The Four Qualities of an Innovative Association
By Stephanie S. Yanecek, Vice President of Marketing & Communication Services, SmithBucklin Corp.

When placed within the context of volunteer boards, it may be difficult to envision your association having a break-through product like the iPad, Google Glass or Netflix. However, association business models are faced with many challenges that require innovation: economic uncertainty; increasing competition for members’ attention, time and dollars; decreasing brand loyalty; changing consumer behaviors; scarce resources; and the impact of technology, to name a few. These challenges demand that associations remain relevant and top of mind with members and key constituents, therefore heightening the importance for innovation.

After studying various models for innovation and working with numerous volunteer boards to develop new programs and services, it became clear that success comes from being prepared for “innovation readiness.” In essence having the right foundation from which to build out and expand your services and value to members. More often than not, ideas come from research and analysis, not out-of-the-blue innovation or through “invention.”

Through my experience with clients of all shapes and sizes, I have collected information on what contributes to innovation success and have identified four factors that, when present within an association, provide the foundation from which to embark on an innovation strategy with confidence.

1. Set Goals and Strategies

Too often the question “What is our goal again?” is asked in the middle of a project, putting it in a dangerous limbo of rehashing information or research and often causing “analysis paralysis.” Certainly, it is critical to have dialogue around what an innovation strategy is meant to achieve. For example, growth can be measured in a variety of ways. However, a new product or service can rarely achieve multiple, varied outcomes. Prioritizing outcomes or results is necessary so clear direction can be provided to those who will be leading and owning the work. Goals and strategies that are agreed upon by volunteer leaders and chief staff officers allow for unified, strategic decisions as to how and where the organization’s resources are deployed. They also decrease the chance of controversy or skepticism about a new association project.

2. Healthy Governance

Healthy governance in an innovative association is achieved when a board of directors values market research, supports an environment of risk taking and trusts expert resources to transform the association’s product development strategy into action. A healthy board also embraces trying new things by providing a “safety zone” in which volunteer leaders feel comfortable taking calculated risks. Conversely, if the tone in the boardroom communicates that any type of failure is unacceptable, then volunteers and staff will likely have a difficult time embracing innovation.

3. Financial Stability

Funds invested in product development efforts will not always generate immediate profits. However, financial policies can be structured to enable association leaders to access and leverage funds for innovation if a prudent business case exists. If an association’s financial-management policies are overly restrictive, it will have trouble allowing for different levels and types of program investment. One option is to create a fund or reserve earmarked for strategic investments. This provides the board with a clear separation of what is needed to invest in growth versus annual operations and what is needed for a rainy day. It also provides peace of mind that the financial table stakes of the association are taken care of. When an association has a fund labeled “strategic investment” or “strategic reserves,” it shows the volunteer leaders’ understanding of and commitment to the idea that an association’s work doesn’t solely amount to operations (status quo) or savings (safety net).

4. Confidence in Execution

A staff that has the capacity and flexibility to successfully manage all current association functions is critical so that new value can be created without damaging what is working within the association today. This established baseline of strong execution and operational excellence tends to enable a board to more easily accept the risks and unknowns of innovation. In addition, a board that has faith in its staff team’s ability to openly and honestly communicate, by reaching out for input and direction and bringing forward issues both simple and complex, typically makes it easier for the board to green light the innovation process.

But innovation-focused processes are most successful when a board of directors approaches the process as a journey that leadership, volunteers and staff take together. Sometimes work teams feel pressured to put off difficult or unexpected conversations, placing the overall project and its objectives at risk. And when the innovation process is seen as a test, it may be an indicator that the ideal mindset and environment are not yet in place.

The above considerations can help form the foundation on which a productive product development process can be built. Generating innovative products and services allows organizations to continue to provide their members with the valuable, relevant products and services they seek, and, in turn, it allows organizations to position themselves for sustained growth in both the short and long term.


  Stephanie Yanecek is vice president of Marketing & Communication Services, SmithBucklin. Yanecek leads a team of 50 marketing and communication professionals who provide client organizations integrated marketing, communication and design services. Additionally, she was instrumental in the creation of the SmithBucklin Innovation Center, which provides associations with expertise and a comprehensive process for new product or service development.

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Board Forward is published 10 times a year by SmithBucklin, the association management and services company more organizations turn to than any other. SmithBucklin has served volunteer board members for almost 70 years.


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