Redefining an association to meet changing needs 
by Christoph Raudonat, Director of European Society of Association Executives ( ESAE)
Change of perception. For a long time, associations have been the repository of information on best practice, common grounds for ideas and influencing professional bodies to advance civil society interaction with decision makers and society at large. Associations’ agendas are formulated and directed by their members and members’ needs. Despite a prevailing sentiment that this may have changed, it isn’t so.
The current perception is that while associations attempt to adapt to a more client-oriented approach in order to counteract drops in membership, looking at their members as customers, we cannot forget that it should indeed be exactly these customers that steer the strategic direction of associations.
How did this change of perception arrive? Academics believe that a generational change may have influenced a change in thinking and looking at associations in a new light (Davidson, 2003; 2012). We have seen in practice that younger generations tend to associate less in traditional surroundings and contribute to the life of an association preferably via online tools. These findings are not conclusive yet and it can be argued that it might also depend on the professional area an association is active in, whether or not its members prefer to interact online or face-to-face.
An undisputable truth certainly is that as funding is scarce, many members of associations like to see increased performance in return for the membership fees paid and insist on justifications for the monies paid. Associations therefore find themselves in the uncomfortable situation to make short-term calls to think of new added value quickly, which is not always a strong point of an association, whose decision-making processes depend on lengthy board discussions and approval rounds by committees and assemblies.
This has led to a trend whereby associations are now attempting to influence their agendas by becoming more proactive and client-oriented in order to remain attractive. The buzz word is ‘surveying’ yet again. Find out what your members want and adapt to these needs.
From an academic point of view, this is one way – and only one – to tackle the challenges. Examining the typical set-up of an association from a staffing and business-strategic angle, these organizations were not intended to set and drive agendas by themselves but by the common approach and common denominating forces of their members (or member organizations in the case of federating bodies), represented on the board.
The question therefore is: what is changing an association in order to meet changing needs? Should it be the associations themselves by becoming more active in setting the agenda and influencing market decision making? Or should associations remain the platform of the market to come together and facilitate a response to changing needs?
The truth might possibly lie somewhere in the middle. However, following current academic thinking, as association professionals and leaders, we might want to consider the fact that associations play a very important defined role in today’s civic life: ‘[The] important role of the professional association is [thus] the construction and maintenance of intraprofessional agreement over boundaries, membership and behaviour.’ (Greenwood et al., 2002)
This tells us that professional associations (and possibly trade associations as well) act as negotiating and representative agencies that according to academics such as Greenwood et al. (2002) and Kraatz (1998) shape and redefine appropriate practices and – in some cases – certify these practices.
The redefinition of associations to respond to changing needs is therefore a multi-layered process that is not the sole responsibility of the association itself and association leaders should not feel alone in front of a mountain of change to guide their members over. Instead they must ensure that their boards are aligned and add value to the organization by sharing up-to-date industry insights and current trends so that the association in question is adequately equipped to respond to industry needs.
In return, associations must listen to these insights and not remain complacently procrastinating in ‘the way we used to do things’. If new trends within an industry arise, the respective associations will be the mediators of change and facilitate a common approach for industry representatives. The bulk of the change work therefore should not remain on the shoulders of already over-worked association managers but become a process for all to be involved and find solutions to the challenges ahead.
Christoph Raudonat is Director of European Society of Association Executives ( ESAE). He is an independent management expert and strategy facilitator with specialization in Change and Reputation Management for the international legal and association sectors. Chris regularly contributes with articles and lectures at events to the development of organizational excellence worldwide. Christoph. Raudonat@ valobusinessconsulting. com, http: //esae. org
Greenwood, R., Suddaby, R., & Hinings C.R., (2002) Theorizing Change: The Role of Professional Associations in the Transformation of Institutionalized Fields, Academy of Management Journal, 2002, vol. 45, no. 1, pp.58-80
Kraatz, M.S., (1998) Learning by Association? Interorganizational Networks and Adaptation to Environmental Change, Academy of Management Journal, 1998, vol. 41, no. 6, pp.621-634