Why Associations Can’t Be Afraid to Fail

By Sarah Sain, CAE • May 6, 2016

Failure. It’s not an option. Right?


What associations today should be afraid of is not failure, but of falling behind and letting innovation pass them by because they don’t have the courage to try new things. RealLilTweetables

Failure IS an option for associations

That was the underlying message I took away from CalSAE’s ELEVATE Conference last month in San Diego, where speakers and industry thought leaders addressed the rapid pace of change in today’s world and how associations need to evolve, adapt and take risks.

Sarah Sain
Sarah Sain, Naylor Association Solutions

Associations, like much of the business world, are living in a time of transformation. “What worked yesterday won’t work today:” In one sentence, keynote Sarah Prevette, an entrepreneur and investor with Future Design School, explained simply why associations can’t continue to operate according to the status quo.

The traditional membership model is changing, millennials and Gen Z are taking over the workforce (and your board of directors), and political and economic uncertainty are still affecting many industries. Most association leaders are well aware of these (and many other) challenges, and they know that solutions can be even harder to identify and implement.

“Associations have an opportunity right now to rethink of themselves as something fundamentally different,” said Principled Innovation’s Jeff De Cagna during his session, The 6 R’s of Association Thrivability. In order to get to there though, associations have to be willing to make mistakes on the road to staying relevant.

Below are some more tips from Prevette and De Cagna on how associations can be open to failure on the way to success.

See opportunities in challenges:

“Fall in love with the problem you’re solving – not the solution,” said Prevette. RealLilTweetables Associations need to embrace that passion and excitement and then get in the right mindset for change. At the core is empathy. You have to ask yourself, who is the end user – is it your members, future members, staff, volunteers? What is it that they really want and need? Put yourself in their shoes and then work toward a solution.

Understand solutions can come from anywhere:

Not all great ideas come from the top. They can come from anywhere – as long as you’re listening. Encourage creativity and confidence in your association’s staff and members, said Prevette. Pose the question, “How might we … ?” Have an open door policy for ideas, and host regular impromptu brainstorming sessions where nothing is off limits.

Build structured “unstructured” time into your schedule:

Prevette suggested building blank space into your schedule, whether it’s on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. The purpose is to have uninterrupted and unrestricted time for creative thought. By allowing yourself that mental break from the day-to-day chaos, it allows you to focus on the problem and explore new solutions.

Invest resources other than money:

Any big change requires a financial investment, but De Cagna urged associations to look at all the assets they have available and how they can best be used. Time and energy – from staff, at the board level and from members – are two big ones. Embrace the talent around you, and be open to learning from experts within your circle of influence. RealLilTweetables

Harness the power of your network:

Associations need to stop keeping people out, said De Cagna. “It’s a member benefit” … How many times have you heard that reasoning used by associations to keep educational content and resources locked behind a wall. Instead, break down that barrier, share your knowledge and expertise with a larger audience, and expand your network of supporters – and potential members.

Test, test, test:

Once you have a great idea (or a few great ideas), test them out immediately. Don’t wait for layer after layer of discussion and approval. Set change into motion on a small scale. If it works, expand it to a larger group. If it doesn’t work, that’s OK – at least you tried. “Break things. Try stuff. Fail,” said Prevette.


One of my favorite quotes is by Rear Admiral Grace Hopper: “The most dangerous phrase in the language is, ‘We’ve always done it that way.’”

In today’s fast-changing world, it’s easy for associations to get stuck in the mire of the way they’ve always done things. They have to seek out new solutions to new problems (and oftentimes new solutions to the same old problems), and they can’t be afraid to innovate and experiment – even if it means failure. You never know when or where that next great idea will come from, so make sure to keep your ears, eyes and your mind open.

Sarah Sain is a senior content strategy & development manager with Naylor Association Solutions, working exclusively with society of association executive and meeting professional clients. Email her at [email protected] or follow her as @ssain7 on Twitter.