The Threatening Thirties: Part I

By Jeff De Cagna, FRSA FASAE • October 17, 2023

AUTHOR’S ATTESTATION: This article was written entirely by Jeff De Cagna FRSA FASAE, a human author, without using generative AI.

As a board advisor and foresight practitioner, a crucial aspect of my ongoing contributions to associations is considering plausible futures our community might encounter in the years ahead. In recent months, as I have started to investigate what association decision-makers, stakeholders, and successors might expect throughout the 2030s, the gravity of my concerns has grown dramatically. Indeed, my level of alarm about the coming decade—and our community’s lack of readiness—is so high, that I will focus my last three Association Adviser columns this year on exploring the issues we must anticipate and confront together.

Regular followers of my work know this is not my first warning to our community’s boards, chief staff executives, and other stakeholders. I alerted association decision-makers to the upheaval the current decade would bring before it began, and isolated three key forces of turbulence that would be at the forefront: 1) artificial intelligence, 2) the climate crisis, and 3) human inequality. The near-immediate shock of the COVID-19 pandemic in the first 90 days of The Turbulent Twenties accelerated and intensified the expected turmoil and refocused our attention.

As the most urgent dangers of a global health emergency have mercifully subsided, however, our community’s temporary vigilance has been supplanted by the swift return of its persistent complacency toward the future. With The Threatening Thirties now emerging on the horizon, every association contributor must make a clear choice: will I join with other association community contributors to stand up for the future?

Six Root Cause Orthodox Beliefs

If the answer is yes, any chance we have to effectively address the broader challenges of The Threatening Thirties must start with taking a strong stance against the deeply detrimental impact of our community’s orthodox beliefs. For nearly two decades, I have sought to put orthodox beliefs, i.e., the deep-seated assumptions we make about how the world works, front and center in every conversation with boards, chief staff executives, and staff partners. To mount a credible effort to shape the next decade for the better starting now, it is critical for association decision-makers to pursue the  indefatigable interrogation of six specific orthodox beliefs that live at the core of our complacency and will continue to undermine our community’s ability to thrive until they are defeated once and for all:

  • Associations should focus on relevanceGiven the growing frequency with which I hear both staff and voluntary decision-makers express the view that relevance is the most important strategic outcome for their associations, there is no longer any doubt in my mind that it has become our community’s most sacrosanct orthodox belief. As I have argued for many years, however, the darker reality is that relevance is a fallacy our community must reject in favor of building ethical and future-adaptive associations capable of delivering a purposeful and positive-sum impact on our world, and the lives of their stakeholders and successors.
  • Associations are insulated from disruption—Every association decision-making group holds some manner of orthodox belief about the uniqueness of the organization and/or field they serve, and the measure of protection from external forces that distinctiveness affords. While the intensity and influence of these orthodoxies does vary, they all feed into the same misguided conclusion that making a fundamental shift in orientation toward future is not necessary. In The Threatening Thirties, no combination of history, longevity, and tradition will be sufficient to secure the future of organizations that are unable or unwilling to adapt.
  • Associations should “stay in their lanes”—When it comes to directly addressing the most wicked problems facing our industries and professions, our country, and our world, far too many associations choose not to take bold action, preferring instead to “stay in their lanes,” i.e., maintain a focus on what they are expected to do and nothing more, in an effort to avoid criticism from stakeholders (notably members) who may vehemently disagree. This restrictive notion of lane-keeping, however, will limit the effectiveness of every association seeking to make a meaningful difference in the non-linear world of The Threatening Thirties.
  • All decisions must be grounded in membership—Although perhaps not quite as sacred as it was in the past, the strong pull of the membership relationship remains a highly prominent orthodox belief in most associations. Without question, the potential implications for members and membership continue to influence every consequential decision made by association boards and staff partners. While membership relationships will remain important in the years ahead, the comprehensive problems of The Threatening Thirties will require association decision-makers to think and act beyond orthodoxy to build more inclusive and trusted stakeholder relationships that do not involve membership.
  • Generational identification advances association interests—Associations continue to double down on efforts to create connections with young people based on generational thinking even though we know that generational labels (and the often-insulting inferences that underpin them) are meaningless. Last year, I issued a direct challenge to our community to end the use of generational orthodoxy, and I renew that challenge now. We must stop denigrating the very young people we say we want to serve and with whom we must collaborate if we are going to have a chance to alter the current alarming trajectory of The Threatening Thirties for the better.
  • More leadership is the answer—The association community’s commitment to the leadership paradigm remains steadfast despite its obvious decline. As I wrote in this column in August, “[b]y behaving with cynicism, self-interest, and zero-sum thinking, myriad ‘leaders’ worldwide have raised serious questions about the legitimacy of their institutions and inflicted further damage on an already-flawed and deteriorating leadership paradigm.” For association boards and staff partners, more leadership is not the answer. Instead, association decision-makers must work with other contributors to prioritize interdependent stewardship as they prepare for The Threatening Thirties.

The idea of confronting, interrogating, and defeating these six root cause orthodox beliefs (not to mention the innumerable orthodoxies that flow from them) may seem overly aggressive, but it is precisely the right posture for our community to adopt at this critical moment. Time is not on our side: The Threatening Thirties begin in less than 75 months. Association boards, staff partners, and other stakeholders do not have the flexibility to grapple with these severe constraints on their collective agency in due course. This endeavor must be undertaken right away with sustained energy, and in parallel with the intentional learning with the future required to understand, anticipate, and prepare for the emerging dangers of The Threatening Thirties.

Next Month

In November, Part II of this series will examine the social, technological, economic, environmental, and political (STEEP) factors and forces that are gathering to shape a threatening decade for the association community. Until then, thanks for reading and please stay well.

About The Author

Jeff De Cagna FRSA FASAE, executive advisor for Foresight First LLC in Reston, Virginia, is an association contrarian, foresight practitioner, governing designer, stakeholder and successor advocate, and stewardship catalyst. In August 2019, Jeff became the 32nd recipient of ASAE’s Academy of Leaders Award, the association’s highest individual honor given to consultants or industry partners in recognition of their support of ASAE and the association community.

Jeff can be reached at [email protected], on LinkedIn at jeffonlinkedin.com, or on Twitter @dutyofforesight.

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this column belong solely to the author.