Does your association’s tail wag your membership’s dog?

association culture Wag_39390835_03119780de_b
Who’s responsible for association culture? The association staff, or its membership?

[Association culture? Here’s a definition by Jamie Notter.]
“Organizational culture is the collection of words, actions, thoughts, and ‘stuff’ that clarifies and reinforces what a company truly values.”
—Jamie Notter, Definition of Organizational Culture

To explore this question, let’s be clear about which culture we’re talking. I view an association as a group of people with a shared mission, the organizational incarnation of a community of practice. Every association has an internal culture, formed by its staff, while existing in an external culture, its members’ relationships with each other and the industry or realm they inhabit.

In a dynamic association, these two cultures constantly interact with, inform, and influence each other. This leads us to the question.

Who’s responsible for external association culture?

Is it an association’s staff, or its membership? At first glance, internal association culture is the direct responsibility of its staff, usually steered by the board, which (hopefully) includes and represents members.

But who’s responsible for external association culture, which determines how members learn from and work with each other, and how the association impacts and influences the wider world?

Here’s how Joe Rominiecki, writing for Associations Now, describes what external culture can look like:

“It might be collaborative or it might be competitive. It might value academic accomplishment or it might value real-world experience. It might embrace diversity or it might fear it. Whatever your members’ culture might be, it’s there.”
—Joe Rominiecki, Where membership and culture meet

Later in the same article, Joe says:

“If any player has the position and influence to change the culture in an entire industry, it’s an association, because that’s exactly the sort of change an association is designed to do.

I disagree.

I think the primary purpose of an association is not to change “external culture”—i.e. the culture of its collective members—but rather to support and strengthen the culture. If you see associations as multi-purpose tools for communities of practice, then it’s the community itself that determines what kind of supporting and strengthening capabilities the association builds into its toolkit.

The internal culture then becomes the way in which the association structures and organizes itself to best support the external culture embodied in its membership.

Healthy external association culture

I’ve consulted with hundreds of associations over the last three decades, have served on numerous boards, and been a member of many non-profits. In my experience, healthy associations foster continual conversations between staff and members. These conversations develop the association in response to the wants and needs of the membership, the resources available to the association, and the pressures and challenges posed by the association’s commitment to its mission in the context of its changing external environment.

Such conversations can involve questions like:

  • What should the association be doing that it isn’t (or what should it do less of)?
  • How political should the association be?
  • How much member and societal education should the association provide or support, and what kind?
  • What useful things can and/or should the association do that individual members can’t and/or won’t?

There are no “right” answers to such questions. What’s important is that association culture allows and expects staff and members to ask them. And, of course, that there are mechanisms in place to:

  • Support the resulting conversations; and
  • Create appropriate organizational and programmatic changes when needed.

The devolution of responsibility from association members to staff

Finally, we get to the title question asked by this post: Does your association’s tail wag your membership’s dog? One unfortunate trend I sometimes see, especially with larger associations, is that responsibility for the external culture swings towards the staff at the expense of the membership. This is understandable. As associations grow, individual members tend to assume that the association leadership will “handle” the external cultural issues. (“Hey, I’ve got a business to run! That’s what my association’s staff gets paid to do!”) But that doesn’t mean that the staff should take over this important responsibility.

Instead, it’s vital that staff maintain a leadership role supporting how an association defines its external culture. That includes staying in close touch with member needs and wants, and the external political, social, and cultural environments. How an association responds to wants, needs, and external events, must always involve the entire association community — staff and members — so the organization responds and changes in a healthy way.

Photo attribution: Flickr user itsgreg

A healthy organization contains active cultures

contains active culturesContains active cultures.” How often have you read this on the sides of yogurt containers? Well, healthy organizations contain active cultures too.

Active cultures — not just for yogurt any more

Just as there are hundreds of different strains of probiotic cultures, there are many ways to think about organizational culture. For example, you might focus on descriptive approaches: an organization’s core beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions about “what is” and “why is”, plus customary ways of interacting. Or, you could concentrate on a behavioral approach: how an organization consistently does things.

