Associations: Trading Old Thinking for New Action

When was the last time you attended a networking event or a panel discussion held by one of the associations you've joined? If the answer is "I can't remember", you may agree with me that the days of associations are numbered, unless they change.

In a June 2011 NPR piece entitled "Time for Association to Trade in Their Past?" correspondent Linton Weeks contended that associations are stale, retro, not keeping pace with our uber-digital, hyper-connected world. "In this age of teleconferencing and social networking, the game has changed," Weeks declared. I'm sure when most people receive an invite to their association's latest event, they think, why should I spend the money to attend this to see my friend Ted when I can just text him?

Staying in touch by pressing just a few buttons on your laptop/smartphone/iPad is so much easier, cheaper and less time consuming than trekking to and paying for another dinner, panel discussion, or even networking event. Competing with associations for your time and money now are trade shows, virtual conferences and meetings; many people find their personal calendars are often double and triple booked with work and family obligations and they have little energy to expend on professional gatherings. And so, associations like ASME, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, are finding that the challenge is to remain relevant to keep current members satiated and attract new ones.

Consider that most associations have seen a steep drop-off in the number of members. The American Medical Association, for one, has 25 percent of all physicians as members today; in 1965, 25 percent of physicians were not members; 75 percent were ( see Race for Relevance, Center for Association Leadership, by Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers). I'm positive these numbers are mirrored for associations across the country and that the heyday for associations may have passed.

Conversely however, there's an 'unplug' movement -- beckoning those who crave a tech-disconnect and a reconnect with colleagues face-to-face. That movement, I think, presents associations with an unexplored opportunity to appeal to those members who want to re-engage their interpersonal relationships thru associations.

ASME believes other organizations like ours are facing similar challenges and are asking the question -- why should people continue to associate with associations today? ASME believes the answer is members and volunteers want associations to present them with new possibilities and information for the field they are in, for the future and for the world.

I am suggesting that associations transform themselves into 'social entrepreneurs.' By definition, that means associations should serve as society's change agents, creators of innovations that challenge the status quo and transform our world for the better. The nonprofit sector already has some notable examples with the Skoll Foundation, the Acumen Fund and the Omidyar Network, to name a few.

Engaging with our over 125,000 members worldwide, ASME is addressing crises in energy, health, nutrition, housing, sanitation, education and equality -- all issues where associations like ours can have an influence globally. We are delivering on our mission to benefit society, making the world a better place. We're supporting efforts by engineers in sustainable global development, including the work of E4C -- Engineering for Change. Efforts like those of E4C allow engineers -- including many members of ASME -- the opportunity to take direct part in developing solutions to challenges, whether in energy infrastructure, in clean water technology, or in so many other areas, that the world needs us, the engineers, to solve.

This should be the new message about associations -- that they should become more competitive in the marketplace by putting forth fresh ideas on issues and problems that concern all of us. As Michael C. Porter and Mark R. Kramer famously asserted in the Harvard Business Review, "Companies must take the lead in bringing business and society back together. The solution lies in the principle of shared value."

How shared value plays a role in associations can perhaps best be explained in this Wikipedia definition. A professional association is "a nonprofit organization seeking to further a particular profession, the interests of the individuals engaged in that profession and the public interest." What was important to associations when many were founded a hundred years ago should still be central to their existence today.

As an association, ASME believes the key to staying relevant is to emphasize several strategic areas: embrace social entrepreneurship, support transformational technology, aim for global impact, and develop an international workforce.

And in adapting to the changes in how and why people associate, associations would do well to re-engage members, volunteers and others who are passionate about being involved in these areas. We will be seen as addressing the world's concerns in a meaningful way. Associations can take a page from corporations who've becoming socially responsible and therefore seem to be more connected to the pulse of our times in the public's eye.

We need to be able to say -- proudly -- that associations today are no longer your grandfather's association.

Thomas G. Loughlin is the executive director of the ASME, a not-for-profit professional organization that enables collaboration, knowledge sharing and skill development across all engineering disciplines, while promoting the vital role of the engineer in society.