Serious Questions: Are associations dead?

In August, I launched the P. I. Serious Questions newsletter. Each issue of the newsletter presents a serious question on which I offer my thoughts for newsletter subscribers. Today, I am publishing what I wrote on the September 2012 Serious Question of the Month on the P.I. Blog.

The September 2012 Serious Question of the Month

Are associations dead?

This was not the “serious question” I planned to write about this month, but a recent conversation with an association executive director inspired me to tackle it. The CEO had just read my new e-book, Associations Unorthodox: Six Really Radical Shifts Toward the Future, and he wondered whether I actually believe associations are “dead” in the long run. It was an unanticipated, yet not entirely surprising inquiry. The answer, of course, is more complicated than a simple “yes or no.”

For the most part, I find public ruminations on this kind of binary choice to be counterproductive. After all, one response (yes) is more likely to evoke deep feelings of genuine disdain and disbelief, while the other (no) may engender a false sense of security and a willful ignorance of the real world. Not much is gained from a reflection that is so narrowly construed and inwardly focused.

Still, concerns about the long-term viability of associations are not misplaced, and it is reasonable to ask whether future stakeholders, who have vastly different sensibilities and more options at their fingertips than their predecessors, will simply lose interest in associations. Time will tell, of course. In the short term, however, associations must be more disciplined in vetting their traditional activities to determine which should be retained and which should be jettisoned to make room for new forms of value. Unfortunately, even with this kind of focused effort, it is hard to escape the conclusion that some associations will die over the next decade and beyond, either because of a rapid and unrecoverable surge of market events, the irreparable harm inflicted by entrenched denial and nostalgia among leaders or some combination of the two.

Can your association avoid this fate? It is impossible to know for certain, but if you’re committed to building your organization’s capacity to thrive in the years ahead, your best option is to pursue what I call “the generative work of transformation,” and not more of the creeping incrementalism our community tends to prefer. If you’re wondering what the generative work of transformation looks like, I hope you’ll give Associations Unorthodox a careful read. Keep in mind, however, that this work is not for the faint of heart. It challenges you to closely and relentlessly question everything you’ve always done, live with constant ambiguity and embrace failure, all without any guarantee that you’ll get it right. 21st century leadership isn’t easy, but it is definitely exciting!

(By the way, if you’re wondering what serious question I had planned to write about this month, it looks like you’ll have to wait until next month to find out. Sorry!)

If you enjoyed this post and would like to receive the P.I. Serious Questions newsletter, please subscribe today. You will receive your first issue in early November.

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.


  1. Great Article Jeff. Very eloquently put. I have spent 12 years trying to get many to wake up and believe that you stated it perfectly in that if they do go out of business, it will be because of “the irreparable harm inflicted by entrenched denial and nostalgia among leaders or some combination of the two” It is already happening monthly.

  2. Wendy Lyttle Reply to Wendy

    Good article and this question was discussed on a client call recently. When is the market saturated and when does the decline materialize. Wendy

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