Associations Pronounced Dead by Unanimous Decision

This June, I sat outside on the patio, enjoying the results of my good decisions. Everything looked fine. The flowers were flowering. The birds were singing. The deer were deering. You would never have thought, that in a few short months, much of what I was enjoying would be dead.

Today, in November, that same ground is brown. The leaves have turned and dopped. The flowers withered and dried. The deer stand fat and happy after eating at my delicious deer buffet. Stupid fat deer. Think they’re so big.

As I grow contemplative towards the year’s end, I am afraid that today, we sit happily running our associations and organizations, enjoying the flowers and birds, but with withering death just around the corner.

The reason? Association governance, decision-making, and decision-makers are not adapting to the harsh realities of our new world.

Let me explain. No, we don’t have time. Let me summarize.

2019 (and before) No Longer Exists


Our data from Looking Forward® shows how the world in which our members live, and work is substantially different than in the past.

  • Boundaries have been disrupted.
  • Historical behaviors have been disrupted.
  • Competition is savage.
The Death of Boundaries

The Internet of Everything (IoE) allows people and things to be connected by processes along which data flows. This is why your doorbell can tell you when you’ve received a visitor. This is why you can lower the thermostat in your house from two states away. This is why you can conduct financial transactions with your phone.

The impact of the IoE is the death of boundaries – between money, information, and communities.

For your association, the protection and guidance of your jurisdictional boundaries (county, state, national, etc.) no longer applies. The barriers to participation in an online community are effectively zero.

The Death of Historical Behaviors

The health implications of the COVID Pandemic are huge and tragic. But the unforeseen and, perhaps, most substantial impact is the disruption of our historical behaviors.

I used to go to a fancy health club in downtown Chicago. It has 3 bars, 4 restaurants, and apparently a big room where people exercised. I stopped by a couple of times of week to eat, drink, take a steam, and occasionally exercise.

I dropped my membership in 2020 because of the Pandemic and have no intention of returning.

The reason, well my wife called me fat, so I became a Peloton user. Now my habits have changed. I’ve adjusted my life to a new reality.

For your association, members’ behaviors have changed. For many, they don’t know an association with meetings. They have found alternatives to their needs or, frankly, discovered your association wasn’t all that valuable to begin with.


When you eliminate boundaries and disrupt historical behaviors, you throw everyone into the same pool.

For your association, people from outside your state or country can serve your members. You can extend beyond your own boundaries as a result. Your members can theoretically access content and community from anyone and anywhere in the world.

Past membership retention, meeting attendance, or other legacy assumptions become useless.

In a competitive and dynamic environment, characterized by low barriers to information, financial and community exchange, the more static your strategy the more difficult it is to succeed.

To be successful, you need to have fast and effective decision-making processes.

Fast, effective decision-making is the exact opposite of what many (most?) (all?) of associations do.

Here are the most common mistakes.

Associations have decision layers that don’t add value.


We were recently selected by an organization using a 4-stage process. The selection committee recommended us to the Executive Committee, the Executive Committee recommended us to the Board, and the Board recommended us to the House of Delegates that finally approved a contract that will begin one year after the initial contact.

At no point, did three of these layers add any value to the decision. All they added were time and expense.

The more layers you have that don’t add real, tangible value, the slower (and worse) your decision-making.

Associations ask the wrong decision-makers to make decisions.


I once watched a group of dentists on a committee sit around a table attempting to figure out their new membership model while the staff person sat their quietly, not interrupting. They were doing their best to make a good decision but had no experience or training in membership. They had no business making this decision. The result, misinterpreted research and a revised model that fit their perceptions of the world not the reality of their world.

Your volunteers don’t have experience with membership, meetings, governance, etc. They don’t understand tradeoffs between strategies, or the toolkit designed to help them figure out these tradeoffs. To expect otherwise is foolish.

Asking your volunteers to make decisions for which they don’t have experience or expertise is the fault of the association staff team. You have only yourself to blame when you suffer the consequences.

Associations make decisions on episodically collected data.


For some reason, many association leaders think the world changes every three or four years. As a result, every couple of years they conduct a study, cherry pick what they like, and then use that research for the next few years as though it were still valid.

The world is continuous. It doesn’t stop. Your members’ needs are being constantly adjusted.

If the environment shaping your members’ needs is constantly changing then you need decision-making infrastructure to continually monitor, interpret, and adapt strategy accordingly. You also need the competencies and capacity built into your association to do this critical work.

Pretending the world won’t continuously change and refusing to build the systems necessary to adapt to this change is stupid.

Associations have a short-sighted decision-making culture that rejects risk as a fundamental necessity.


Risk is a necessary requirement to success. Unfortunately, associations are so structurally risk averse, it is often impossible to make fast, effective decisions.

First, you don’t get to be a CEO by taking risks. If you take a risk and fail, off to unemployment. If you take risk and win, no big bonus.

My favorite quote from one of my CEO friends was this, “The Board wants you to do what they would have told you to do if they had known it was going to work”.

Go back and read that again, you’ll get it – just takes time.

There is no reason for a CEO to take strategic risk when there is effectively no benefit for success but substantial punishment for failure.

Second, if you’re on the Board, you may make a Big Decision, but due to Board terms, you won’t be around to see if it works. It won’t be you on stage 5 years later being applauded.

But if you screw something up, everyone will know since your name is on everything. No reward for success, reputational embarrassment for failure. The result? You just try to get through your year.

Staff and volunteer leaders operating in an environment where failed risk taking is punished creates a culture of bureaucracy and fear.

In summary from My Seat at the Bar.


As I do another shot at the bar, I don’t see how many associations survive without substantial governance change.

  1. For profit organizations and competent associations who can make faster decisions are going to pull ahead of you. You. Will. Never. Catch. Up.
  2. Your members will abandon you for organizations who provide content and community that adjusts to their needs as their needs change, not when the association does strategic planning or conducts a survey.
  3. Nonmembers will wonder why you exist given all the other faster and more relevant options from which they can select.
  4. Boards and senior staff who take months to make decisions will be eaten alive by competitors who can do it in weeks because they have built systems to inform these decisions, not projects to be completed because it’s in the budget this year.

Decision-making is an essential leadership competency and the days of months long; deliberative consensus building might be great for keeping your job but not for being successful.

Winter is coming my friends. We need to rethink how we prepare as the leaves fall around us.

Just some thoughts from My Seat at the Bar.