160607 RaceForRelevance

Race for Relevance – A review

When I started as the part-time Executive Director at TiE Sydney I knew they were there were challenges facing all voluntary associations – political parties, charities, trade associations, etc. So what is affecting voluntary associations? Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers provide six marketplace realities that did not exist 25 years ago and recommend five changes. The realities are members’ time pressure; value expectations; market structure; generational differences; competition; and the technology.

We all understand time pressure today – potential clients for any association have many pressures on their time and tend to allocate the time for projects that are meaningful for them, can help them perform better in the work, are interesting, are a particular cause or simply an activity that is fun. Clients are also asking “What is my return?” They are less likely simply to put time in (“pay forward”) and the hope that they get something better out in the future. As the number of associations, charities and causes increases, so does the competition for clients time. But this is not the only form of competition – there is that from the Internet where information is much more readily (if only you knew what to search for) and social networks such as LinkedIn and Facebook. And finally a recurring theme in the book is the ineffective use of technology for two primary reasons: that the board does not know what technology could do; and the desire not to disenfranchise those members not using technology.

How many event organizers ask if their association fits the needs of their members? How many know who their most loyal members are? Do they know if an event is fun?

So what to do?

Coerver and Byers advocate five changes:

  1. Overhaul governance. Rather than having a large board and a number of large number of committees each devoted to small areas of expertise; reduce the board to just five people plus CEO. This means the board must be committed, is less likely to micromanage and is likely to be more responsive to the executive.
  2. Empower the staff. Let the staff and the CEO run the organisation on behalf of the volunteers and the board. Volunteers can be used on a just-in-time basis rather than trying to run major sections of the organisation.
  3. Define member markets. Now more than ever it is important to know exactly who your members are and what drives them. For example an organisation dedicated to solving breast cancer is more likely to resonate with members and volunteers than one dedicated to solving cancer.
  4. Rationalise the services. In order to overcome the problem of reducing membership fees many associations have broaden the range of services, special offers and events available to members. For members this is confusing – why should they want to buy car rental from their engineering association?
  5. Use technology. The successful associations review new technology and may pilot new ideas of how that technology can be used to enhance the service provided to members. For example it has been possible to automatically text people individually for over 25 years to remind them of the event they going to that night. How many associations use this?

When I read a book like this I am always thinking “How can I apply what I am learning to what I’m doing at the moment?” The good news for me is that during the last nine months at TiE Sydney I have been working on these changes simultaneously and that the majority of the board was broadly supportive.

For TiE Sydney and in particular TiE Global there is a lot more to do to get the organisation to a point where it can support a small but effective executive. I recommend anyone who is involved with and/or thinking of creating a membership organisation to buy and read this book before they spend another cent.

Oh, one thing I discovered while running events for TiE Sydney is that everyone likes panel members to disagree in public. It’s fun to watch live banter… the skill is getting the right candidates on the panel!

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Hi Brian,
    “Associations are dying?” ….. something in that – and occasionally various organisations also hit the media when actions and disputes boil over into the public arena. The book ‘Race for Relevance’ and your review includes some pertinent perspectives on concerning issues.

    Yes – small committees may be an answer to minimise problems including meetings to extinguish fires rather than accomplishing the associations objectives – of course that may leave shortcomings in peoplepower to do so and with increasing demands upon peoples time + other interests and personal responsibilities etc. that that may well be an issue anyway.

    In some spheres people join organisations to get help and advice and depart upon completion – understandable, though hardly bodes for mutual support and continuation. The stalwarts prop up.

    Sometimes a committee member becomes a demagogue …. that may be the nature of the individual and surface even sooner when the rest of the committee leave it all up to the person – in one such organisation the hardworking president – excellent in many ways – unwisely stated to a journalist that he saw himself as “a benevolent dictator not bound by the wisdom or otherwise of his colleagues’ – this didn’t go down well with some who attended meetings though contributed zilch between. Eventually they held sway though embarked upon years of abbreviated presidencies – some with good intentions but sadly often personalities with personal agendas and even fraudulent objectives. The conclusion was inevitable.

    For organisations having employees – even if only one – retaining the services of the right CEO is critical – many may apply – how to be sure ? – voluntary committee members may not be experienced in appointments. Sometimes CEO’s ‘forget’ they are after all an employee – like issues and situations with presidents and secretaries etc., support and otherwise may split boards – ‘ may even leave committees / boards and individuals vulnerable and fiducially liable and of course self destructing. Even professional bodies are not immune.

    Disputes within organisations have even led to murders.

    Congratulations to successful well run organisations …. but >

    Sometimes an extremely small ‘committee’ may even effectively achieve objectives more efficiently sans the politics.

    Stuart Fox

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