On December 31, 2021, the end of this calendar year, the senior decision-makers, staff and stakeholders of associations across the country will reflect on the first 24 months of this decade and ask whether they have done enough to reinvent their organizations for the rest of The Turbulent Twenties. Sadly, far too many will be unhappy with the answer and wonder what they should do next.
Under the original schedule for this series, the Part III column would have been published in early December 2020. For various reasons, I chose to wait until mid-February 2021 to write and post it. Given everything we’ve witnessed over the last few months, this was the right decision. We all awaited the arrival of the new year with great anticipation, comforted by the hope that we could turn the page on 2020 and begin to move toward a “new normal.” Now that this convenient fiction has been conclusively revealed, undertaking the serious work of association reinvention beginning this year has taken on an added level of urgency.
Where We Are Right Now
Let’s pause and consider what has transpired in just the last four months since Part I of this series was posted. From October 2020 to this week, our national COVID-19 case count has more than tripled (from eight million to nearly 28 million), while the death toll more than doubled from 220,000 Americans in October to almost 500,000 today. By the end of 2020, our national vaccination effort failed to deliver on its promised results, both in terms of available doses and the number of people vaccinated. Adding to our ongoing in the pandemic, and much to our collective astonishment, 2021 began with a deadly insurrection at the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., an impeachment proceeding in the House of Representatives, and a presidential inauguration held under security lockdown on the first three Wednesdays in January.
In recent weeks, the number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths have mercifully started to decline, and while the vaccination program is still struggling to overcome its initial problems, there has been a significant increase in the overall pace of vaccinations around the country. Somewhat unexpectedly, however, this good news has made our current position more precarious. As pandemic metrics improve, and the spring approaches, our intense pandemic fatigue is transforming the desire to “return to normal” into an irresistible force. The reemergence of complacency is a clear danger as myriad threats, including the spread of COVID-19 variants from outside the U.S., have put our ability to achieve herd immunity at risk. We must take this complacency seriously, both right now and for the long term, and work together to defeat it.
The Three Sources of The Reinvention Mandate
Throughout this series, I have sought to convince association decision-makers that there will be severe consequences for all of us if we fail to reinvent associations for the rest of The Turbulent Twenties. In my last post, I outlined three specific initiatives to pursue to make reinvention happen. In this final post of the series, I want to explain the three underlying sources of the reinvention mandate, to provide association boards, chief staff executives and other contributors with the counterarguments to overcome both their own and others’ resistance, and to build momentum for taking decisive and meaningful action.
Retire governing debt
Writing in this space in November 2018, I defined governing debt as, “the accrued constraints, disadvantages and obstacles associations encounter due to the failure of their boards over time to prepare for the future.” The governing debt that today’s boards inherited from their predecessors, as well as the debt they have added more recently, has real-world consequences. For example, throughout the pandemic, many associations have struggled with the practical burdens of governing debt in shifting their traditional value creation activities to digital/virtual delivery. Instead of making consistent investments in building these capabilities over the preceding decade, governing debt left far too many associations with no choice but to accept the significantly increased constraints and costs of an abrupt technology transformation in the last 12 months. Even as boards and chief staff executives develop a deeper understanding of governing debt’s detrimental impact on their associations, they must collaborate to retire it as soon as possible by discarding orthodoxy, pursuing the work of foresight, and acting with confidence to realize reinvention intent.
Respect for successors
The absolute need to retire governing debt is closely connected to this second source of energy for reinvention. In my work, I emphasize the importance of showing respect for our under-40 successors and the complex and, candidly, excruciating challenges they face today and will continue to confront throughout The Turbulent Twenties. As a matter of stewardship practice, it is incumbent upon those of us who are older to listen and learn with our successors and demonstrate empathy and support instead of perpetuating generational stereotyping and recrimination. At the core of any “next covenant” with our successors must be a shared sense of responsibility for leaving our associations and the systems in which they operate better than how we found them, as well as a steadfast commitment to ensuring that the primary beneficial outcomes will accrue to those who will follow us throughout this decade and beyond.
Reverence for lost lives
As of February 19, nearly half a million of our fellow Americans have died from COVID-19. Unfortunately, this death toll, which is already undercounted, will continue to increase throughout 2021. We are in the middle of an incomprehensible and senseless human tragedy. While there is nothing we can do to make whole the family and friends of those who have died in the last 12 months, we can show reverence for their lost lives through our thinking, decisions and actions from this point forward. At the end of this decade, we do not want to look back on these early years of the 2020s and ask ourselves the harshest unanswerable questions imaginable:
How did we let this happen?
Why didn’t we act when we had the chance?
Why didn’t we do more?
We must never surrender to complacency. Instead, we must work to defeat it every day by setting a new standard of stewardship, governing and foresight for everyone who cares about the future of associations, their stakeholders and successors. Our solemn reverence for the memories of those our country has already lost, and those we will lose in the coming months, must inspire us to move in a fundamentally different direction to navigate our irrevocably-altered world.
Where We Must Go from Here
As a consequence of agonizing circumstances that were mostly beyond their control, staff and voluntary association decision-makers have been given a clear and actionable reinvention mandate. They must pursue it with intention and those of us whose work serves association decision-makers must offer as much help as we can because, in the end, we are all in this together. The Turbulent Twenties have only just begun, but the work of shaping a different and better future cannot wait any longer. We must act now. Please stay safe and well.