3 Factors that Can Impact an Association’s Long-Term Development
By Jim Treleaven

The strategic focus of associations will change over time, and those changes can be both significant and rapid. Boards of directors need to be cognizant of the internal and external factors that drive those changes. By understanding the factors and what they can influence, associations will be able to evolve and remain relevant to their members.

There are three primary factors that can significantly impact an association and its long-term development:
  1. Industry Factors – Industry factors can include changes in the size, structure or dynamics of the association’s particular market niche. For example, until recently, the computer technology industry was largely unaffected by government regulation. The eventual increase in regulations led to the proliferation of associations focused on technology industry public policy issues. The resulting cacophony of voices – all of which were ostensibly speaking for the industry – created confusion. This fact resulted in significant consolidation among these associations.
  2. Technology Factors – Changes in technology can have a profound impact on an industry’s structure and its workforce. For example, the International Association of Administrative Professionals (IAAP) was founded in 1942 as the National Secretaries Association to provide a professional network and educational resources for secretarial staff. As one might imagine, technological change has significantly reduced the number of administrative professionals over the last two decades. To adapt, the association expanded its offerings and changed its name to IAAP in 1998 to encompass the large number of varied administrative job titles and recognize the advancing role of administrative support staff in business and government.
  3. Other External Factors – External variables might or might not be central to the association’s mission but could have profound impact on its evolution. Perhaps the most common example would be significant economic cycles. If members experience downturns as a result of a recession, travel to association events may be among the first expense items to be reduced or eliminated. The association must quickly adapt to remain relevant.
More often than not, associations can be influenced by all of these factors simultaneously, making the board’s awareness of these factors even more critical.

Board Implications

What should association boards do to adapt when they face such changes over time?
  1. Most importantly, boards should develop strategies that take into consideration the numerous industry, technology and other external factors that could influence the association. Well-run companies have formalized, board-driven annual strategic planning processes, and associations should as well. In addition, by using techniques to plan for different scenarios, as well as monitoring and scanning the environment to identify emerging or potential challenges and opportunities, association boards can gain insight into the changes they will face in the future and create strategies to effectively deal with those contingencies. Boards should ensure that these exercises become annual processes.
  2. Boards need to have an effective financial management strategy driven by these considerations. A key factor for associations is cash flow and the dues cycle, because it is vital to maintain adequate financial reserves. (For additional information about managing reserves, read Board Forward’s article “How to Better Manage an Association’s Reserves,” which was published in June.)
  3. Boards also need to be aware of internal issues, such as leadership and organizational resources. In my experience with both for-profit and nonprofit companies, organizational inertia is far more prevalent in nonprofit associations than in most other organizations (except government). Is the leadership of the organization appropriate for the changing mission? Such shifts require leadership with diverse skillsets, as well as new organizational resources.
Printing Industries of America (PIA), an advocate for the U.S. printing industry, is a prime example of an organization that has been able to weather a multitude of industry and external factors. Throughout its rich, 127-year history, changes in technology have been the most significant factor it has faced.

PIA members have witnessed the industry's evolution from manual typesetting to all-digital, full-process color printing. In addition, digital technologies (e.g., desktop printing and email) have replaced much of what had been done by printing companies. As a result, the industry has undergone significant consolidation. Nevertheless, printing remains a significant industry and PIA currently has more than 10,000 member companies.

Over the years, PIA recognized the technology factors as they emerged and responded accordingly, helping the organization stay relevant to its members. For example, in 1999, PIA consolidated with the Graphic Arts Technical Foundation and became Printing Industries of America/Graphic Arts Technical Foundation (PIA/GATF). In 2009, after an extensive re-branding initiative, the association changed its name to PIA.

It’s inherent that associations will face a never-ending flow of challenges. Board members, though, need to be vigilant in watching for factors that could have a profound impact on their associations’ long-term development. If they are identified, appropriate strategies can be put in place to effectively manage associations through continued evolution. Only by doing so can associations optimally serve their members.

Jim Treleaven is the president and CEO of Via Strategy Group, LLC (VSG), which advises CEOs, boards of directors and other C-level executives on growth and turnaround strategies. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University of Illinois, Chicago, Department of Information and Decision Sciences. He has had a successful career as the CEO of both public and private technology companies ranging in size from $40 to $500 million. Most recently, he was president and CEO of Catalyst International, a NASDAQ-listed supply chain software company. He currently serves on the boards of TechAmerica, the Illinois Technology Association (ITA) and the Chicago Engineers Foundation, and he has served as chair of the National Computer Graphics Association (NCGA). He also serves on the advisory boards of three graduate business schools and on the boards of several private companies.
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