Unfortunately, in many organizational cultures the descriptive culture isn’t congruent with the behavioral reality. Ultimately, however you define organizational culture, what interests most people is changing it, hopefully for the better.

That’s where active (aka adaptive or adhocracy) organizational cultures shine.

Read the rest of this entry »

I am crazy… but I’m not alone!

not crazy not alone

“I am crazy but I’m not alone.”
—participant evaluation comment

Someone wrote “I am crazy but I’m not alone” on the paper evaluation form for the first edACCESS peer conference in 1992. The next year we printed it on a banner above the entryway to the event, and it’s been been edACCESS’s official motto ever since.

There’s more behind this simple phrase that meets the eye.

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When association leadership loses its way

Is it OK for a U.S. 501(c)(3) non-profit association to make large profits, pay its four top executives well over $1M per year, and yet do little for its members?

In an astonishing article, Professor Dorothy Vera Margaret Bishop, FRS FBA FMedSci, who is Professor of Developmental Neuropsychology and Wellcome Trust Principal Research Fellow in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford shares an example of an association that’s guilty of all of the above.

“The Society for Neuroscience (SfN) makes humongous amounts of money from its journal and meetings, but spends very little on helping its members, while treating overseas researchers with indifference bordering on disdain.”
—Dorothy Vera Margaret Bishop, Has the Society for Neuroscience lost its way?

Why the SfN lost its way

Bishop’s article gives the financial details, also available from the association’s 2016 (latest) IRS Form 990. To summarize, the Society for Neuroscience:

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A new kind of association service — Open Collective

open collective

A new association service, Open Collective, offers an intriguing way to raise funds and provide radical financial transparency to members.

I like to think of an association as a group of people with a shared mission, the incarnation of a community of practice. Open Collective supports communities of practice like meet ups and open source developers. But the service can be used by any association that wants to outsource fund raising and offer financial transparency on how funding is raised and spent.

Here’s how it works.

Fund raising

Open Collective makes it easy to request funds for specific activities or goals (example). You can quickly create a sharable link to the request, which can be one-time or monthly. Flexible donation tiers allow you to create named donation levels, and feature them appropriately on your website. You can also sell tickets to events (currently in beta).

One interesting feature allows an umbrella organization to empower local or networked chapters/projects to raise money. Each sub-group have their own budget without having to open multiple bank accounts.

Financial transparency

Unpaid expenses and available funds can be seen by all members (example). Definable (and changeable) core members can approve or reject submitted expenses (example). Anyone can see the money flow in and out of the organization.


From the website: “Open Collective takes 10% of the money raised by the collective for managing bookkeeping, taxes, and admin (fiscal sponsorship), as well as providing your Open Collective page and the software it runs on. We share this commission with the fiscal sponsor (legal owner of the bank account that holds the money on behalf of the collective). Additionally, our payment processors charge a fee, usually 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction.”

This seems reasonable, though it’s not clear how the commission sharing works. The non-profit service Network for Good charges a 5% administrative fee (which includes payment processing charges) for donations, but Open Collective offers many more services than just accepting donations.

More information

As I write this, Open Collective is supporting over two hundred organizations with a combined annual budget of over half a million dollars, and you need to apply to join; it’s not automatically open to anyone who signs up. A two-part article by one of the founders (formerly cofounder/CEO of offers a useful summary of the history and philosophy of Open Collective.

What I think

For the first ten years of its existence, a non-profit association edACCESS I co-founded in 1991 was run informally under the auspices of another non-profit. Because we committed to transparency right from the start (our books were always open for anyone to see) Open Collective would have been very helpful for managing our finances.

A structure like this isn’t appropriate for every non-profit. But I think the service offers a novel approach to supporting communities that want to be financially transparent. It could be especially useful for localities that want to support citizen-created collectives using shared infrastructure (example: the city of Brussels). If it fits for you, Open Collective is well worth investigating.

