Maximize Association Potential by Broadening Communications
Dr. Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), is passionate when talking about the role of associations in society. “I believe that associations have an opportunity to reach beyond their core mission and interests to affect society in a broader sense,” he stated. “And in that sense, volunteer leaders are the emissaries for their associations. They have to talk about why associations matter not just to members, but to everybody.”
From his vantage point as head of AEI, a nonpartisan think tank engaged in public policy research, leaders of associations have a tendency to talk only about the benefits their organizations provide with respect to their members.
“That’s understandable,” he said. “But as board members and as the leaders of an organization, we should always be ready to talk about why others outside of our organization should care about what we do. Associations are actually really good for the economy. They are legitimately providing economic growth, opportunity and jobs to members and potential members. These are huge benefits, and volunteer leaders need to be fluent in talking about them."
According to Brooks, the very mission of some associations can be beneficial to the common good. “The best associations improve the communities in which their members are involved,” he stated. “One way they do that is by maintaining standards in their particular profession. They feel a real sense of mission in maintaining those standards.”
Brooks continued, “The truth is associations are almost universally more effective than any other entity in maintaining quality-control standards in industries. The key is getting the word out. There are actually a lot of ways associations can and should advertise these things. It’s a matter of brand management. You can only do your important work if people know who you are. That’s certainly true here at the American Enterprise Institute. We think about our brand constantly. The more people who know who we are, the more they are going to associate the good work we do in helping the country. The same thing is true for associations. Let’s use a dental association as an example. The members are all engaged and active. They’re entrepreneurs, and they should be thinking about their brand as one that gives people confidence. The public should know that if a dentist belongs to this association, there are quality-control standards at play and this person has a community that keeps him or her up on the latest technologies and techniques.”
Associations can also promote their significance to the general public via promotional signage, advertisements in popular publications and venues and social media. “If you’re huge like the American Medical Association,” he added, “branding can be used as a source of outside revenue. The AMA could put their name on a product, for instance, as an endorsement. In so doing, there is a higher expectation within the industry to become part of the association because of its wider acceptance.”
In some instances, association leaders may get some resistance from long-time members in their efforts to broaden the organization’s appeal. Brooks said, “It’s important for leadership to explain to the core members that, ‘This is how we can expand our market, this is how we can serve the public better and this is how we can serve you and represent your excellence better.’ Research has shown that the best members of industries all belong to associations, and the not-so-good members do not belong because they are less engaged in their fields. The best want their association to be a seal of quality. It gives them a good deal of pride, and it gives them a better market position. That is how you sell outreach to your members.”
“There’s a reason why my own research shows that people are happier when they belong to associations than when they don’t,” Brooks said. “It’s because people still really need an actual community. They need other people who not only understand and appreciate what they do, but are collectively proud of what they do.”
Brooks, who has a Ph.D. in policy analysis from RAND Graduate School, is the author of 10 books. His latest, "The Road to Freedom: How to Win the Fight for Free Enterprise," made the New York Times' bestseller list. In addition to serving as president, Brooks is the Beth and Ravenel Curry Scholar in Free Enterprise at AEI. Prior to joining the Institute, he was the Louis A. Bantle Professor of Business and Government at Syracuse University, where he taught economics and social entrepreneurship.
Looking ahead, associations will change and adapt to a world that is very different from even just a decade ago. “We’re in a world where people are harder to organize,” he stated. “We’re in a world where there are more lone wolves out there. More people are working from remote. People don’t ‘belong’ to their industry in the same way they did before. In this regard, I think there are going to be huge opportunities to reimagine what the benefits of an association really should be.
As this reimagining takes place, it is important for associations to not only focus on their members, but to also communicate their value propositions and significance to wider audiences. In this way, associations can make greater impacts and further their missions in powerful new ways. According to Brooks, this is the way in which associations can reach their ultimate potential.
NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2013 EDITION
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