Seth Godin calls associations out…

This morning, uber blogger Seth Godin called associations out for being focused on fighting against change rather than trying to help our members capitalize on it.  You should read the whole post, but here’s the key paragraph:

Whenever a trade association raises the barricades and tries to lobby their way into maintaining the status quo, they are doing their members a disservice. Instead of spending time and insight and effort reinventing what they do and organizing for a better future, the members are lulled into a sense of security that somehow, somehow, the future will be just like today.

On this point, I have to agree with Seth.  Every minute associations spend trying to put the brakes on changes that are going to happen anyway is time wasted.  Instead, we should be investing more energy, attention and resources into telling our members the difficult and uncomfortable truths about the future, preparing them for a tomorrow that will not look like yesterday and helping them make the most of the new opportunities created by change.  As Seth writes, “You don’t have to like change to take advantage of it.”  Associations would be much better off if we welcomed the possibilities of change, but if not, at least we should look for ways to innovate and make them work for our members and our organizations.

By way of illustration, let’s consider the case of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) and its decision on Friday to cancel the organization’s upcoming national convention.  This isn’t a lobbying situation, but the association’s choice still represents a clearheaded recognition that ASNE members face very serious challenges on the job that cannot be ignored.  With that reality in mind, ASNE members were going to vote at the convention on dropping the word, “paper” from the organization’s name, and admitting web-only news editors to membership.  According to the press release* announcing the decision to cancel the convention, the vote will still take place electronically.  The outcome should provide some useful insights into the mindset of the association’s members, so stay tuned for that.

But what will come next?  Without a convention, what new steps will ASNE take to engage its members in meaningful inquiry and invention around their challenges?  Assuming the vote to broaden the ASNE membership passes, how quickly can the association engage those new members in the process of creating what’s next?  Making statements and showing support isn’t enough.  Associations need to be genuine partners with their members in devising, prototyping and implementing possible solutions to the “wicked problems” facing their industries and professions.  If staff and volunteer leaders can adopt this new way of thinking, ASNE and all associations can renew their reasons for being and reestablish meaningful connections with those they serve.

Our community’s reflexive reaction to the kind of criticism Seth levels is to lash out at it as uninformed and dismiss it as irrelevant.  In response to Seth’s post, I’m certain that many association leaders, and perhaps even some association bloggers, will find it difficult to control that reflex, especially in these difficult economic times when any critique is harder to accept.  On this occasion, however, I hope we can use Seth’s point of view as the basis for a real dialogue around the assumptions that association leaders make when it comes to preserving the status quo and embracing change.  It is a conversation from which our community could really benefit.

*At the time I published this post, the link to the press release was not working properly, but I anticipate that it will be fixed.

Jeff De Cagna

Jeff De Cagna is chief strategist and founder of Principled Innovation LLC, and a contrarian thinker on strategy, business models, governing and the future of associations.

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