction of Executive Director Scott Becker. Becker, an association veteran with more than 20 years in public health and 13 years leading APHL, was known for his progressive thinking in association management. Since its inception, the program has continually provided value that could not have been gained any other way to the association's members, and it has increased unrestricted funding for the association.

Restrictions on interactions between government officials and lobbyists grew in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The public health sector was affected, as restricted interactions for private industry to public officials also meant reduced opportunities for public health professionals to learn about new technologies, scientific innovation, and services that could impact the future of public health. For the private sector, it meant reduced opportunity for private companies to understand and meet the needs of the public health community.

Becker wanted his members to benefit from the knowledge they could gain from private industry and knew that APHL was in the position to facilitate and manage noncommercial interaction for the educational benefit of association members and industry professionals. He also knew that companies with an interest in public health laboratories needed a way to stay informed. Corporate leaders urged him to develop a program that would allow interaction and communication between private industry and public health laboratory professionals, and he knew that if he wanted to increase value to his members, such a program could be the solution.

When Becker first introduced the idea of the Sustaining Member Program to the APHL Board of Directors, questions arose about whether or not APHL was "selling out" by providing "access" to members. There were horror stories about associations that partnered with companies to the detriment of the association. To address this concern and structure boundaries of any relationship between APHL, its members, and corporate program participants, APHL developed a corporate protocol, guidelines articulating the boundaries of the program that would be shared with all interested companies. One critical guideline was to establish that the Sustaining Member Program would not be a sales platform for corporate participants to sell products or services to APHL members.

With the help of consulting firm Mosaik Strategies, APHL interviewed a number of interested corporate representatives to gather information on what needs could be met through this program, what value it could bring, and what price the market would bear. APHL members were also interviewed to understand what value members could get from the program.

The Sustaining Member Program was developed as a multitiered, annual member program with varying benefits at different levels. Benefits include guaranteed exhibit booth space at APHL's annual meeting, advertising in APHL publications, regular updates and news about public health, and invitations to APHL conferences and events. Sustaining Members can also participate in the Corporate Leadership Council, an annual event that brings together public health laboratory leaders and industry leaders to discuss the future of public health. This is one of the most important benefits that the Sustaining Member Program provides.

Currently, 26 companies participate in APHL's Sustaining Member Program. Since the program began, the membership fees have remained the same. But the value the association gains from the program is greater than just the revenue through membership fees collected. Sustaining Members fund portions of the annual meeting, educational training, and events. They also support a scholarship fund that APHL uses to award funding for travel to educational events for members who would not otherwise be able to attend.

The increased funding is important to APHL and its work. But just as important is the benefit APHL members experience from the interaction with Sustaining Members. Three companies that participate in the Sustaining Member Program—Life Technologies, Gen-Probe, and HDR CUH2A—provide a good illustration of the mutual benefit realized through APHL's effort to foster interaction between its laboratory members and corporate members.

Online Extra: Additional APHL Resources

Partnership 1: Slowing a Deadly Pandemic

Benefit to laboratory members: Faster response to H1N1 threat.

Benefit to corporate member: Increased industry adoption of its H1N1 detection instrument.

One of the first members of APHL's Sustaining Member Program was Life Technologies, which manufactures and sells biotechnology tools for surveillance and diagnostics. When the H1N1 virus became a pandemic threat in 2009, Life Technologies' involvement in the program enabled the public health community to immediately respond, managing the spread of the disease.

Life Technologies manufactures the Applied Biosystems 7500 Fast Dx, a $65,000 instrument approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the detection and diagnosis of influenza.

In April 2009, when a new influenza strain, H1N1, was identified in the United States and Mexico, the FDA cleared for emergency use the 7500 Fast Dx and its predecessor, the 7500 Fast, with upgrades, making the Life Technologies instruments the only FDA-approved instruments for detection of the virus. At the time, only 100 Life Technologies 7500 Fast instruments were in the field, and half of the public health laboratory community had been trained to use them. Manufacturing and distributing the machines throughout the public health laboratory system and continuing to train professionals became critical in the emergency response.

Within 24 hours of being alerted to the health emergency, Life Technologies began shipping instruments to laboratories needing additional testing capacity. By the end of the emergency response, it had placed an additional 200 instruments in the public health laboratory community, significantly increasing the capacity for testing and surveillance of the H1N1 influenza. Life Technologies did not require payment for the instruments or upgrades right away. The company worked with APHL to develop fair pricing for the instruments and the maintenance contracts covering both the old and the new instruments. "Without support from APHL through the Sustaining Member Program, we may not have been able to be there and be prepared for the rapid response to the H1N1 pandemic," says Brian Plew, head of public health at Life Technologies.

Partnership 2: Increasing STD Awareness

Benefit to laboratory members: Increased resources for STD testing in high-risk communities.

Benefit to corporate member: Increased industry adoption of its STD testing kit.

Pete Kelley, director of national accounts for Gen-Probe, encouraged APHL to develop the Sustaining Member Program to allow public-health-sector vendors to interact as partners. "We need to be in this together," Kelley says. "I've seen a lot of situations where certain missions cannot be accomplished because public health doesn't have the funding or a necessary vehicle that private industry has. If public health and private industry can work together in a partner relationship, there would be synergy to behoove both."