How to become one with your association’s strategic goals

association's strategic goalsHow to become one with your association’s strategic goals

No, I’m not suggesting you rise at 5 a.m. and recite your association’s strategic plan as your daily morning mantra. But I’d like you to answer this simple question. How many of your association’s strategic goals can you recall right now?

(No cheating! And not the easy bits about your vision, mission, who you serve, or your programs and services — just your goals!)

I’ll wait…

Was that a little embarrassing? You’re not alone — when I tried this recently, I was pretty embarrassed too!

association's strategic goals

Last month I joined the board of a local non-profit, just in time to take part in the third and final board meeting to update our strategic plan. It was a productive and well-run meeting, expertly facilitated by non-profit consultant Lizann Peyton, and ten minutes before the scheduled end we had agreed on a list of five major goals, each with several subgoals.

Then Lizann asked us to avert our eyes from our notes and recall the goals we had just spent two hours formulating.

Oh my goodness! My mind went blank. We’d just been talking about our goals, but in that moment it became clear to me (and I suspect to most if not all board members) that we hadn’t internalized them.

That’s upsetting because, Dilbert jokes aside, organizational strategic plan goals need to be top of mind for board members and staff if there’s going to be a reasonable chance that they’ll actually be met. (Otherwise, what’s the point of having them?)

Lizann had clearly seen this movie before. She smoothly suggested three ways for us to become more familiar with our strategic goals at our board meetings.

Three suggestions on how to assist board members become one with your strategic goals

1) Add your list of strategic plan goals to each board meeting agenda. (Print them on the back if you’re still using paper agendas.)

2) At each board meeting, organize the agenda to reflect the structure of your strategic goals. Also, include a short discussion about some part of your strategic direction. For example, if one of your goals is to assess opportunities for the use of new space, include an agenda item at each meeting for a progress update from the new space committee.

3) Have the executive director’s reports to the board be organized around the strategic goals too. After all, the director’s job is to help move the organization in the direction set by the board.

Lessons learned

My inability to recall conclusions that we’d just spent two hours creating clearly indicates the limitations of learning models that rely on one-time exposure to information (e.g. lecturing). Learning research tells us that “repeat to remember” is key to encoding learning in long-term memory. Although the monthly interval between our meetings is longer than optimum, following Lizann’s recommendations over time should help us internalize our strategic goals, reducing future potential embarrassment and, more importantly, improving our ability to achieve them.

Perhaps these recommendations will help your association’s staff and board members too!

Have you found other ways to help internalize your organization’s strategic goals? Share them in the comments below.

Associations exist only in the mind

Professional, trade, and public interest associations are significant businesses. In the United States alone, associations employ more than 1.6 million people, and generate an annual payroll of ~$50 billion.

Yet, ultimately, associations exist only in the mind.

Stay with me! I’ll tell you a story that may convince you of the value of this strange point of view.

Fifty years ago, every business wanting to offer credit to its customers needed its own independent system. Individual banks were trying to encourage merchants and customers to adopt newfangled things called “credit cards”, but they failed to solve the chicken-and-egg problem that consumers did not want to use a card that few merchants would accept and merchants did not want to accept a card that few consumers used.

Then in 1966, a man named Dee Hock had the vision, determination, resources, and a little luck to break this logjam. Dee described his journey in a fascinating book he wrote after his retirement in 1984, intriguingly titled: Birth of The Chaordic Age. Dee was the first CEO of what became the mammoth multinational financial services corporation VISA, a company with a current market capitalization of over $200B.

What has this to do with associations? Well, VISA has never issued cards, extended credit or set rates and fees for consumers. The company is, in structure if not in capitalist terms, an association of tens of thousands of member banks. They offer VISA-branded credit, debit, prepaid and cash-access programs to their hundreds of millions of customers. While competing with each other for customers, these banks agree to honor each other’s trillions of dollars in transactions annually across borders and currencies.

