Healthy Associations Are Healthy Businesses

Healthy Associations Are Healthy Businesses

By Rob Oakes, Business Analyst, AMC Consulting

You can’t fulfill your mission if your business is failing. Your business cannot succeed unless you have a growing base of satisfied customers. In my experience, these two statements are often underappreciated by associations. In fact, as I’ll share, they are sometimes just ignored.

“Business” Is Not a Four-Letter Word

Before joining Association Management Center, I interviewed with a healthcare association executive, who asked me, “How do you like to begin a project,” and, thinking I was providing a textbook answer, I responded:

“I like to begin by inviting the stakeholders to identify the business requirements.”
“Hmm…,” he said, “The Doctors don’t like that word.”
“Which one -- ‘Stakeholders?’”
Business… They’re uncomfortable with it.”

I can’t speak for the “Doctors,” but suspect that what he meant by “Doctors” were the board members to whom he reported, and to whom he felt ultimately accountable.

“I like to refer to them as ‘activities’,” he continued.
“Yes. Activities… with business objectives. As opposed to activities which are aligned with the mission.”
“Hmm… So there are activities, which are critical to the business, and other, different activities, which are critical to the mission?”
“Yes. But we don’t describe it that way.”

Maybe you can relate to this conversation, and the feeling that making money and fulfilling the mission of the organization are irreconcilable. But are they? And, if so, why?

A Webinar to Nowhere

I was assisting in the production of a series of webinars to which only a few people were registering and attending. The plan was to produce more. The webinars were free of charge because they were “critical to the mission of the organization,” yet it was almost impossible to sell a sponsorship to a webinar that didn’t have an audience. So, why were we doing it? Because it was part of a strategic goal of the organization to produce them. The webinars were the goal, not the attendance, and not the revenue.

I’ve seen scenarios like this with meetings, online learning, print publications and other products, which failed to reach their audience and were created simply because there was a strategic goal demanding their existence. And, it made me stop and ask these two questions:

  • How can an activity be critical to the mission if it’s not important to the business?
  • How are we fulfilling the mission if nobody is buying what we’re selling?

Non-Profit Is Not a Business Strategy

I didn’t come up this phrase. I wish I had. (I understand it’s a variation of “Hope is not a strategy,” which is also applicable.) I heard it during a conference session, from an experienced strategist who had grown weary of repeating it. “Non-profit” is obviously a tax status, and is certainly not a strategy. For some associations, however, where there should be a business strategy, there’s often a strategic goal, which is aligned with the mission, along with various tactics to help achieve it, but the tactics are actually a list of product deliverables:

  • Engage new audience to expand organization’s influence
    • Launch regional meeting for that audience
    • Create online programming for that audience
    • Publish online and print content for that audience

It’s hard to miss the circuitous logic here. There are fundamental questions left unanswered -- Why are we engaging this new audience? What’s the opportunity? What are we trying to achieve? What are the steps to achieving it? What does it mean to “expand the organization’s influence?” How do we know when we have succeeded? What are the key performance indicators? And, crucially, who’s accountable for achieving them?

Let’s suppose the following business requirement:

  • Increase member revenue by x%
    • Increase member retention
    • Acquire new members

And, for the purposes of this example, let’s focus in on acquiring new members:

  • Increase member revenue by x%
    • Acquire new members
      • Identify fast-growing, but under-served member segment
      • Identify products and/or services, which deliver the most value to those members
      • Measure cost of acquiring those members

So, how does this business requirement fit in with our strategic goal?

  • Engage new audience to expand organization’s influence
    • Increase member revenue by x%
      • Acquire new members
        • Identify segment
          • Create products and/or services, which create value for the members in that segment

Now, in case the “Doctors don’t like that word,” we can see how the deliverables are still tied to a mission-aligned strategic goal, but they are tightened by a clear business requirement. The products can’t be mistaken for tactics. They are the output of tactics, and they have a clear performance indicator: member revenue.

The Customer Comes Eighth

This facetious phrase is from Art Kleiner’s, Who Really Matters. The first chapter opens with an anecdote about a young executive toasting various division heads and sardonically concluding, “The customer comes eighth,” after them, of course! Maybe you can relate to the feeling that you are a servant of multiple masters: difficult boards, needy executives, unwieldy technology, Byzantine processes, etc.

In Race for Relevance, the authors challenge what it means for an association to be more “businesslike,” but they emphasize the following distinction:

“Unlike a business, associations don’t have to focus as heavily on the bottom line. Instead, they are challenged with clearly identifying how to help members be more successful and determining how to deliver this value in a way that’s both convenient and accessible. More than ever, the way associations become more successful is to help their members do the same.”

Who does your organization serve? And, where does your customer come in line? -- Third? Sixth? Eighth?

With this in mind, and since I’m in a ‘quotey’ mood, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite business-related quotes:

“Somebody once told me, ‘Manage the top line, and the bottom line will follow.’ What's the top line? It's things like, why are we doing this in the first place? What's our strategy? What are customers saying? How responsive are we? Do we have the best products and the best people? Those are the kind of questions you have to focus on.” Who said this?

Learn more about Association Management Center’s strategic consulting services, and contact us so we can share our experience with you.

Rob Oakes, MFA, is a business analyst in AMC's Catalyst Consulting department. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. And if you have any comments on the article, we invite you to take a look and comment on our Linkedin Company Page