Gen-Probe's participation in the Sustaining Member Program helped increase its understanding of the public health market, leading to better exposure and greater usefulness of products in public health. In June 2005, Gen-Probe learned of a public health concern about chlamydia awareness, increasing the public's understanding of the disease's potential to cause infertility and the need to be tested. Together, APHL and Gen-Probe proposed the Chlamydia Awareness Campaign to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). CDC executed the campaign in colleges and universities in its largest region. Gen-Probe donated all of the testing kits. The campaign was soon expanded to charter high schools in a second CDC region. Again, Gen-Probe donated the testing kits. The campaigns have become an annual program that continues today, with Gen-Probe donating the testing kits.

The need for STD testing in certain high-risk communities—colleges, universities, high schools, juvenile detention centers, and prisons—was known, but public health resources to meet this need were scarce. Meanwhile, access to these high-risk communities was impossible for a vendor. Through APHL's Sustaining Member Program, Gen-Probe and the public health community accomplished something they did not have the resources to accomplish alone.

Partnership 3: Bringing Architectural Expertise to International Public Health

Benefit to laboratory members: Strengthened international reputation.

Benefit to corporate member: Increased experience with architectural design in challenging environments and enhanced reputation as leading experts in field.

HDR CUH2A, a major science and technology architectural firm skilled in laboratory design and builds, joined APHL's Sustaining Member Program in 2005. "Through the program we gained more focused, efficient, and robust interactions with over 50 state and territorial public health laboratory systems through one leadership organization," says Monica Bell, global director of business development and marketing.

As an APHL Sustaining Member, HDR CUH2A developed a comprehensive understanding of the public health community, its unique needs, and many constraints. In 2007, staff at the firm decided that building laboratories in third-world countries through philanthropic projects would not only support its global vision, but it would also give them new perspective and develop a different set of problem-solving and innovation skills.

The firm began seeking international philanthropic opportunities, but it had not yet developed relationships or built the foundation of trust necessary in working with organizations in third-world countries. Staff members were surprised to meet resistance from international organizations that they thought would be happy to accept the firm's donated services. APHL, on the other hand, had strong international relationships, so APHL introduced HDR CUH2A to public health leaders in CDC Tanzania, which was working with the Tanzanian government and the Abbott Fund to help improve laboratory services throughout the country by building and modernizing 23 hospital laboratories. This introduction helped launch the first project for HDR CUH2A's global volunteer organization—Design 4 Others—providing professional services for critical-need facilities in communities with limited resources.

"Fostering relationships is one of the most important, valuable benefits HDR CUH2A gets from the APHL Sustaining Member Program," Bell says. Through these relationships, the firm launched Design 4 Others, and more international philanthropic projects followed with the World Health Organization, the Mozambique Ministry of Health, and other international organizations.

Creating Successful Partnerships

Corporate participants in the APHL Sustaining Member Program agree that the program is one of the most effective corporate-association partnership programs in which they participate.

Some of the principles of success that we see in this program can be replicated by other associations to help drive their own programs.

Firm foundation. It is critical that a corporate partnership program be mission focused and built to increase member value. Association leaders must keep in mind the basic reason that the association exists—to serve its members and its mission. The process of developing any association program must be rooted in that foundation.

Ensure interest and understand needs. As in the case with APHL, a key initial step is to communicate with potentially interested companies to ensure your understanding of their interests and needs. The saying, "If you build it, they will come," is a catchy movie line, but in the real world, this principle will simply waste your resources. Before you build any program, talk with your market so you can either develop the right program or avoid lost resources in developing an unwanted one.

Member support. Get input from your members prior to developing a program. Understand their needs and concerns, and then build a program with their support. A partnership program without the support of the members will offer no value to either corporate participants or association members and is destined to fail.

Clearly articulated boundaries. Before you invite companies to participate, you must know and be able to share with them what you can and can't do together. Might a corporate participant believe its involvement in your program is an endorsement of its company or products? How should it publicly describe the relationship with your organization and members through this program? Guidelines specifying the boundaries of the relationship are necessary to protect your association and members while building positive partner relationships.

Dedicated resources. Key to running any successful program is dedicating the right resources in the right amounts. APHL assigned a long-time APHL and laboratory professional, Linette Granen, who brings both public health experience and customer-service skills, as the program's corporate relations manager. Having a dedicated manager who understands both sides of the partnership increases the value the program provides.

Leadership strength. Critical to a successful program is association leadership that understands and can articulate the value companies bring to association members and the value the members offer the companies to help foster real partnerships. Too often associations are distrustful of companies. "Often there is an adversarial relationship detrimental to both. They think that the company just wants to sell them something and get the highest price," explains Kelley of Gen-Probe. The association and program leaders must be able to articulate the mutual benefit and facilitate collaboration on both sides of the partnership to ensure success.

APHL's corporate participants have developed a better understanding of the public health laboratory community by participating in APHL's program. This improved understanding of public health leads to improved products and services these companies provide to better meet the unique needs of the members' and their constituencies.

In addition, APHL has had its own "ah-ha" moment. "Through this program, we have learned of our ability to shape the future by engaging in dialogue with partners, including the corporate sector," says APHL's Becker. More interaction with the corporate sector through the Sustaining Member Program has given APHL a better understanding of  the role technology plays in the future of public health, enabling continued improvement in the public health laboratory system. Through this learning, APHL has evolved its own mission.

Mikel Smith Koon is president of Mosaik Strategies, a consulting firm in Arlington, Virginia, that fosters social responsibility through corporate-nonprofit alliances. Article adapted from APHL Sustaining Member Program: A Study in Corporate and Member Value, with permission from APHL. Email: [email protected]