A set of agreements

At its core, VISA is a set of agreements between its members. The company’s value to its owners and customers is created from the mutual agreements its members have made. Without those agreements, VISA would not exist. We would return to the pre-VISA world, when every financial entity needed its own system of offering customer credit.

VISA is an atypical kind of for-profit organization. But its core purpose is essentially identical to that of trade and professional associations. Associations are society’s instantiations of communities of practice, groups of people who share a common interest, profession, or passion and agree to actively engage around what they have in common. That leads us to Dee Hock’s (and my) view of organizations like VISA and associations:

“…organizations exist only in the mind; they are no more than the conceptual embodiments of the ancient idea of community.”
—Dee Hock, Birth of The Chaordic Age

When associations go astray

This perspective is extremely important because it’s easy for associations to forget their initial and continued reasons for existence. Every association is created when at some moment in time a group of people with something in common wants to further a particular profession and/or the interests of those engaged in a profession and/or the public interest. Typically, the community already exists informally. Its “members” want to create a formal, legal structure to support, deepen, and widen its reach.

Associations can, however, lose sight of this primal and ongoing purpose. When this happens, they concentrate on self-perpetuation and/or expansion at the expense of supporting the community of practice for which they were created. Remembering that an association is, at its core, a set of agreements in people’s minds about the instantiation of a community that is important to them is key to keeping the association relevant to the community it serves.

So remember that associations exist only in the mind. Keeping an association’s purpose foremost, is key to maintaining its community of practice’s core reasons for being.

Lessons from my association leadership transitions

association leadership transitionsIn June I’m stepping down as President and Executive Director of edACCESS, an association I co-founded 25 years ago. This is the third time I’ve left an association leadership position. Here are some valuable lessons learned from these association leadership transitions.

The Solar Association of Vermont

Although the rapid growth of the solar energy industry may appear to be a recent phenomenon, North American boomers will remember the late 70’s and early 80’s when the 1979 “oil-crisis” hit and interest in alternative energy generation soared. I moved to Vermont in 1978 and joined the management of a fledging solar hot water manufacturing business. After a couple of years, I helped to found the Solar Association of Southern Vermont. Eventually we became the Solar Association of Vermont (SAVE!) We’d hold monthly meetings in the tiny rural town of Brattleboro and sixty people would show up. SAVE went on to produce many of the earliest alternative energy conferences in the United States.

But in the 80’s Reagan was elected. He removed the solar collectors that a colleague of mine had installed on the White House. By the mid-80’s oil prices had returned to pre-crisis levels. Interest in solar energy dried up and SAVE meeting attendance shrank to a few people.

What did we do?

We shut SAVE down.

We held a big end-of-the-association party, inviting everyone who had been part of this brief flowering of community interest. Little did we know that our work would set the stage for the meteoric rise of solar photovoltaic systems today.


As time passes, the key motivations for an association’s existence can transmute, or even disappear. I’ve worked with hundreds of associations, and seen some continue to struggle on long after their mission has become irrelevant. Check regularly that your association’s mission remains congruent with its circumstances. If not, change your mission or your operations to stay relevant. Or, if necessary, close up shop (not forgetting to celebrate all your good work if you do!)

A local association

After a number of years serving as a board member of a local chapter of a national association, the board offered me the presidency. The national was recommending that chapters fundamentally change the way they operated, a change I agreed with. I told the board that I would happily accept the presidency if we allocated the resources needed to make this transformation happen, arguing that the change would improve our financial resources by allowing us to significantly increase our community fundraising.

Unfortunately, the board refused to allocate the resources I requested.

Consequently I reluctantly turned down the presidency and left the board, as I did not want to lead an association whose board did not support the vision I had for its future.

Looking back on the subsequent evolution of the association, I don’t regret my decision, though I wish I’d been better able to convince the board that my approach was a better alternative to staying with the status quo.


Before taking an association leadership role, share your vision for the future and make sure the rest of the association buys into it. If they don’t, don’t take the job!


