What If: Imagining a New Association Business Model

Written by Garth Jordan on January 25, 2018

Associations are no strangers to challenges. Recognizing, emphasizing, and working to overcome the common hurdles we face in our industry is a continuous and consistent feature of any associations’ efforts.

The challenges we face, moreover, are further complicated when they are communal. Sometimes, systemic challenges are being tackled by a variety of professions (and, therefore, associations) within the same industry. It is rare that an industry-wide obstacle confronting one association is not also being faced by other associations representing professions within the same industry.

As individual associations, we might try to tackle these challenges in isolation, perhaps leading to a less-than-multi-dimensional point of view. Or, when we see the need for collaboration, we often take time - and lots of it - to organize a small group of associations and other organizations to try and agree upon the challenge, its root cause(s), and what might be done about it. The result is often a white paper, a written recommendation, or another passive method of describing the output of our work together. At worst, you will witness some sort of industry hydra with each head committed to the interests of their profession and, therefore, a disjointed or partisan solution. Approaching an issue from a specific perspective, representing a distinct profession and particular interests, one association alone will not be able to challenge norms and change behaviors – and if many competing viewpoints take on a problem separately, it is bound to lead to tensions, confusions and stalemates.

Take, for example, US Healthcare – the space in which my association sits. Within this vast arena, there are a multitude of associations at different levels. On one level, there are multiple physician disciplines, each with their own organization. Another level has associations for other healthcare providers such as nurses and physical therapists, while another is home to a whole set of professional organizations for a variety of administrative roles. Add to that the associations for different types of businesses in healthcare, like hospitals and hospices, and you have a huge, interrelated network of associations within the same environment, facing similar issues.

Various brands and professions get in the way of cooperation: each has its own version of the truth, each is competing for a share of both attention and wallet, and there is no place where learning from one another is coordinated – let alone encouraged. Each acting in favor of the profession we represent, our associations are left trying to survive each other’s models rather than working for a broader mutual understanding. What can an organizational ecosystem like this do to create systematic, streamlined strategies to overcome shared challenges?

What if?

What if we created an association that was formed around a challenge, or a process of problem solving unique to the industry we serve, rather than a discipline?

Imagine purposefully setting up an association because of a particular challenge requiring the attention and involvement of a certain set of disciplines. This is something distinct from a charitable nonprofit, although it might sound a lot like one. It would be specifically facilitated by staff who are “solvers” to identify the various components of the issue/challenge, establishing the collective approach that most makes sense, and developing solutions. Partisan interests would no longer govern the problem-solving process, and inter-disciplinary communication and collaboration would have space to be fruitful and effective. The various professions “at the table” are there to represent the interest of problem-solving; and they learn – not through consuming the content, education and certifications of their own profession – but by going through a process of empathizing with the other professions they need to work with to solve the challenge in the first place.

The way that certain industry challenges are being addressed today is often so fragmented and piecemeal – one association tackling a challenge here, a few associations meeting over there – that working together in a traditional sense is not enough. Don’t get me wrong: professional associations serve a purpose and likely always will, but to overcome the greatest challenges facing industries like U.S. healthcare, we have to learn better ways to solve complex, deep-seated, multi-dimensional problems. Assembling the best and most invested minds into an activity-based professional association, to work purposefully and cooperatively on a particular problem, would mean a mission that is committed to finding answers rather than promoting interests.

Garth spoke in the “Digital Transformation: A Tale of Two Strategies” session during SURGE Spring, an interactive virtual summit hosted by AssociationSuccess.org on May 2nd-4th. Click here to watch the sessions on demand.