Stand by...

You're about to be redirected to

July 21, 2008

As long as people don't really care, associations will survive

One of the biggest questions running through my mind as I leafed through Here Comes Everybody was, "If organizing groups is now ridiculously easy, what does this mean for associations, which are basically institutional group organizers?" Shirky didn't actually come straight after associations as I thought he might, given the subtitle of his book (The power of organizing without organizations). However, there is a quote I cited in an earlier post that just smacked me upside the head:

"The jury is still out on whether any of the current interest in reforming the US health care system will change anything, but if I had to pick between MoveOn and groups like the self-organized strangers in Dallas for having the more profound effect, I'd bet on the ad hoc groups. These kinds of efforts are unlikely to be long-lived or self-sustaining--no office in DC, no budget from donations--but the unpredictability of that kind of effort makes it a signal of a kind of commitment that is hard for any ordinary membership organization to produce effectively."
In an earlier post, I wondered aloud if the world would be better off without associations. By raising this question it is not my intent to issue a value judgment about associations or the people who work for them. I work for one and I am one. This isn't about whether or not there "should be associations" or challenge to association executives to prove their relevance. Nor is it a prediction of their impending obsolescence.

I am questioning whether or not the citizens of our world are well-served by associations given the radical improvements in the way that people can find like-minded folks and get stuff done.

Used to be, if you wanted to cross the ocean, you got in a boat. Now, you fly. The result is the same, the method is different and better. So let's face facts here: Organizations are less important than organizing. Associations are a means to an end. They're an institution created to solve a problem, but they are not the only solution.

Here comes the bald-faced blasphemy: I believe that the trades, causes and professions would, in many cases, be better off without their associations.

As an industry, we assert that associations advance America and the world. What if there were a more efficient and effective way to organize? (Duh, there is!) Do associations advance America and the world? Yes. Do they do it better than an alternative form of organizing? Not necessarily.

Reactions around the `clump to my thoughts on whether or not the world would be better off without associations elicited a few common themes: 1) That associations were somehow more "professional" than other groups, 2) that meeting face-to-face was somehow the exclusive domain of associations, and 3) that ensuring substantial resources to continue operations for the long haul was something only associations could do. The third theme is plausible, but I am thoroughly unconvinced on the first two.

Here's my prediction: As long as people don't really care, associations will survive. We know that, in most cases, a self-forming group is an oxymoron. But now that group forming is ridiculously easy, when people are truly passionate about stuff, they form their own groups and get a lot of stuff done. Shirky demonstrates this. But when people are lukewarm about something, well, that's where associations will thrive. Associations will take care of problems that most people don't really care too much about, but that need to be handled.

Ironically, getting members fired up about or engaged in their professions or trades could actually backfire, if you follow this train of thought to its logical conclusion.

So there you have it. That's my prediction. Am I crazy? Or am I right?

Tagged: ; ; ;


Matt Baehr said...

My comments.

Kevin said...


I think you have touched on an area that may be very sensitive to many Association Leaders. My contention is that many Association members are members because they in fact are not writing the check for membership. What do you think would actually happen to Association enrollment numbers if an individual's company was not picking up the dues tab and the individual member had to reach for their checkbook? How about attendance at tradeshows? That thought is even scarier.

People that take the initiative to "organize" and connect with others around a cause or a movement, are in my opinion, more passionate and committed.

The sand are running through the hour glass. Associations need to get back in touch - back to the basics!

Lindy Dreyer said...

At the risk of giving too short an answer, I agree with you. But I don't believe we have to settle for the future you describe. We can evolve.

Tony Rossell said...

Let me add one other point that I think supports the association structure, the concept of division of labor. As my son's economics professor noted recently, you can buy a pencil for a couple of cents today. But an individual would be very hard pressed to make a pencil from scratch on his own.

The same applies to associations. To quote Wikipedia, "Historically the growth of a more and more complex division of labour is closely associated with the growth of total output and trade, the rise of capitalism, and of the complexity of industrialisation processes."

So basically, those of us who have learned, for example, how to do effective membership marketing have a specialized skill that just anyone does not have. Taking advantage of those skills leads to a much more effecient and productive enterprise.


Anonymous said...

To respond to Tony, I think that's Ben's point exactly - given the ease with which people can now organize (facilitated by technology), we can each make our own pencils, really easily and cheaply, and they can look and function exactly the way we want them to.

Tony Rossell said...

Elizabeth -- Interesting way of looking at it. As I noted on my blog post related to these comments today, it is one thing to think you can make a pencil. But is is another matter to actually do it. Tony

Jeff Cobb said...

Excellent post, Ben. I share Lindy's hope that associations will evolve, but as for the here and now - If I were an association executive, I'd be working very hard to figure out how my organization can provide value that cannot be easily provided by the wide variety of other options currently available. --Jeff

Dennis D. McDonald said...

I once thought that the ease with which online communities can be formed could be viewed as a threat to traditional associations (e.g., see from October 2006). I'm not so convinced of that any more. The reason is simple: online communities need to be managed. Neither associations nor corporate entrprises have a monopoly on ignorance -- or knowledge -- of how to manage online communities.

In fact, I'm beginning to think that the idea that associations are "naturally" a logical user of online socual media and social networking is illusory. ALL organizations, not just associations, have a vested interested in their different communities working together.

Dennis McDonald
Alexandria, Virginia USA

Matt Baehr said...

