Alice Meadows 
Alice Meadows
Director of Communications 
crystalball
Source: Fuse / Thinkstock

In our first post on this topic we told you some of our thoughts about what the association of the future might look like. Before that, John Graham, CEO of ASAE, had told us what he thinks. Now it’s time to hear from some of the senior association executives who we have been talking to in North America about this topic over the past few weeks.  Over the coming months, we will also be running a series of interviews with senior society executives from around the globe on this topic.

Of course, no two associations are the same, and some society executives anticipate less change than others.  Michael Haley (Executive Director of the International Communication Association), for example, thinks that in the future his association will look, “Much the same as it does today”.  But for those who do envisage significant change, there is a lot of consensus about what form that change will take.

For example, most people believe that their associations will be more web-based in future, with the digital environment offering more opportunities for customization.  Shawn Boynes (Executive Director of the American Association of Anatomists) believes that, “The association of the future will need to be more nimble in responding to the needs of the marketplace, which will be much broader than just core members. Likewise, traditional membership models will no longer be sustainable because customers will want to pick and choose what they want to pay for instead of taking an all for one package deal.” Others agree: to quote Chris McEntee (Executive Director of the American Geophysical Union), tomorrow’s societies will be “more like a network than a traditional membership model”, while Will Morgan (Executive Director, MPSA) sees “more interaction on-line, via mobile devices”. Tom Reiser (Executive Director, International Society on Thrombosis and Haemostasis) believes his members will expect "online (available at any time) [and] relevant to their needs (difficult for international organizations as there are different needs around the world); services/benefits that help them do a better job and/or advance their career [while] contributing to the overall evolution of the field." Karen Peddicord, Executive Director of the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses) sums it up as, “More electronic everything!”

Helping members to do a better job and advance their careers, especially through education and e-learning, is also seen as key.  Ed Liebow (Executive Director of the American Anthropological Association) believes that members will expect, “Career development services, access to publishing and meeting services, training for students, ethics standards, training program accreditation”. Lorelle R. Swader, Director of the Office for Human Resource Development and Recruitment of the American Library Association says that her vision for associations of the future would “include ways for members’ needs to be met for continuing education that are learner-centered (face-to- face and distance)…”. Darrin Scheid (Member Communications Manager at the American College of Emergency Physicians) agrees that there will be more online learning opportunities and virtual education.

Value is another buzzword.  Will Morgan believes that, “the value that we add is in insuring the quality of the services we have”, while Ed Liebow expects that his members will want “greater value for membership dues in the form of opportunities for scholarly exchange, career development services, increased public awareness about the relevance of the discipline and training.”  Certainly, most of the executives we spoke to believe that their members will expect more – or as Karen Peddicord puts it, “the same and more!” In addition, as Richard Yep, Executive Director of the American Counseling Association, points out, “We need to start running our societies from a perspective that encompasses business principles and exceptional customer service.”

When it comes to what associations won’t be or do in future, there is also a lot of consensus.  Richard Yep notes that to be successful means associations “ridding ourselves of outdated legacy-type products and services by carefully evaluating what we offer.”  And although Ed Liebow’s members “don't appear to ever want to discard existing benefits and services”, most association executives believe that print products will certainly disappear, with other services such as affinity programs and exhibit halls at society meetings also flagged up as being at risk.

Most of the executives we spoke to are undertaking member surveys to discover where to direct their efforts, but this is fraught with uncertainty.  There is the notorious difference between what people say they want, and what they will actually pay for when it is offered. And it is very hard for people to imagine anything which does not yet exist:  if you had asked a group whether they wanted an ipad a few years ago, most would say their lives were complete without one.  The sales figures tell another story.  So getting to the truth of what constitutes value for members, and making it both relevant and innovative, requires a host of different approaches.

Perhaps the last word should go to Lorelle Swader, who was also the winner of our Association of the Future competition.  She perfectly sums up the challenge – and opportunity – facing learned and professional societies today as, “Associations have to stay relevant and current, but also be in the forefront of what members need. They must anticipate the unknown!”

With thanks to all the association executives who contributed their thoughts, as well as to my colleague Vanessa LaFaye, who interviewed many of them.