The question of association value comes up over and over again. Business leaders frequently ask their representative on an association board or committee to justify the expense of their association participation. The question boils down to this: what’s the value proposition of trade association participation for my company?
Participation can be expensive. The “expense” of trade association participation includes several elements with both direct and indirect costs:
- Membership Dues – why are they so high, how are they used?
- Participation Costs – travel and time away from work.
- Opportunity Costs – does participation in the association really help my business or does it just benefit my competitors and help my staff network their way to a better position?
Association leaders come to expect questions about the value proposition of the association membership. The question, asked in many ways is essentially this:
What are we getting for our membership?
I found a basic guide to assessing association membership value in Running Your Own Company, An Entrepreneur’s Field Manual, a compilation of Paul Riecks’ best SmartCEO columns on leadership and management. Riecks offers advice on common problems faced by owners and operators of small-medium sized businesses.
Here’s Riecks’ list of what you should expect from your trade association. I’ve added my thoughts based on experience.
- The Association Communicates Well
This is a pretty obvious requirement, but in the age of social media and information overload in general this requires some qualification. It’s important that your association communicate with you about things that no other organization can. Associations must be curators of information, only sending you content that you can’t get yourself from the Internet, and always adding an explanation of how it affects your business.
- The Association is Passionate about Members’ Success
I think many associations forget that they need to help their members succeed in business. There is a tendency to write mission statements that favor consumers or some greater public good. I think associations should leave the greater public good to others. Association resources should be devoted to helping the members win whatever game they’re playing.
- The Association Balances the Concerns of Different-Sized Members.
Healthy industries include companies of many different types and sizes, but these companies have different needs when it comes to government regulation and compliance. Not all companies are involved in every market and this needs to be considered too.
- The Association is Responsive to Member Requests.
The association staff should be passionate about serving the members. As consumers we all know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of lackluster service. Associations that tolerate poor service and member interaction are asking for unhappy members. Make sure your team receives customer service training as soon as they join the organization so that they know that the organization makes it a priority.
- The Association Sponsors Good Meetings.
One of the basic functions of an association is connecting people and companies. Even direct competitors sometimes come together to jointly resolve industry problems. Competitors that won’t have a drink in the same bar will attend an association meeting and join forces to protect their industry. Associations are about connecting people more than anything else.
- The Association Collects and Disseminates Industry Data.
Competition from for-profit service providers is a real threat to the value proposition of many associations. One clear advantage that associations have over for-profit competitors is access to information and their members trust. All sorts of industry data can be collected, sorted and published in ways that benefit the member companies.
- The Association Sponsors Professional Certifications
Associations have a unique opportunity to provide professional certifications for their member companies’ professional staff or for products or services offered by the companies. Many times it is association certifications or guidelines that prevent or delay costlier and less efficient government regulation.
- The Association Represents the Membership and the Industry Before Legislatures
Lobbying is frequently the first thing people think of when they’re asked what an association does for them. Assessing the effectiveness of your association’s advocacy program requires a detailed evaluation and an understanding of what can be accomplished. Government relations programs come in many shapes and sizes, but your association almost certainly needs to have one.
- The Association Rotates Board Membership and Officer Slots on a Regular Basis
The leadership of an effective association changes on a regular basis. If the association has had the same president, officers, or directors for a long time it’s unlikely that it’s an effective organization.
If your company is a member of one or more trade associations and you don’t have a clear sense of how the association performs in these categories, then you should take a look at your membership. An examination can simply mean asking your trade association representative to answer the questions above, or it can be a more comprehensive audit. I’ve been on both sides of an association audit and I would be happy to discuss the process with you.