The Association Problem

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Partner & CEO
Nov 5, 2014

Yesterday I spoke with another national medical association with a common problem.

Their membership numbers have been down and the negative trend is picking up speed. Since their inception 80 years ago, they have been extremely stable, but today their potential members just don’t see the value of joining. They are out of ideas, options and time – they need help fast.

Today, I would wager every established association is wrestling with some version of this basic question: how to modernize our value proposition, maintain member relevance and grow? This is incredibly difficult given it requires something they haven’t done in nearly a century.


Successful organizations and associations were once established to answer some tangible threat; “together we can overcome the great obstacle.” Over time, that focus shifted from external problem solving to internal organizational growth. This gravity pulls the attention away from the original mission and into the perpetuation of itself. Eventually these organizations find themselves standing alone without a relevant foundation. It no longer has a point. It no longer has a path forward.

For these organizations, there are two options:

  1. Cut costs, shrink and die slow (aka. let the next person deal with it)
  2. Fix a new problem and grow in new ways

Growth requires a fresh look at your members, modern issues and the opportunity that your collaboration together might bring. See the needs of your members through the lens of your founding principles and have an open mind.

For example: If your mission is to support your member’s ability to practice medicine, that might have meant lobbying in Washington 100 years ago. But, perhaps that function is no longer needed or wanted – that problem might already be fixed. Maybe what your members need now is a lower costs of goods (group buying), customized tools and systems to run their businesses, more patients/customers, more professional peer support, marketing support, industry insights, etc.

… Maybe something else you never saw coming.

The question of relevance and usefulness is continual and constant. Our world moves too quickly to rely on the momentum built by past leadership. As an association, you exist only because your members think you should. If you wish to grow (not just survive), your members will need to take you there – and that requires serious, uncomfortable and necessary change.

This post was originally published on LinkedIn by Integrity St. Louis web design agency Founder and CEO John Simanowitz.

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