Evolve or Die, a simple choice for professional associations? 
by Chloe Menhinick, Network Engagement Manager, International Water Association
Anyone who has worked in, or been an active member of, a professional association over the last decade during the financial crisis, knows that the challenges confronting organizations are many and complex. The solutions to these challenges often appear to be a double edged-sword, bringing risks as well as benefits, and creating friction between members and their own association.
As a professional working in an association, on one hand you are battling against the comfort of the status quo, consolidating what you already have, and not risking financial resources on change that will probably be difficult and occasionally painful.
After a few turbulent years recently, your membership base may be showing signs of stabilizing, or even growing as retention rates rise and recruitment picks up, even though overall growth rates have not yet surpassed the pre-financial crisis figures. At this point, the appeal of the age-old saying “Don’t fix what ain’t broke” is certainly a strong one; one probably supported by the valued cohort of long-term members who are often content with the way things are done and see change as unnecessary.
On the other hand, you are faced with all the challenges that come with the digital-age that we now inhabit. Consider the maturation of ‘Millennials’ and their ideals of social licence and you know change is coming whether you’re ready or not.
The unknowns facing you if you lunge into the abyss that comes with any journey of change and transformation are daunting, and the risks associated with the unknowns can make taking the leap difficult.
Perhaps the only certainty is that maintaining the status quo is no longer a guarantee that your association will be relevant ten, five or even two years down the line.
Associations, particularly ones that are purpose driven as the IWA is, cannot afford to ignore external influences if they hope to fulfill their vision for the future. The internet, digital media and social sharing has eroded our traditional value propositions; access to content and networks that were previously out of reach are now available or have been replaced by other platforms. Increasingly businesses are forced to confront their operating models to become fit for a sustainable future – a future where generational values have shifted enormously.
Where organizations fail to meet these new values, their future is no longer certain. Ad hoc networks and online communities with business models designed to support positive social impact are cropping up to fill the void. The intent of these organisations is increasingly overlapping with the raison d’être of associations, “to inform and to share best practice, to build a community of like minded professionals”.
As the landscape of associations changes, it’s legitimate to ask whether they can survive the 21st century? Whether, without a radical transformation in the way they go about their activities and the way they engage with their stakeholders, they can fulfill their purpose and mission?
The IWA has started a process of change that is designed to answer these questions, and to meet the challenges of the association today and into the future. Despite lengthy consultation, focus groups, questionnaires, and one-on-one interviews with stakeholders to guide us, at times it feels akin to rolling the dice.
The journey hasn’t always been easy, or without some institutional pain. At times the transformation has been disruptive, at times we’ve had to rethink our plans and choose a different course. Progress has been too slow for some, too fast for others, but progress has been made. We have moved away from long-standing processes and systems our business model was based on. We have established an online community* for our members to network, connect and collaborate. This moves our thriving offline network into the digital space. We have opened up to be inclusive of those thousands of professionals who engage with the IWA but choose not to become members.
Though this journey is far from over, making these fundamental changes has taken the IWA towards meeting its needs in the future. If our association is to have a future it cannot be held back by its history. Rather we want that history to be our inspiration for continued growth and innovation that enables us to continue to be purpose driven and to fulfil our mission.
Which way will you roll the dice?
*w w w. iwa-connect. org to see the new online community of IWA
chloe.menhinick@iwahq.org to contact the author