You’ve read them. I’ve read them. The editorials, blogs, and articles that claim the association sector, in general, is slow to change. Stymied by limited budgets. Hindered by a history of inertia.
I, for one, want to see associations succeed and prove the naysayers wrong. Associations can be relevant in a high-paced digital age and they can deliver value to their membership. Associations can stay true to their mission and purpose. The market just needs to develop an entrepreneurial spirit and find creative ways to carry its mission to the public and their membership.
Here are three quick-start ideas to help you get ahead of the curve, able to pivot a little faster, and tap your resource pool all while balancing the risk of change.
Why didn’t we try that?
Many organizations are risk adverse and slow to roll out new initiatives. After all, changes can have a major impact on an organization’s bottom line. A change could alienate members, prospects, and/or funders. There are so many hoops an association may need to jump through to implement a change, for example does it need to be approved by the board? The membership? Inertia can be an association’s biggest challenge when it comes to trying something new.
So, how can we combat that? Labs! Many innovative companies have used labs to experiment and field test concepts before committing to a full deployment. Often when someone hears the word “lab,” they think beakers, Bunsen burners, and scientists in white lab coats. Not what we’re talking about here, though I’m sure there are some associations that have these, too. Instead, we’re talking about a department responsible for running experiments, for identifying potential opportunities, and putting them through field tests. (Think Apple’s Macintosh division and 3M’s Post-It Notes.) This is how you eat an elephant one bite at a time.
Use a lab concept to experiment and validate ideas.
We don’t have the money for that …
So, you may like the lab idea. You may have had other opportunities to experiment that were stymied. You may have gone to an event like DigitalNow this year and come back with great ideas on how to improve your distance learning offerings. However, the hard reality is you don’t have the money to try any of it.
Often, nonprofits operate with very little wiggle room in their budget, trying to account for every dollar coming in and going out. So, how can you pivot, how can you experiment? Build it into your budget. I have met a few association executives who have incorporated an R&D budget. Like labs, the concept of R&D conjures up preconceived notions of widgets and for-profit engineering.
The reality is that R&D is something all organizations, for-profit or nonprofit, need to think about. If you’re not moving forward, you’re falling behind. Research is a key aspect of innovation and future success. Development is the act of creating the idea that research identifies. Note, I mentioned idea – not widget. R&D is the process by which an association can develop, validate, and deploy the next great idea in your space. It is the mechanism by which you can stay relevant. If we know these are good things, why don’t more associations have R&D budgets?
Be innovative and add R&D to your budget. Ensure you have a responsible party for that R&D budget and that any allocations are assigned to specific initiatives that have been vetted. This could be your EVP, your COO, your Deputy Director – it’s an operational initiative.
What a great idea, why didn’t we think of it?
In many cases, someone will come up with a great idea, usually because they can’t find what they need elsewhere, or don’t know where to look. The term being used for this type of person is “disruptor.” Tom Morrison from MTI has a great presentation on “What’s Your Uber?” in which he talks about finding your disruptors.
At DigitalNow 2016 one of the keynote speakers, Alex Whitters with Higher Learning Technology, talked about an app he created that helped him study and pass his dentistry examinations. Related associations offer something similar and use it as a revenue stream, yet he felt like he couldn’t get the help he wanted in a way that fit his schedule and demands. So he created an app, and the adoption rate is staggering.
There are many ideas out there, they could come from your staff, your members, or your competitors. Is your organization staffers keeping their eyes opened for these types of opportunities? Ellen Moore, the Chief Education Officer at AAOS invested in a member’s idea – an app that would help students prepare for testing during their residency. Sound familiar? AAOS was able to invest and stay relevant in a niche area that drives and aligns with their mission. An association doesn’t have to be the one that develops and tests the idea, it may just want to invest in someone who is willing to take it on.
Remember, in today’s market it’s important to fail often, fail small, and adjust. Many associations have protocols, bylaws, and business practices that were developed with an insular approach. Diversify, collaborate and incorporate a culture of entrepreneurship.
If you have already done this, please share some examples in the comments field below. Together, we can succeed and prove the naysayers wrong!