In 1991 I co-founded edACCESS, a 501(c)6 that supports information technology staff at small schools. Initially, I had a professional interest in the organization’s mission for many years and served for free. As my consulting focus shifted increasingly towards meeting design, I moved into a paid part-time executive director role.

In May, I decided to give up the position, with the goal of making the handover to new leadership as smooth as possible. I announced my intent at the June annual conference and offered to stay for a year in a supervisory role, coaching new leadership as needed.

The existing leadership handled my announcement very well. I told them I would provide any desired assistance and advice around leadership changes, but felt it was important not to be intimately involved in ongoing decisions. I was gratified by the response, which to me reflects the fundamental health of the association I helped to create.

As I write this, the transition is going well. The full year’s notice will allow me to take new and existing leadership through an entire life cycle of core association process. I am confident that the association will be in good shape when I leave.


I have seen (and experienced) a number of associations that were severely stressed by the sudden departure of leadership and the total lack of any leadership succession planning. To be honest, edACCESS is small enough that we did not have a formal plan in place. I am glad I have the flexibility to offer what will hopefully be sufficient time and support to allow the association to continue effectively carrying out its mission. Don’t assume that key association staff or board members, will stay with the organization for ever, or give you ample warning before they depart! Pre-emergency planning for leadership, staffing, and succession will minimize the turmoil that can be generated without warning when key personnel leave unexpectedly.

Association leadership transitions

Have you made association leadership transitions? What lessons have you learned that others may value? Share in the comments!

Photo attribution: Flickr user by_andy

Unmembership and unconferences

Unmembership and unconferences roots

Unmembership and unconferences?

Sparked by my article Is unmembership the future of associations?, Joe Rominiecki, senior editor of Associations Now, has published an interview with me: How “Unmembership” Gets Back to the Roots of Associating.

The interview helped me verbalize the close connection between the reasons why associations begin and new conferences are born. I’ll leave you to read Joe’s excellent article for the details.

Photo attribution: Flickr user buehlerphoto

Is unmembership the future of associations?

Members only 3633903316_684c8b08df_b

Unmembership? What’s that?” It’s a word invented by my creative friend Mitchell Beer during a wonderful ninety minute coffee break during the 2014 PCMA Convening Leaders conference a few weeks ago. Let me explain.

First, some definitions. In this post I use the term “formal member” to refer someone who has paid dues to be an association member, while “informal members” are those people who would currently consider themselves to have a significant connection with an association. Unlike informal membership, the exact number of formal members of an association can be quantified at any moment from an AMS report. Associations that have no formal members use what Mitchell calls an unmembership model.

The role of membership in association business models

Over the past few years there’s been a growing debate about the role of membership in association business models. I’m sure I’ve only heard a portion of it, but a great place to start is Jeff De Cagna‘s excellent July 2012 articles Five reasons why membership is killing association business models Part I, Part II, and Part III. (I’ve included links to some other discussions at the end of this post.)

Jeff’s reasons for concern are that membership-centric business models:

  • organize all value around the membership relationship;
  • tend to focus on association outputs instead of stakeholder outcomes;
  • often depend on cross-subsidies that create unintended consequences;
  • ask members to make the most important decisions about new value creation; and
  • require a significant investment of human effort for an insufficient return.

A couple of examples of unmembership

I agree with all of Jeff’s arguments. Rather than repeat them I recommend you go and read the original articles. In this post I’ll share my experience as the co-founder and president of two small associations, which now both use the unmembership model.

The Marlboro School Association

One of these associations, a 501(c)(3), is so small that its lack of formal members is not especially remarkable. The Marlboro School Association (MSA) was founded in 1994 to raise an endowment for the small K-8 public school in the Vermont town (2000 census population, 978) where I live; endowment income is used to improve attending students’ educational experience. The MSA was set up using an unmembership model right from the start. Volunteers run this non-profit, which has built a $250,000 endowment over the last twenty years. The informal members of the MSA are those community members who support the work of the MSA through donations of money or their time. We have no need for formal members.


