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Associations: Either Innovate or Stagnate

Here’s how two associations creatively added value for members.

Strategic innovation is critical in business today, especially for associations at the forefront of fast-changing and disruptive environments in the industries they serve. It’s therefore no surprise that many association executives are equally concerned about how to drive innovation inside their own organizations in order to remain relevant to members and stay ahead of changing times and evolving trends.

Many organizations and individuals alike struggle with the concept of innovation. But while we may think of it as game-changing, breakthrough discoveries and technologies, it can just as easily refer to new concepts, new marketing strategies, or new ways of positioning your association to be more relevant to current and prospective members. According to leading experts (and Merriam Webster’s dictionary), innovation is far simpler than you may suspect: By definition, it’s simply the introduction of something new.

In fact, often all it takes is just a greater sense of perspective and a willingness to make some shifts in strategy and thinking. Here are the stories of two associations where small changes led to big results, illustrating the idea that getting ahead in business today isn’t about having more resources, it’s about being more resourceful.

Case Study 1: National Association of Corporate Directors
More than 35 years old, the National Association of Corporate Directors represents approximately 15,000 members of boards of directors for leading businesses across America, and is the authority on advancing boardroom practices. But several years back, NACD realized it had a problem: Many industries and markets had become wildly unpredictable due to fast-changing business landscapes, emerging technologies, growing shareholder activism, and increasing legislative and regulatory activity. Based on all this, NACD realized the role of directors and boards was about to get far more challenging.

Even with the bright, experienced, and educated minds among its membership, NACD leaders knew that novel problems demanded novel solutions. The association would need to turn to those most experienced in these challenges, many out of house. So, it launched NACD Directorship 2020: A multi-year series of symposiums designed to help directors and boards identify and prepare for emerging issues. 

In 2013, NACD Directorship 2020 explored inward-facing issues, asking directors to reconsider how they engage with management, their corporate culture, and new ways to measure company performance. In 2014, NACD Directorship 2020 explored external forces transforming the way we live and work, create new business models, and drive strategic change. And in 2015, NACD Directorship 2020 focused on disruptors transforming the field and how directors can anticipate and respond to these opportunities.  By being proactive, and not just focusing on best practices here and now, but also giving members the tools they need to succeed going forward, the NACD grew its membership by over 30 percent over a three-year span.

Case Study 2: Association for Chemistry and Economics
More than 15 years old, Germany’s Association for Chemistry and Economics has about 30,000 members. Its population is hugely diverse, spread across many business sectors. Determined to help foster communication among members, VCW wanted to create a network that would allow participants to collaborate with scientists and engineers in every field in order to be more successful—and raise awareness of the organization as well.

It invented the idea of Social Chemistry—an open, online portal for crowdsourcing ideas and pooling resources. Not only did the platform allow participants to submit and share ideas for new projects, it also allowed them to comment on or vote for winning ideas, team up to participate on these solutions, and share suggestions by email.

After a five-week submission phase, 11 jury members weighed members’ votes and submissions against four criteria—originality, applicability, feasibility, and thoughtfulness—and winners could potentially see their ideas turned into action. In the wake of these efforts, not only did the number of ideas generated greatly exceed expectation, a significant portion of visitors to the site contributed suggestions such that comment rates were through the roof, and the VCW generated a number of new initiatives for the industry. It also uncovered important new concepts and trends that it could build on or encourage members to explore further.

Scott Steinberg, a trend expert and futurist, is author of Netiquette Essentials: New Rules for Minding Your Manners in a Digital World, and other business books. He’s also founder of travel and hospitality trends magazine SELECT: Your City’s Secrets Unlocked, and host of Next Up on NewsWatch.

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