Association Leaders Must Innovate in a Disruptive Marketplace

by Seth Kahan

Right now there are innovators in Silicon Valley building apps that will capture membership to create frictionless, renewable revenue for their organizations. It is a threat all association leaders should take seriously. Some of these savvy innovators are household names—LinkedIn, Facebook, and Meetup—and there are hundreds of others, lesser known or unknown players, tomorrow’s biggest names in tech.

CEOs of the most respected professional societies and trade associations know they have to keep up. The smartest are capitalizing on their mission, but pivoting into the future, willing and able to embrace change. They’re holding true to the essence of their organizations’ causes, while experimenting with modern and innovative ways to serve their members and other stakeholders so they can continue to advance their mission into tomorrow.

These association leaders know they need to move fast; legacy icons can be replaced by upstarts in the blink of an eye. It’s such a regular event in so many business sectors, a cross-sector term has appeared, the topple rate.

InterContinental Hotels Group, one of the industry’s largest, has over 670,000 rooms in some 100 countries. It has its roots in the Bass Brewery, established in 1777. Yet, Airbnb, which started in 2008, has 800,000+ listings in 33,000 cities and 192 countries. Today, you can click a button in an app on your smart phone to reserve accommodations. And you can use that same device to turn your own home into a profit-making inn.

And it all runs on trust, established by building communities of customers who rate and share their experiences.

What makes associations truly powerful is right here: in the trust experienced among members. In today’s environment, clients and customers can easily turn elsewhere for publishing, meeting, learning, networking, and lobbying. But, one thing they cannot easily replace is trust—a firm belief in the reliability and concern others have for their professional well being. This is a strategic vulnerability that Silicon Valley is conquering through the application of user reviews—good and bad.

The intense environment of innovation being fostered in the digital marketplace should not be feared; it should be adapted. Embracing models of digital and other innovation, and incorporating the dexterity it brings to bear can help associations enhance connectivity among consumers, amplify the impact of known experts and thought leaders, and propel the work and reach passionate entrepreneurs deliver.

One of the successful ways association leaders are repositioning and increasing their relevance is through the development of Grand Challenges. A Grand Challenge is a bold, audacious, socially beneficial goal aligned with the organization’s mission.

American Geophysical Union offers one great example. They are bringing together people who need solutions, scientist problem-solvers, and sponsor-funders to create positive impact on the planet and society. Their efforts will make profound and visible contributions to life on earth. AGU is embracing innovation while exponentially enhancing the trust of their members.

“Our mission is to promote discovery in Earth and space science for the benefit of humanity,” says Chris McEntee, AGU’s CEO/Executive Director. “Through the Thriving Earth Exchange, we’re creating a network of tools, resources, information, and people to address real-world environmental challenges that local communities face within three areas: natural hazards/disasters, natural resources, and climate change.”

The facts are these: associations will be tested by changes in the digital marketplace and through other forms of business disruption. They must challenge their members and leaders to tackle these changes head on—to absorb the insights of experts and futurists within their fields and outside, and not to rely on, but consistently work to enhance the value they bring to their networks.

image credit: Sylvain Kalache

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Transforming Associations to Meet 21st-Century ChallengesSeth Kahan is a Facilitator, Advisor, Mentor, and Speaker who helps leaders identify, influence, and leverage emerging trends for business growth. He has consulted with CEOs and executives in organizations that include Shell, World Bank, Peace Corps, Marriott, Prudential, Project Management Institute, and NASA. His new book is, Getting Innovation Right: How Leaders Leverage Inflection Points to Drive Success. His previous book, Getting Change Right: How Leaders Transform Organizations from the Inside Out, was a business bestseller. Learn more at

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