The world, she is a changing: Trends associations should be watching

Previously, I explored how associations bring together contributions from members to accomplish something that would be difficult to accomplish individually.  Based on the positive receptions from association thinkers like Jeffrey Cufaude, Shelly Alcorn,  Cynthia D’Amour, Tony Rossell, and David Gammel I think there may be something to the idea that the value provided by associations is under fire because the world in which associations operate is changing.  So what are some of those changes in the external world that may be making association participation less necessary?

  • The Internet and mobile technology give unprecedented access to knowledge. The rise and growth of the Internet, which was only commercialized in the mid-1990s, is astounding.  Today, individuals can find and do almost anything easier, faster, and cheaper than they could in 1995 - career advice, technical training, networking connections, legislative tracking and responsive advocacy, competitive product pricing, vendor selection, buying advice, and nearly limitless content in every category. These same activities were the bread and butter of associations in the mid-90s – and sadly, many associations still see these as their exclusive domain.  The worth of these activities have not changed – people still want them all – but changes in the external environment mean that these very same activities may no longer be “valued benefits” if individuals can achieve similar results elsewhere easily and affordably without an association.

  • The commercial landscape has changed.  Nearly every association is also directly impacted by the economic condition of its members.  And the reality is that the external operating environment is wreaking havoc on many of those members.  The rise of the Internet has facilitated interstate and international commerce in ways that challenge traditional business operating environments (such as location, fulfillment, design, even staffing) and often create a race toward the lowest possible price.  Consumer access to increased amounts of information puts new pressures on profit margins and operating processes, as well as providing consumers with a powerful collection of feedback from other customers that influence buying decisions.  The new normal is an intensely competitive, open environment, often accompanied by with less generous profit margins.

  • Competition for resources has increased.  Regardless of its focus, associations are impacted by the people who comprise its membership.  And the external environment of those members is changing too.  During the 1990s, the number of dual-earner households broke the 50% barrier, making two working parents the predominate model.  It is not a surprise that in 1995, a Cornell research study found that more than half of Americans reported that they “‘almost never’ have time on their hands.” More recently, a Harris Interactive poll reported that leisure hit an all-time low, decreasing 20% from the previous year and a total of 10 hours since tracking began in 1973.  And if that were not enough, household debt, which has risen slowly over a long period, doubled between 2000 and 2007.  Our members ─ and potential members ─ have less time, less control of their schedules, and increased financial commitments.          

What are your reactions to these statistics?  What other significant external trends do you see that challenge the value that associations provide? Join me in my next post to see my thoughts on what associations should be doing to prepare for the future.


  1. Anecdotal! What are the actual "measurable impacts" on associations? I accept that these, and perhaps other changes in the world are having impacts on associations, but we simply need to do a better job of measuring those impacts and understanding more about "how" they are effecting organizations than speculating about them.

    We're all smart people -- which includes smart enough to spin logical and rational explanations for why A leads to B.... but then again, our species had logical explanations for why the world was flat too.

    BTW, did you know that there's a "Flat Earth Society" and they publish experiments that they believe proves the earth is flat? Some of their "members" may do this for fun... but some of them are dead serious!

    We owe it to ourselves and our members to be more grounded in our assertions.

    I commit to publishing an article in about two weeks that presents a measurement of what has and has not changed for associations since 1993. Let me give you a hint -- it's not as big as "thought leaders" would have us believe...

  2. Thanks Michael -- Glad we agree that these external trends are having impacts on associations. And I further agree that these trends are just a starting point ... each association needs to dig further and look at the specific exterior trends that provide opportunity or challenge, and detail the specific impact.

    I look forward to your article -- you have always done a great job raising the bar on data-based research in the association field. Grounded research is great ... keeping your head in the ground while the world around you changes is not. Here's to associations doing more of the former, and less of the latter!