Association Innovation: No Longer an Oxymoron?

By Hank Berkowitz • February 12, 2016

21 association innovation tips from the experts you can’t afford to ignore 

Hank Berkowitz, Association Adviser
Hank Berkowitz

Are you a Type-A take-charge leader? Do you like getting things done ASAP without a lot of meetings and processes getting in the way? Does the sound of task-forces, boards and steering committees make you queasy? If so, you might not have fared well at a trade association or professional society historically, but those days are changing — fast.

Russ Webb, Vice President, Atlanta Apartment Association said thatthe association world needs to adapt faster than the regular business world because our members are looking to us for innovation.” But that forward-leaning philosophy tends to be the rule not the exception according to Jamie Notter, founding partner, WorkXO, a workplace change consultancy for corporate, government and not-for-profit organizations. “Some associations and nonprofits have a hard time being innovative because their cultures don’t really value innovation,” observed Notter. “Most of their cultures value efficiency, incremental improvement, low risk, low return and NOT failing under any circumstance. You’ll never get innovation when you value those [beliefs] — even if the posters on the wall say otherwise.”




Don’t use “technology” and “innovation” interchangeably. Understand the difference and you’ll be more effective at both. RealLilTweetables

New isn’t always better. Making existing offering better can be just as innovative as reinventing the wheel. RealLilTweetables

To move your organization forward, you can’t be afraid of failure. Start small, then scale up if you get traction. RealLilTweetables

Knowing when to sunset longstanding products and services can be more difficult that starting new ones—but it’s a MUST-DO. RealLilTweetables

Renato Sogueco, chief information officer, Society of American Florists said that while both for-profits and non-profits operate on budgets, for-profits are more likely to look for a hard return on their investment of time and money resources. “When you have this mindset, you’re more open to trying new things since innovation is the only way to distinguish yourself in the marketplace,” Sogueco said. “If you’re a trade association or professional society, you often have less competition for your select membership demographic. You’re more likely to pick and choose your spots for innovation and ask yourself, ‘What’s the value I could deliver with the resources I have?’”

John Graham, president of the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) told us last summer that he expects technology and messaging platforms to be the biggest focus of innovation in the association world in 2016 and beyond. Graham said associations don’t need to be on the “bleeding edge” of tech, but they should at least be on the cutting edge if they want to remain relevant with their members.

"Embrace the future, don't be afraid of it."
“Embrace the future, don’t be afraid of it.”

At the ASAE annual conference and expo last summer in Detroit, Sheryl Connelly, former head of the Global Trends and Futuring department at Ford Motor Company, told an auditorium full of association leaders to consider where you are now and where you want to go. “If the future scares you,” said Connelly, “the best way to predict it is to create it for yourself.”  AAA’s Russ Web agreed with Connelly that you can’t be afraid of change. “Change should be ongoing and part of who you are. It shouldn’t be something you’re scared of,” said Webb. Case in point, Webb, after 17 years at AAA, said no two days have been the same and he loves the fact that he never know what’s in store for him when he arrives at the office. That said, not everyone is wired like Webb particularly in the association world.

See our Corner Office profile story for more leadership insights from Webb.

As one might expect, Connelly urged associations to challenge convention norms and not to fear failure, but she also cautioned them to “balance provocation with plausibility.” That means looking at what is causing people to change their values and to make sure you are following real trends, not fads. One surprise from Connelly — she suggested to seek out the “Debbie Downers” at your organization. They’re not necessarily pessimists; they’re contrarians who question organizational ideas to make sure you’re considering all sides of a situation.

For more insights from Connelly, see Elsbeth Russell’s piece Thinking Like a Futurist.

Association innovation in action

According to WorkXO’s Notter, the American Society for Surgery of the Hand is “doing amazing things.” For instance, in less than three years ASSH digitized all of the content ever created at the organization and made it searchable across multiple platforms. According to Notter, the Society now assigns one third of its staff full-time to technology projects — remarkable in an industry that spends, on average, just 4 percent of its budget on technology, observed Notter. As Notter and his colleague, Maddie Grant, explain in their new book When Millennials Take Over, ASSH also completely designed its offices around the needs of employees (and to align with its culture), and it customizes everyone’s job description every year.

Kevin Burke
, president and CEO of Airports Council International (ACI-NA) told us that his organization has had great success with its new Mobile Passport app created in partnership with Airside Mobile and the Custom and Border Protection (CBP). The app was designed to help travelers skip the customs line at U.S. airports by using the app to fill out their profiles and answering CBP’s questions in advance. Webb said everything that AAA does is mobile friendly or soon will be. “This month we introduced a mobile check-in service for our events. It not only expedites the registration process for attendees, but makes it easier for us to track where they’re going and what they’re doing at events. We can track which sessions they’re attending. At a quick glance we can see who’s checked in, who hasn’t checked in and what substitutions have been made. With the software we can also do quick on-the-spot surveys of attendees when they’re checking in. “

Tech entrepreneur, Asif Khan, founder & president of the six- year-old Location Based Marketing Association (LBMA), has grown his organization to 1,200 member companies in 21 countries without having a single person assigned to membership development and acquisition. As Khan described in a recent video interview with my colleague Kelly Donovan Clark, LBMA relies on grassroots sharing of information to build awareness of LCM and what the association is doing through Mobile Mondays, case studies and weekly podcasts that now attract 100,000 regular viewers. “A lot of it is going out and talking to people and sharing great examples of location-based marketing in action. When consumer marketers and tech vendors see what we’re doing, they say, “Hey we better get involved,” Khan said.

