Are Associations Truly Innovative?

By Mary Byers • June 11, 2021

With the right tools and mindset, any association is capable of innovating. So why is it that so many associations struggle to embrace the habits that would allow them to thrive?

That’s the question that we set out to answer with the Association Innovation Scan. In partnership with Loyalty Research Center, we surveyed associations across different industries, with varying sizes of staff and memberships, and with a wide range of annual budgets to get a clearer understanding of association innovation today. Research was conducted in the summer of 2020, when COVID both forced innovation and served as a tailwind to encourage it.

Associations have been reactively innovating since the start of the pandemic – in large part out of necessity – but, with this research, we want to encourage and invite associations to make innovation a proactive part of their cultures going forward. Without a doubt, the resulting return on investment is well worth it.

Innovation was important before the pandemic, but it’s even more important now. The pandemic has accelerated the need for the changes we know we’ve needed to make. It will be a tragedy if we are still doing the same things in the same way when we emerge. It will be a missed opportunity if we choose to fully go back to the way things were rather than go forward.

According to the research, associations consider themselves to be innovative – 43% of respondents consider themselves to be the “first to adopt” something new, while 37% “wait for a few others” and 13% “wait for many others.” It may be that associations are innovative when compared with other associations. However, when compared with for-profit companies and the way they innovate, associations move at a slower, more incremental pace.

When comparing “evolutionary” (smaller) vs. “revolutionary” (significant) advances, 54% consider themselves more evolutionary, while fewer – just 29% – consider themselves more revolutionary. A takeaway question for association leaders is, “How can we become an association that is more focused on significant advances vs. smaller advances?”

Name What Stands in Your Way

One place to start is by taking a closer look at the barriers, both real and perceived, that stand in the way of innovation.

Lack of resources, meaning staff time or budget, was cited most often in the research as a constraint on innovation. That was followed by complacency and lack of vision, which includes everything from an organizational structure that slows down progress to no sense of urgency to a lack of leadership.

When asked for the title of the individual responsible for leading innovation, many reported high-level executives: CEO, President, Chief Operating Officer, Executive/Association/Deputy Director, Senior Vice President of Strategy and Innovation. Surprisingly, only a small contingent reported that all staff were responsible. Our view is that if everyone is responsible, no one is. Highly innovation organizations have at least one point person to lead the charge.

Of the small number of associations that budget for innovation, 40% have it as a line item in their annual operating budget and 40% borrow from reserves.

Recognizing these barriers above exist is the first step, and selecting one obstacle to tackle is the second step. They can be interrelated, however. For example, complacency leads to a lack of vision –which can be caused by lack of resources. Don’t let that interconnectivity discourage your team from beginning to seek out new paths for innovation.

Though the majority of respondents indicated they have permission to fail (61%) and to stop doing things which are inefficient or waste resources (57%) – and that innovation is critical to their overall strategy (57%) and they use data and insights to guide innovation (57%) – only half indicated they recognize and reward innovation. Even fewer make deliberate investments in innovation (41%) or launch/scale successful innovation effectively (38%).

There’s no way around it: Failure is part of innovation, although I prefer to substitute the word “research” for failure because you know more after a disappointment. Association boards tend to be risk-adverse and more comfortable protecting the association rather than advancing it. This is why it is so hard for associations to innovate.

Instead, board members should consider scoring themselves on a “risk comfort” scale and then have a conversation about how they can collectively increase their comfort with it. Additionally, associations should continually be experimenting with something so that it becomes an expected part of operations rather than an occasional ask from staff.

Create a Path Forward

Once an association has made the decision to move from a weak to a strong culture of innovation, there are three stages that can help associations break down what may still be considered to be a complex and paralyzing concept – changing mindset and culture don’t happen overnight, after all. The three stages are:

  1. Create momentum;
  2. Formalize a vision and a plan;
  3. Implement and ingrain in your culture.

The graphic here illustrates the “path of resistance” to achieving a strong culture of innovation:

Associations with the Components of Innovation

The “easiest” component to install at an association is giving permission – either to start doing or to stop doing. Then, as momentum builds, it is imperative that victories – big or small – are recognized and rewarded. As a more formal vision and direction begins to develop, other implementation-specific details need to be built alongside that vision in order for it to be successful. Strong innovation cultures have more of the identified components shown here in place. However, few associations I’ve worked with have a senior staff person dedicated to innovation, invest in innovation-focused training for staff or volunteers, have a budget dedicated to innovation, or identify innovation as a core value.

If an association doesn’t have an innovation process outlines on paper, this is another place to start. I like to say, “If you can name it, you can claim it.” Doing this makes it tangible and understandable for all involved, including the Board.

Separately, there’s much to be gained from listing and celebrating all the innovation that happened over the past year in the midst of COVID specifically. When we’re doing it in the moment, we often don’t recognize our accomplishments. Looking back creates confidence, and confidence strengthens our innovation muscles.

Leadership, both on staff and boards, can support innovation best by recognizing its value. Budget it for it annually or have money set aside in an innovation fund. Hold people accountable for it and celebrate both successes and failures. Reward it. Work to make sure the board and staff are aligned in terms of innovation. While this may be an oversimplification of a complex challenge, we know that innovative organizations do these things.

Take the Pledge

The bottom line is that innovation is no longer an impossible concept meant for a few; it’s an imperative for all associations. A large number of associations are in decline – declining membership, declining participation and declining revenue. This isn’t going to change without new activity. That’s what innovation is: doing something differently to create value.

Though true innovation requires organization-wide commitment, a well-defined process and associated funding, associations are invited to take the “10% Pledge” – a commitment to regularly innovate and reinvent 10% of their activities (advocacy, membership recruitment and retention, meeting/events, communications, publications and certification) on a continuous basis. This pledge is designed to create “innovation mindfulness,” a state that eschews complacency and actively seeks new and different ways to create value.

Association Innovation Scan 2020

To develop a clearer understanding of the state of associations, read the report and find additional resources to help, support and encourage association transformation at associationinnovation.today.


Mary Byers, CAE, CSP is a speaker, facilitator and consultant helping associations gain clarity and focus through leadership training and education, and she is one of the authors of Race for Relevance: 5 Radical Changes for Associations. A newly revised, 10th anniversary edition will be released in the summer of this year. Byers partnered with Loyalty Research Center to conduct, research and release the Association Innovation Scan 2020: The Association Professional’s Guide to Winning with Innovation. Learn more at associationinnovation.today. Reach Mary at [email protected].

Sarah Sain, CAE is director of content for Naylor Association Solutions and a writer and editor for Association Adviser. Reach her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter at @ssain7.