I think Kevin's point is a strong one. I also think that many employers won't pay for employees to do things for a non-professional or self-formed type group.

Tony's point is what I was talking about as well. There are things that groups want to do that are too expensive or like Ben said, things that people don't care enough about to do.

That's our sweet spot, association folks.

Maddie Grant said...

I'm going to echo Dennis' comment. In my experience, the fact that people can form groups on their own does not mean that those groups will last very long without concentrated nurturing and effort by a few champions. The ease of use given to us by new technologies is misleading if people think that takes away the real work involved in "getting stuff done". which means, to answer Ben's question, that some things will get done better by associations, other things will get done better by self-formed, possibly transient social groups with a goal.

Greg Fine said...

Bravo Maddie! I think you nailed it. The fact that it is easy to self-form can make a true meaningful community all that more powerful.

Jeff De Cagna often talks about engagement. I think this is key.

BTW- I recently just left several self-forming groups I belonged to in Facebook. There was no value and no structure that served my needs.

I think associations offer sustainability that is attractive and valuable.

My main take-a-way from Here Comes Everybody is that the power of self-forming groups is most effective where a vacuum exists. Many of his examples demonstrated how a problem existed for years and social media finally filled the vacuum and created sustainability.

The question we need to ask is, do we have vacuum?

One more thought. Just because I can form a group myself doesn't mean I want to. It is very clear that people pay for service and an experience. If an organization can deliver on these counts, then members won't want to expend their energy to self-form.

Scott Oser said...

Hi everyone,

I think this is a great conversation and I have been waiting to chime in. It is my belief that associations have something to offer that self-forming groups don't--long term, dedicated (typically paid) staff with areas of expertise that they are taught and trained to perform. Association professionals have a skill set that sets them apart from self forming groups. They have knowledge from things they have personally experienced and learned from other experts that many people in the world do not have.

I was at an ASAE Volunteer Leadership training today and someone made this comment....When you are having problems with your ears you go to see an ENT because you know they specialize in this area. How come so many BODs would consider going to an ENT, not an association professional, to run an ENT association?"

Association professionals get a bad rap and that is something we all need to overcome. We do have an expertise that most people don't have and that is why I think it makes us different than a self-forming group.

Weird thought--what if there was a paid staff of association professionals that formed and managed a self-forming group? Would that scare traditional associations more? Or is the concept simply an oxymoron?

Jeffrey Cufaude said...

Nice post Ben. I think some associations more than others will struggle with becoming one of the many communities in the lives of their members and stakeholders as opposed to being THE commmunity.

I think it somewhat parallels what s we as a nation are experiencing as the US is no longer the dominant player on most of the world's stages.

-Where can we add value?
-Why would people want to choose to associate with us when they might not have to?
-How can we become one of the preferred places where individuals come to create and contribute?

Bruce Hammond said...

Although I didn't read the book, Ben's post really got me thinking, as did the rest of the comments I read following it.

I think Jeffrey hit it here in his first question in his comment - how can we provide the value that our members desire without them WANTING to or NEEDING to start their own self-forming groups?

Maybe we in associations should be looking at some of the self forming groups that are developed to see where we are being deficient in providing our members the value that they seek...

I also think that we as associations should not be scared of self forming groups. They exist. They provide some value to the people that join them. They are easy to join, and as Greg said in his post, just as easy to leave when someone isn't seeing the value...

An example of the beginning of my last paragraph - ASAE didn't have a "place" for the Young Professionals to gather and network, so Maddie and others started YAP (correct me if YAP is an official group of ASAE). Perhaps I am wrong, but I think that's a self-forming group that has found a good niche where the association was not providing the value to a certain segment of the membership.

Value matters, and if we as associations can provide the value our members desire, we are going to survive for many, many more years.

Lee Aase said...

Great post, Ben. I've been meaning to do a full review of Shirky's book on my blog, and when I do I will be sure to link to your thoughtful posts.

I think associations will survive as long as the benefits they provide are less than the costs of maintaining them. The social tools do make it ridiculously easy to form a group, and to keep a group connected. Associations should be able to leverage these tools to accomplish much more with smaller staffs, but there does need to be a leader/community organizer with vision and passion, or the group will lose its momentum. But you don't need five layers of management with the new social tools.

kare anderson said...

People care (want more from their association) once they see what's possible - that is they see what another association is doing. Way back when Starbucks started they raised the bar on in-store (or in hotel, hospital, etc.) design.

Nothing like a real life example to whet our desire for more

Scott said...

I love the conversation that you've started here Ben. My question is why do we have to settle for only those things about which our members care very little? I for one have no interest in spending a career in an industry where no one really cares. If I wanted that I’d go work in the airline industry.

To me this all comes down to member value. If we’re providing it, and it’s clear to our members that we are, then there’s no reason for concern. How is that any different now than it was 5, 10, or even 20 years ago? Isn’t that why associations exist? Or any organization/business for that matter? In my mind the only thing that self-forming groups and collaborative tools have caused is a strong kick in the pants for associations to quit doing the same things because that’s how it’s always been.

Now more than ever listening and engaging our members is essential, because if we’re not listening to what they want from their association, they’ll go find it someplace else. And it’s quite clear that finding it someplace else is just getting easier and easier.

Jamie Notter said...

Love the conversation. How come these good posts happen when I'm on vacation?! My comment: I think associations will survive, what? Most associations aren't going to die soon, but neither is GM and a lot of other organizations that are completely lame. Let's not aspire to "not dead."