Reimagining the Future of the Association Business Model

The COVID-19 Pandemic highlighted how ill prepared association leaders were for a black swan event- an event beyond our imagining. In January, we all had assumptions about the world within which we would need to be successful. These assumptions drove our strategy and informed our leadership.

Assumptions, that by April 1, just three months later, were no longer useful, accurate or relevant. Our meetings were cancelled, our staff was virtual, and our future was uncertain.

What now?

What are the implications on members, associations and our strategy moving forward?

What will be the future of the association business model?

Alliance LogoTo address these questions, Association Laboratory, in cooperation with the members of the Association Laboratory Research Alliance (Alliance) are implementing the most substantial association environmental scan ever conducted.

Looking Forward 2021

What is the Association Laboratory Research Alliance doing?

The Association Laboratory Research Alliance is a global cooperative of state, specialty, and global societies of association executives. The Alliance was formed by Association Laboratory in 2019 to investigate the future of the association business model.

The Association Laboratory Research Alliance will undertake a significant effort to investigate the future facing associations.

What is our process?

Our goal is to collect insight into the following questions.

  1. What are the issues with the greatest impact on association members and other stakeholders?
  2. What are the implications on association strategy?
  3. What will associations do to be successful in this environment?
  4. What will the future association business model look like?
Volunteer Leaders Informing Qualitative Understanding

In August, Association Laboratory will lead a qualitative research investigation involving the volunteer leaders of every Association Laboratory Research Alliance Partner.

This qualitative feedback will be analyzed by the Association Laboratory team and used to inform the 10th edition of the Looking Forward™ Association Executive Survey.

Association Leaders Validating the Impact on Associations

In November, the Looking Forward™ Association Executive Survey, designed to validate the discoveries from the qualitative research, will be distributed to association executives worldwide by each Association Laboratory Research Alliance member organization.

This will be the first opportunity for association leaders to identify the forces shaping our profession for years to come as we and association members navigate the post-pandemic world.

Global Discussion on the Results

The results of this process will be an environmental scan of the association strategy environment, the 10th edition of Looking Forward™. This dynamic report, providing insight by association type, scope and budget size, will be shared in January 2021.

Association leaders from across the world, in-person and virtually, will have an opportunity to view the results, listen to interpretations of the data and discuss the implications on association strategy.

Presentation of the results will take place at locally produced Alliance Partner events, centered on a hybrid event produced in Chicago at the OLC Center, a hygienically optimized CME/Surgical Skills training center with state-of-the-art broadcast capabilities.

Listen to thought leaders discuss the future. Develop your own interpretations for your industry or profession. See what strategies others believe will be most successful. Inform your leadership and staff. Make better decisions.

The Future Will Surprise Us

As we begin this journey, I expect to see some of the following, based on the environmental scans we are currently conducting for Association Laboratory clients.

Acceleration of Existing Trends

The future facing associations was already changing prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The impact of technology, particularly automation and AI, stemming from the Internet of Things, was already heavily influencing everything from manufacturing to workforce and advocacy.

Many of the changes we now see are simply the acceleration of factors in the business and strategy environment that were already well under way.

Disparity of Impact by Industry and Profession

While hotels may be empty today, industrial hygiene plants serving the healthcare industry are running at full capacity. As some associations furlough and fire employees to survive lost meetings revenue, other associations are expanding their reach and success via virtual and online strategies.

The disparate impact of COVID-19 on different industries and professions has been dramatic. For some, people, there has never been more work and longer days. For others, efforts focused on survival have dominated meetings and calls. 

Innovative Responses and Opportunities

Companies in all industries are rethinking their business models and their priorities as they adjust to a post-pandemic world.

From new technology to modified production lines, organizations are using COVID-19 as a driver of strategic change. From expanded restaurant delivery to telemedicine, changes usually on the periphery of our members’ decisions are now central to their future.

As I talk to our clients, it is exciting to see staff teams collaborate on new ideas and approaches, unthinkable six months ago. Years of tradition or the slow pace of governance have been forgotten in the race to deliver new value to members during a time of crisis. This is a bell you can’t unring.

Economic Disruption

In July, on several virtual keynotes, I always addressed the short-term economic disruption caused by the pandemic. The lost jobs. The family pressure and uncertainty.

Members are people, not just professions or companies. They are facing the same family and work pressures we all face.

How do I work successfully from my home? How do I ensure my kids get a good education? How do I process births, graduations, marriages, and funerals in a world shaped by COVID-19?

Looking forward, these people will make different choices as a result of this experience. What will these choices be and how will those impact their relationship with associations?

Leadership Decision-making

Organizations operating differently will require different types and styles of leadership. The typical “management by walking around,” a term coined by management guru Tom Peters, is vastly different in a virtual environment.

How will productive relationships be formed? How will disparities in access be addressed? How will the need for empathy, understanding and patience be incorporated into leadership decisions?

In Closing

While the future seems uncertain, a critical point must be remembered.

The future has always been uncertain. Our societies, organizations, communities, and families have faced shocks to the “system” since antiquity.

While “the only constant is change,” the corollary is that adapting to change is also a constant.

I am incredibly excited to see the data and what our Alliance partners do to lead discussions.Dean West


I am looking forward to many ideas drawn on cocktail napkins from My Seat at the (home) Bar.