Sunsetting crucial to innovation

As with for-profit organizations, membership organization need to review their portfolios regularly. Sometimes, a longstanding membership benefit or service must be discontinued as it’s no longer relevant to the majority of members. SAF’s Sogueco said conflicts emerge when decision-makers rely on “gut instinct” and “experience” rather than on hard numbers. “When you have a decision-maker who created the longstanding product in question, pride and sentimentalism come into play. That makes it harder to slay that sacred cow that they probably raised from infancy,” said Sogueco.  When it comes to sunsetting programs, Notter agreed with Sogueco that the missing link is data. “Find a way to measure impact of the program (both positive and negative) so you can make an objective case as to why it needs to stop,” said Notter.

Is technology the same as innovation?

“No, I don’t agree” said Sogueco. “Innovation is the process of attaining a desired result from doing something new or different. Sometimes, it happens because you leveraged a new technology, but not always. For example, at SAF we overhauled our governance structure so it reflects our membership today, not how it was 20 years ago.” This sparked more relevant discussion that resulted in much richer content. No tech was involved in this case.

According to Notter, innovation is about change “that unlocks new value.” Tech has great potential to unlock value that you couldn’t get at before the technology was introduced, but it’s not the only way. “I know associations that have shifted to a ‘freemium model’ by providing free memberships in order to attract a broader market. Then they sell premium services to the new members. They borrowed a page from tech company marketing strategy, but it’s not a tech innovation per se,” he said.

How does your organization bring new ideas to the table?

As with so many challenges in the association world, there is no one size fits all solution. But here are some valuable excerpts we’ve gleaned from conversations with association leaders over the past year. John Hoyles, CEO of The Canadian Bar Association, told us recently that CBA is not as nimble as it should be. “Our governance structure is very complicated, and that’s one of the things we’re addressing in our Re-Think Initiative which includes the Young Lawyers Strategy. My job as CEO is to make sure my [development] team has what it needs so they can run with it. The practice of law is changing radically. If we don’t drag ourselves into the 22nd century, we will be left in the dust.”

One organization that does consider itself agile is the Institute for International Education (IIE) one of the world’s largest international education and training organizations. “Even though we’re large, we tend to be very nimble,” noted Daniel Obst, IIE’s deputy vice president, international partnerships. “I guess we get some of that from my dot-com days. We start small and see where there are opportunities and unmet needs we can fill — for instance, a pilot program for establishing an exchange program with India. If we get some traction with a small initiative, then we gradually build it out.”

AAA’s Webb agreed with Obst about incremental innovation. “There needs to be some risk in order to get reward. We don’t take huge risks, but we’ll try things on a smaller scale and if it starts to work, then we’ll scale up. That’s a great way for associations to operate. Consider aerial drone photography. It’s a new tool that the apartment industry is rapidly adopting to showcase rental properties from above. According to Notter, if you want more tolerance for risk at your organization, then you need to create “containers” within which you can experiment. Don’t experiment blindly, he advised. “Experiment in ways that don’t threaten the powers that be. Identify some boundaries within which you can try new things, knowing that if they don’t work, it won’t take down the [entire] ship.”

Kurt Nagle, president and CEO of the American Association of Port Authorities, said that since his organization has only 17 employees, it doesn’t need “separate task forces or processes” to explore every new initiative. Innovation is a collaborative, interactive process at AAPA. “For instance, almost everyone here got involved in the website redesign — everyone from government relations, communications and research folks, to the Web team and me,” Nagle said.

Abe Eshkenazi, CEO of APICS, the premier professional association for supply chain and operations management, noted that when it comes to developing new ideas, many organizations say, “Let’s get a bunch of smart people in a room and start to innovate.” It doesn’t happen like that at APICS. “It’s more organic,” said Eshkenazi. “We’re always looking for ways to engage with members. They often have the best ideas. We look to fill their needs. You rarely see us sitting in a room and asking, ‘What do members need?’ No, you have to go to members’ workplaces and find out what their work life is like. What pain points are they feeling? Can you identify ways to be more responsive to their needs? We also beg, borrow and steal from other organizations. What are they doing well and can we make it better? As I said, we’re in the needs-filling business, and we stay relevant when members see us as a career-long resource.” AAA’s Webb agreed that some of the best innovations come from looking closely at what other strong organizations are doing and putting your own “unique twist” on their ideas.

Passion and fresh ideas

Rita Chen Fujisawa, chief operating officer of the California Association of Health Facilities (CAHF), said that employee loyalty — normally a coveted organizational trait—can be a deterrent to innovation since CAHF doesn’t have much employee turnover. “It makes it harder to innovate and think outside the box since everyone’s been here a long time,” said Fujisawa. “You get a lot of ‘we tried it before and it didn’t work.’ My response is always to ask why it didn’t work last time. Did you ever consider doing it this way? I love to brainstorm and to do that well you need to take the boundaries away. By contrast, IIE has a high composition of new staffers. Obst said that every single person at his organization is empowered to suggest ideas and to have them taken seriously. “Again, that comes from my dot-com experience. Our workforce is fairly young and that kind of work environment is very important to millennials. Half of our staff has been here two years or less — they haven’t been beaten down by bureaucracy.”


“The only way to have success is not to be afraid of failure,” said Obst. And you don’t need a task force or committee to help you come to that conclusion.

Hank Berkowitz is the moderator-in-chief of Association Adviser eNews.