Avoid the One Word that Threatens Your Organization


If I use a certain word in referencing a friend’s membership organization, I know to expect a negative reaction.  However, that word holds the key to survival for most all membership associations these days.  According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word’s primary meaning relates to “having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand,” So do you have the word?

This key word is….. “relevant.”  Organizations today struggle to be relevant for their members, volunteers, and donors.  The impact of some groups isn’t clear, and as their operating environment changes, their attraction is waning.  They are the proverbial, “boat not making any waves” ……. “headed nowhere” types of groups.   Many haven’t shifted their core base of activity for several decades and it should be no surprise that they are at the top of the endangered list. 

Change is all around us and with technology it moves at a light-speed pace.  When the environment in which we operate has experienced seismic shifts, how can groups expect to remain relevant UNLESS they change with it? 

Of course, relevance isn’t the only force at play.  Over the years, authors have speculated on the state of volunteerism and organizational engagement.  Most notable, in the year 2000, author Robert Putnam released “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.”   In his book he relayed data from multiple sources to demonstrate that social capital and engagement was on the decline for organizations, churches, clubs and face-to-face interaction in communities.  While he suggested several reasons for the decline, he also investigated how the social capital trend could be reversed.  Now, nineteen years later, one could speculate that advancing technology and the use of mobile devices has further impacted this trend.

In 2014, authors Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers released, “Race for Relevance: 5 Radical Changes for Associations.”  Their book looked at the future of associations and what they needed to do to remain relevant.  It focused on changes that needed to take place in five key areas, ranging from governance to membership focus.   Their key message fit with the Tony Robbins quote, “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.”

I encounter organizations every day that are pretty much “doing what they’ve always done.” At the same time, they wonder why younger people don’t want to join, donate, get involved or volunteer.  The fundraising events they sponsor are not much different.  Attendance evokes a déjà vu feeling, year after year, and yet they wonder why attendance is dropping.  Here are five key points that an organization can do in their search for relevance.

1. Be Objective

Some organizations are bound by charters and the hierarchy of a State or National organization.  Others are bound by their own history and the fear of changing too drastically.  If you want to survive and thrive then it’s time to step back, be objective and seriously consider if the old structure makes sense.  Most importantly, recognize that the problems with your growth don’t lie with others, but probably within your organization. 

2. Research

You must research what people want from your organization, or recurring event, as it evolves.  Find out what the barriers to involvement have been.  Remember, a neutral party will receive the most candid answers.  You’ll be surprised at the perceptions that are out there.  When I consult with these organizations and talk with prospective joiners, I hear all types of simple “reasons” why people have not been supportive.  “They meet too frequently.”  “I’m really not sure what they do.”  “I’m just not into the meeting thing, and their processes are archaic.”  Take a serious look at such comments and be willing to change.

3. Reinvent

Today more than ever, if organizations expect to survive, they need to reinvent themselves in response to what people want.  Fraternal organizations, lodges, service organizations, and even churches need to understand that the rules have shifted.  Not only do their attraction efforts need to change, the organization itself needs to analyze its basic structure, mission and perceptions to see if it is still…yes…. relevant.  In the words of Charles Handy, “The best time to recreate the organization is while it’s successful, not after the decline sets in.”

4. Adapt

Adapt if you hope to thrive.  Organization leaders will claim the problem lies with the potential donors or volunteers.  “These younger people just don’t want to _______ anymore.”  You can insert join, donate, volunteer, get involved or several others in that phrase.  I remind them it’s just not true.  They DO want to do these things, just not in the way it’s always been done.  Want involvement from a younger person?  Think about some quick-hit projects where they can set their own schedule and see that they are making a difference more immediately.  Want them to donate?  Be certain you have a mobile option or recurring payment opportunities.  Remember, it’s not just the younger generation that will respond positively to adapting to their needs.

5. Create Excitement

When you make changes to your organization, create excitement around the “new” you.  It’s time to let people know you’re not the same-old brand from the past 25 to 30 years.  Invite leaders, cut a ribbon, issue a press release, invite the public to an official “announcement.”  You get the idea, just make it special and newsworthy.

Still not motivated?  I encourage struggling organizations to look at their current status and environment and anticipate what changes may occur in five, or even ten years.  They usually see, staying relevant won’t be getting any easier.  Often, that’s more than enough motivation for change. 

David Fry is the president and chief executive officer of Effective Advancement Strategies in Greensburg.

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