Are you willing to pay? The challenge facing non-profit Associations
Last week, Jon Hansen wrote a blog in which he observed that people are increasingly unwilling to pay for content. I responded to him regarding the challenges this represents for organizations that seek to remain objective in the advice they offer – and how it means they must increasingly consider how to package their insights or knowledge into fee- based services, rather than traditional models such s charging for membership.
Jon picked up on my comments in a further blog and expands the question of whether, in a fee-based world, objectivity and independence can be maintained. Is it inevitable (he asks) that Associations will become ‘for sale to the highest bidder’?
In the past, the value of Associations tended to rely very heavily on being a point of focused content and professional networking. Some also offered training and / or professional accreditation, essentially seeking to make membership a dependency for career advancement. In essence, such Associations are an extension of the trade union movement – both essentially derived from the ancient craft bodies that go back to Roman times and perhaps earlier.
Today, people can gather information from many sources and simple aggregation of information is not enough to drive membership. Similarly, there are many options for how to network, both physical or virtual. In both these areas, Associations can offer superior quality or more accurate search capabilities, but this can only command a small fee. Similarly, education and training is increasingly available through multiple sources and a variety of media, so Associations may struggle to maintain their stranglehold on supply.
So what does this leave? Some organizations are indeed tending to ‘sell their soul’ by capitalizing on their member database. Service providers may well be prepared to pay a fee for access – and in some cases, if given relative exclusivity, this may be a large fee. But I rather doubt this is a sustainable model. The service provider soon builds its own database from the information it receives; members depart when they feel their Association no longer has real value or integrity. Other organizations seek to aggregate ever more information and to appeal to employers to enforce their qualifications as a standard. I see no signs that this will work either.
So in the end, non-profit Associations have to accept that their future depends on delivering distinctive value. I believe they can do this through drawing on the innate loyalty of members to build and share knowledge and insights. They can undertake in-depth analysis and package those insights in ways that others cannot easily rival – and certainly at much lower cost. I think they also need to swing away from being run by association management experts and revert to leadership that is primarily from a practitioner background, supplemented by other managerial skills.
The challenge for Associations is no different to that of any other business. To survive, they must be flexible and adaptive to change. They must be ready to alter their commercial assumptions and deliver new forms of value. That doesn’t mean selling core assets; it means being in touch with the market and offering unique or superior services – some of which will likely compete with the services of for-profit service providers, but typically at much lower cost and (perhaps) greater integrity.
This article reflects the author’s personal views of the Association market and not necessarily those of IACCM.