From the Corner Office: John Graham, ASAE

By Association Adviser staff • September 7, 2013

John Graham, ASAE
John Graham, CAE, FASAE, American Society of Association Executives

John Graham, president of ASAE The Center for Association Leadership is our Corner Office profile subject this month. ASAE supports the interests of more than 21,000 association executives and industry partners representing 10,000 organizations worldwide.

John, what is the biggest change you’ve seen on the association landscape since we talked in Dallas this time a year ago?

I’d say mobile technology. It’s analogous to the advent of the personal computer 30 years ago. Mobile is a game changer in the sense that it alters the way a member engages with an association. Historically, the association controlled the member experience. Now with mobile, the member can control their experience with the association. If you’re an association, all of your content [and resources] must be easily accessible for the mobile member.



  • Mobile’s impact on associations is comparable to the PC’s impact on business in the 1980s—it’s literally changing the way members engage with associations.
  • Non-dues revenue (NDR) is essential to keeping the cost of dues down. Just make sure your NDR programs are relevant to members and within your core competencies.
  • Technology is one of the most important investments you can make to remain relevant. You don’t have to be on the bleeding edge, but you’re responsible for staying current.


If you were addressing a room full of membership directors, who would they say is harder to keep happy—newer members or long-time members?

I’m not sure that’s really the right question. It’s not a matter of who’s harder to keep happy. The question is, ‘How do I get more engagement from each of my member groups?’ As a starting point, newer members are more likely to engage with you via tweeting, blogs and mobile. Older members are more likely to engage with you via print and face-to-face events. The challenge is to operate in parallel to keep both groups happy.

So, what’s going to be the ‘Next Big Thing’ on the association horizon?

The Holy Grail is content distribution over multiple platforms—mobile, face-to-face, online, social and tablet. Content has always been king [for associations], but now it’s got to be [readily] available on all channels the member uses.

If a typical association suddenly found an extra $100K in the budget, what do you think they would invest it in?

Two things: Multiple platforms (i.e. responsive technology) and aggregation and mining of data.

As the association membership model continues to evolve, what is the appropriate role for NDR? Do some associations take NDR too far?

You’re taking it too far if you’re doing something that’s not relevant to your association’s mission just to make money—for example, selling used cars to members, even if you’re very profitable doing that. Don’t go beyond your core competencies. At the end of the day, NDR is just a way of not raising member dues.

Regarding technology adoption, should associations be encouraging members to get up to speed faster—or wait for members to catch up before rolling out new offerings to them?

It’s the responsibility of the association to stay cutting edge. Our members certainly expect ASAE to be out front in technology. You don’t have to be bleeding edge, but you do have to understand what’s happening on the cutting edge of technology. Associations have to invest their resources wisely and technology is one of the most important things you need for staying relevant with members and your industry.

On a scale of 1 to 10, how important is it for associations to make all of their resources and benefits available to members in mobile format?


To what extent do you think associations will be offering more webinars, virtual trade shows, virtual events and other online learning offerings?

All are very likely to increase. But remember, it’s not a matter of either/or. It’s additive. Virtual doesn’t replace face-to-face; it’s a complement to it and enhances the member experience.

What do you think most association leaders would say is their toughest communication challenge?

Space and bandwidth—cutting through the clutter.

So, how is ASAE dealing with those communication challenges?

By listening to members and developing things that make their experience with us better. For example, we developed a mobile app for our conferences. Now it’s easier for attendees to manage their schedules, receive last-minute updates, get their handouts, communicate with each other and reduce the amount of paper (and weight) they’re carrying around.

In terms of membership and revenue growth, do you think associations have bounced all the way back from the 2007-08 recession?

No, I’d say it’s about 95 percent, and that 95 percent [level] is going to be the new normal. Some associations are still having difficulty.

How do you measure the ‘new normal?’

I look at our [association] job board. It peaked in 2008 and then went down sharply—about 40 percent in just a few months. Pretty scary [chuckling]. But [hiring] has been coming back ever since, and we’re now about 95 percent of where we were pre-recession.

Overall, the view seems pretty good from where you sit. Is anything keeping you up at night?

Actually I sleep pretty well [laughing]. ASAE has worked very hard to evolve through the tough economy. We’re positioned very well financially and strategically.