The other association, edACCESS, a 501(c)(6), was founded in 1992 as a vehicle for administrative IT staff at small schools to explore the use of some amazing new devices called “personal computers”. For ten years, edACCESS used an annual dues membership model. At the time it seemed necessary. Potential vendors for our annual trade show would ask us how many members we had, and we felt compelled to be able to give them a number.

But over the years it became clear that maintaining formal membership was more trouble than it was worth. We discovered that tracking and collecting dues from formal members was distracting us from our core mission: supporting and fostering a community of informal members who shared the association’s purpose. In 2002 we abandoned our formal membership model. The trade show vendors didn’t seem to mind, because by then they were asking how many decision-makers would be attending our annual conference, and we had good information available for them.

Volunteers ran edACCESS for sixteen years. In 2008, when I stopped consulting in the educational IT field and began a professional shift to meeting design, I asked the organization (the board, our conference steering committee, and the participants at the annual conference) if it would consider paying me to continue to coordinate its activities. Now I am the sole paid, very part-time, staff member (volunteers receive various perks and we reimburse their expenses).

The annual conference process effectively uncovers participants’ issues and occasionally leads us to hold further focused events during the year. A listserv (old-fashioned, but effective) and private wiki provide places for community members to access resources, ask questions and get support at any time. We also run a site-visit program that allows interested schools to receive targeted consulting for modest fees.

What is the edACCESS revenue model? Our income comes almost entirely from our events—the vast majority from our annual 3½-day conference. We construct our event budgets to cover our modest administrative needs. Over the years we have built up sufficient funds to weather several years of poorly attended or canceled events, though we have had no problems so far during our 22 years.

What can we conclude from these examples?

First of all, I hope they illustrate that unmembeship is a viable path for small associations. The MSA has enjoyed a few hundred informal members during its history, edACCESS a few thousand. Both associations are fulfilling their missions while maintaining healthy finances. As Joe Rominiecki comments in his article referenced below, adopting an unmembership model “removes some complacency; the organization has to be relevant to its community, or the community will just go elsewhere. They haven’t committed money in advance that might keep them around.”

What about associations that supply other benefits to their members? Industry research, lobbying, and chapter support, for example, all cost money to provide. I think there’s a role here for tying support to unbundled programs using a Kickstarter approach. “Want your association to do X? $Y is what such-and-such level of X will cost. Here are suggested donation amounts, (which might be associated with specific individual/corporate benefits). If pledges reach $Y we’ll do X, otherwise we won’t.” Funding models for potential programs would incorporate the associated administrative expenses incurred. In other words, rather than guess or impose what your association community wants, let them choose for themselves.

“Free membership” association models

I haven’t said anything so far about “free membership” association models that straddle the formal and informal definitions I’ve given above. Clearly, as the rapid growth of Doximity shows, there can be demand for a free service when the target “member” is a well-compensated professional defined by third-party certification. The question in my mind is whether it’s possible to generate sufficient revenue to pay for the “free” service. In Doximity’s case, revenue currently seems to be a combination of advertising, LinkedIn-like recruiting firm fees, and, perhaps, ultimately consumer subscriptions to some kind of referral service. Time will tell whether this is a sustainable model.

Finally I don’t think that all associations will embrace an unmembership model in the future. For example, any associations that have a lock on key certification requirements or continuing education for their industry are very unlikely to give up the membership income that their members essentially have to provide to become or remain certified in their field. Nevertheless, I expect there to be a growing trend towards unmembership associations providing flexible unbundled services to the informal members who find them of value.

Other posts that may be of interest on the role of membership in associations

Are Free Membership Models the Future for Associations? by Joshua Paul, Socius, March 2011
Who Belongs to Whom? by Joe Rominiecki, Associations Now, September 2013
New Social Network for Docs Already Outpaces AMA Membership, by Rob Stott, Associations Now, January 2014

Photo attribution: Flickr user sonofgroucho