Joe Rominiecki wrote a post on Acronym about big and niche. He starts the post off with a slight dismissal of the “associations are doomed” narrative and concludes that we need to be serious about how associations choose to deliver value (should we try to represent everyone in the industry, or just a niche, maybe both?…).
Then Shelly Alcorn did a follow up post about whether associations are about professions or needs, citing a Young Entrepreneur Council as a new idea to support young entrepreneurs (rather than an industry). Maybe associations could collaborate to support entrepreneurs, she suggests, since it’s not about a single industry?
There’s nothing particularly “wrong” about either post (Joe and Shelly are smart cookies and write good stuff), but I find that I’m reacting to both posts in a similar way. I must be missing something. Because there is a certain amount of drama implied in these posts, with Joe’s reference to “end of the world” movies and Shelly’s suggestion that this “both/and” idea is potentially “game changing.”
Maybe I’m incorrectly inferring the drama, but I really don’t get it. This looks like some simple business decisions to me: who are you going to serve and how are you going to serve them. Every business on the planet is constantly making that decision (and then re-making it as things change). There may not be easy answers (which is one reason why many businesses fail), but the basic need to answer these questions, I would think, is a given for any organization. Why is it such a big deal for associations that we are faced with these decisions?
And that’s when I realized why I was reacting to the articles. It sounds too much like these arguments start from the place of “Associations are in and of themselves important so it is critical we figure out what the mission is, for fear of losing this critically important institution.” That bugs me. I fear we have believed our own spin for so long, that we have developed a sense of entitlement. We are a part of democracy. We are a pathway to human community. We associations MUST to exist, because if we didn’t, things like democracy and human community would be threatened.
No, dear associations, I hate to break it to you, but you’re not that big of a deal.
Sorry, but you’re just not. Democracy and human community are wonderful things, but let’s be clear: they are much, much bigger than our associations. Don’t get me wrong: I love it when associations actually do advance things like democracy and human community. That’s awesome. Keep at it! But democracy and human community are going to be just fine if your association can’t figure out how to stay alive. Don’t confuse our need for democracy and human community with a need for associations.
We don’t need associations. What we need are people to come together and create endeavors that advance our communities. Hey, are you finding that connecting people around a need rather than an industry has some energy behind it? Sweet, go ahead and run with that idea. Are you finding that bringing people together inside a niche in your industry is helping to solve problems, advance interests, and improve lives? Awesome, forge ahead and let us know how it goes. Are you noticing that parts of our model, like engaging members in the governance of the organization, is helping to create deeper meaning for people who are the customers of the association? Yay! It’s nice to hear that we’re doing things that work. But none of that proves (to me anyway) that we need associations. It just proves that advancing our species is a group effort.
We don’t need associations, we need awesomeness. So let’s stop choosing sides in the “are associations under threat” debate and let’s simply get focused on being awesome, recognizing that the definition of being awesome will constantly be changing, morphing, and evolving with the times.
If you love something, set it free. I love the association community, so I hereby let go of my need for it to exist. That frees me up to actually do the work better, and that’s what we need right now.
P.S. If this rant sounds familiar, it’s because I wrote something very similar a year ago, which makes the whole picture even more disappointing.