How to Build a Great Association

ASA Exco Dinner
Association dinners and trips can be good bonding events (ASA Exco 2005)

Through the kind invitation of MCI, a global association management company, I had the privilege of diving more deeply into the world of associations at a recent conference at Suntec City Convention Centre. As the Sec-Gen of the Association of Singapore Attractions, I am always interested to learn about the best practices of running and managing an association.

According to a white paper published by the firm, there are 8 key strategies for associations (whether professional or trade) anywhere in the world to remain relevant in a fast changing future. Key findings from these paper hail from a survey of European associations conducted by MCI, but many of them are relevant to associations here in Singapore. They are:

1) Set up a sustainable framework

Ensuring the long-term survival of your association is a critical strategy. To do so, you need to look at your bottom-line and generate surpluses which can be reinvested in activities and programmes that add value to your members. In a sustainable business model, one should pay atention to the following issues:

GOVERNANCE - Vision and strategy, leadership and empowerment, objectives and metrics, accountability and performance, business ethics

TALENT - Engagement of employees, behaviours, health and safety, diversity and labour rights, human rights etc.

OFFICE OPERATIONS - Reduction of energy and water consumption, energy efficiency, reducing waste and recycling, use of sustainable materials, etc.

2) Position your association as a thought leader

Establishing one self as an authority in a field is critical for associations, in order to gain credibility, respect and leadership. To do so, associations could look at conducting studies or surveys to better inform the industry on key business trends, or to be seen as a news maker.

3) Demonstrate value and relevance to members

This is key for any association, especially when members pay annual fees or invest both time and energy in the association's activities. Some possible areas of contribution include organising top class educational and training programmes, playing a key role in influencing policy and regulatory environments, or providing business intelligence.

4) Develop new initiatives and revenue streams

Revenue provides the lifeblood for associations to survive and thrive. Associations can organise trade fairs, conferences, business missions, consumer festivals and events, or joint marketing platforms to generate income. In addition, they could also look at other areas like publications, research or provision of online services (eg a Business to Business Marketplace) to assist their members in key business areas.

5) Constantly innovate

Like any organisation in the knowledge era, associations need to go beyond what its providing to constantly increase their value add to members. Beyond creating new platforms for members to improve their professionalism or marketing channels, associations could also seek new business ventures that provide greenfield opportunities for their members.

6) Extend your outreach through partnerships and

Forging of strategic alliances and partnerships is key to any association, and these relationships would be useful to help them reach out beyond their industry to other value chain partners. By doing so, they could reach out to a wider audience, build community, and improve business ties. Collective bargaining also improves when more industry associations join hands.

However, associations should also watch out for competition either amongst their members or with other similar associations. Depending on the size of the industry and the market, competing associations could reduce your share of the market as well as your influence.

7) Communicate, communicate, communicate

In the age of social media and an "always on" sensibility, associations must look at ways to communicate, network, and seek feedback from their members. Other than publishing content on interactive social media channels (blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Forums), associations can also conduct polls, rapid surveys, and online votes to seek members' views on policy issues. With younger members joining associations, they should also renew their methods of outreach.

8) Invest in future leaders

To be sustainable, associations need to look at succession planning and renewal within the sector. One way to do so is to talent scout members of the younger generation and co-opt them into committees in the association to assist in key areas. This is important in order for asociations to renew their base while attracting a younger membership.

From my own experience as an office bearer in an association, I tend to agree with most of the points above. Many trade associations are constantly faced with financial challenges and the need to remain agile, relevant and nimble in an ever changing economic environment. They also need to provide a continuously stream of value to their members in order to stay afloat, while balancing between the sometimes competing needs of their members' interests.

Staying ahead of the curve requires associations to be willing to rethink current governance models, renew their value proposition to members and think long-term for the good of their members. It requires charisma and personality amongst its leadership to convince members to take certain difficult positions if necessary, and to gain the all-important consensus. Associations also need to be one step ahead of their members in order to lead - rather than be led - in an increasingly hypercompetitive marketplace for customers and talents.

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