Jenny Nelson is director, content and knowledge resources, at ASAE.
Associations are well-positioned to wrestle with challenges and explore solutions for their industries or professions—or for society more broadly. A recent ASAE Research Foundation study provides recommendations from members on how associations can advance such transformative thinking.
But members don’t always see their associations as the home for transformative efforts. A series of interviews completed by Westat for the ASAE Research Foundation Impact Every Day initiative found that thought leaders from diverse industries did not identify associations as hubs for transformative thinking, though they thought associations could and should fuel such exploration—with members at the center of that work.
The leaders interviewed for Impact Every Day—who came from business, education, healthcare, government and politics, and other fields—did not agree on a single definition of transformative thinking. They frequently defined it in relation to current problems of their field and the ways in which their association mobilized or supported members to address these problems. According to one interviewee, an association training program fostered transformative thinking by allowing attendees to “to share what’s worked and what’s not and … lessons learned [from peers]” around a shared challenge.
A smaller subset had a more forward-thinking definition of transformative thinking, involving preparation for challenges in the future. According to one interviewee in this group, transformative thinking requires considering “where it is we think things are going …, what the world would look like 10 years from now, and what do we think our relevance to that world 10 years from now will be?”
Both lines of thought suggest that associations can—and perhaps should—serve as hubs for deep, creative thinking that generates solutions. But, regardless of how they defined transformative thinking, most interviewees didn’t see a lot of it happening in their associations. Part of the reason, according to one, is that associations are, by nature, defensive organizations focused on protecting a specific field or industry rather than “thinking and acting expansively for advancing the common good.”
A related issue is that association staffing and budgets are often aligned to support their member-focused mission. Many associations, especially smaller ones, may not have the capacity or necessary resources to tackle initiatives that seem outside of that mission. Such organizations frequently depend on volunteers to champion transformational thinking.
But that dependence leads to a third challenge: Association members are often marketplace competitors. As one interviewee asked, “How do you get people to band together if there are going to be winners and losers in this paradigm shift? I think the talent is there in … associations to perhaps drive [collaboration], but there is a lack of motivation [among members, because] you want to keep it to yourself so you don’t lose your ‘special sauce.’”
Interviewees stressed the role of associations as conveners, curators, and education providers. As one interviewee noted, associations are primary hubs for information exchange: “I'm not really sure what … avenues other than associations support conferences and networking and allow people to come together for information exchange—other than people doing it individually on their own.”
Interviewees noted that associations already have the right structure, so the opportunity is to put transformative thinking at the center, or as one interviewee put it, “create a forum to promote this type of thinking as oppose[d] to just allowing it to happen.” This places the association in a vital role, “helping an individual not just cope but to be a contributor to the dialogue and to the pursuit of improvement,” according to another interviewee.
In fact, transformative thinking is happening at associations. The Impact Every Day case studies provide a host of examples of impactful, transformative association initiatives. Meanwhile, the pandemic has forced many staff and volunteer leaders to think about their work and their fields in a new light.
Whether leaders explore transformative thinking out of necessity or opportunity, the report offers some guidance on how to move forward:
Cultivate collaboration. Chief among recommendations from interviewees was a call for greater collaboration, especially across disciplines and industries where there are natural synergies. They suggested that collaboration should not be limited to association staff; members should also be brought together to exchange ideas and learn from others in related industries or fields.
Facilitate strategic thinking. Interviewees also suggested their associations could lead through strategic thinking—especially future-focused thinking—that engages the membership. According to one interviewee, this kind of process helps “me as a member … be prepared to address whatever [those problems are], helps us as an association play a role in bringing value to the discussion about whatever that issue is, and, in an ideal world, also brings suggestions for solutions.”
Embrace change. Though the interviews were completed before the pandemic, interviewees recommended that association leaders embrace change. They suggested that products and programs could be reimagined to better connect to and build on past programs while creating deeper meaning and value from offered experiences. But, interviewees noted, these changes must come from a real-time understanding of member needs.