When Associations Overlap: Defining an Identity in a Crowded Market

One Red Cube January 10, 2018

As new professions emerge and member-serving organizations diversify, associations are increasingly competing for members. Research from the ASAE Foundation can help associations find their place in the crowd.

New professions are continuously forming, specialization within professions is increasing, and cross-functional or cross-industry skill sets are in demand. These developments are creating a growing overlap in professional associations’ potential markets, educational programs, and networks.

What can associations do to differentiate themselves? Monitoring these developments can help association leaders decide how best to appeal to potential new members or collaborate with related organizations.

The ASAE Foundation’s Practice to Profession study connects the rise of professionalization to the rise in the number of associations and to the choices association leaders must make as their organizations form and grow. The research found that associations with a clear core mission may be better equipped to respond to professionalization trends. By clearly establishing which functions the organization will carry out in pursuit of its core mission, association leaders can avoid confusing and potentially alienating members and stakeholders and overextending available resources—missteps that could drive target members to competing associations.

The Practice to Profession research defines and discusses each of the common functions of associations: education and professional development, knowledge creation and dissemination, advocacy and promotion, and member support and networking. Some associations may conduct all of these functions for the professions they represent, while others may offer a narrower focus—and their focus may change. An association that forms with a focus on education, for example, might identify a need for a credential and then become a credentialing body.

Additionally, many member-serving organizations are undertaking new functions. Professional associations are adopting mixed organizational and individual memberships, and many trade associations are becoming involved in activities like standard setting, accreditation, education, and certification. Understanding which associations are operating in the same space and which functions they perform can help to identify potential overlaps or gaps. 

Functional overlap can increase competition among associations for members from emerging, growing, and transitioning professions. However, there may also be opportunities for associations to broaden their reach through collaborations with complementary organizations. In forming innovative partnerships, associations could reach more professionals in broader or related fields. Rather than trying to cast the widest net possible, association leaders may look for chances to partner with organizations that offer complementary services.   

No single model guarantees success. Decisions about which activities to engage in and which products and services to offer are made within the unique context of each association and profession. Leaders can benefit from examining how the functions they perform serve their professional market, how emerging professions might affect the field their organization serves, and how other associations are responding. This knowledge may reveal opportunities to deliver services in creative ways.