Association Entrepreneurship

Kevin Holland is continuing a thread of discussion he started a while back about how associations can easily be disrupted by a start-up who uses newly cheap relationship-facilitating technology to do better what you used to need a national infrastructure to do.

The tools available to associations now — open source! affordable! surprisingly powerful! — are overwhelming compared to the options we had ten (or five) years ago. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how many are actually taking advantage of them. I still see a lot of associations who think of technology as “the database” (and maybe “the website”) being run by “membership” or “IT.”

What a dangerous error and huge lost opportunity. You wanna compete in a world where anybody can raise $100k and start competing with you, then realize that it’s not about managing data. It’s not even about managing relationships. It’s about being managed by relationships.

I totally agree with his premise. And I don’t think it would take $100k in most cases either. In fact, this very topic will form the basis of a scenario I am preparing for a session at the ASAE Annual Meeting next month. The session is titled “Missing Conversations” and is scheduled for Saturday August 13 at 3:30 p.m.

A related idea I came across recently was an essay by Paul Graham called Hiring is Obsolete. He says that the best way to get hired at big internet companies these days is to create your own start-up and prove the value of your ideas. If you have good ideas and can execute then you have a good shot at being acquired by an existing company. Bingo: dream job and a nice nest egg.

Associations can do the same thing with self-forming groups or competing organizations: Identify the highest energy groups out there and recruit them into your association. ASAE has done this to a certain extent with the GWSAE merger and talks with the Northern California SAE.

One benefit of that approach for the organization is that it pre-qualifies new membership segments/communities that can be brought into the fold. It may also identify a market for a new or exiting product that the association would never have figured out on its own. It basically solves the issues of large organization’s inherent inertia that dampens innovation. (See also the Innovators Solution for more on that theme.)

So what might this look like in action? A simple one is to hop onto Yahoo Groups and look for active groups with a related topic. Join the conversation as a peer (not as the National Mothership Who Knows Best). Offer meeting space to the group at one of your next events, invite them to meet with your Board, get them engaged! Actually, get yourselves engaged with them, since these groups usually have plenty of engagement already, just not with you.

Associations have the infrastructure that these more ephemeral web-based groups cannot create on their own in most cases. Use that strength to create mutually beneficial relationships and see where it takes you.

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