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Smart and Steady Wins the Race

Smart and Steady Wins the Race
“If we pull this off, we’ll eat like kings.”

It’s the tagline from a Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson, going back to the mid-1980s. The artwork showed two spiders that had spun a web across the bottom of a playground slide. I’m sure I remember a child at the top of the slide, that the child was far too big to be caught in the web…and that the spiders were about to learn a harsh lesson about solving a problem by counting on a silver bullet.

Unfortunately, it’s a message that some association executives are still having trouble receiving.

In the fourth of her five-part series on associations in peril, Association Subculture blogger Shelly Alcorn captures the moment when an organization slides into crisis mode. “Ah, if we could just find that one endorsed program, that one member benefit, that one social media solution, then all of our problems would be over,” she writes. When times get very tough, “thinking centres on a dramatic and desperate search for the key that will unlock the one door that holds all the answers…

“The trouble is—there is no such thing.”

This story is all too familiar because it’s happening right across Canada. Associations are losing government support they may have depended on for years or decades, and even if they had advance warning, they may not have been able to line up new funding sources. Member needs and expectations are shifting, community demographics are changing, communication and outreach tools are transforming…and with core funding in doubt, it feels impossible to keep up.

But pinning everything on a silver bullet will only make the problem worse. Shelly Alcorn warns that “a single-minded, laser focus on ginning up one magical solution can often cause staff and volunteers to neglect everything else, allowing the entire enterprise to deteriorate that much faster.” And if that magical solution evaporates, an organization with no alternatives might have to close its doors.

The smart and steady alternative (since nothing these days is slow and steady) is to build a more nimble, resilient organization by:

  • Understanding what your members need and want, and how they expect their association to deliver it
  • Building a solid foundation of reliable revenue—whether it consists mainly of membership dues, certification fees, or some other predictable income source—that will stay with you in good times and bad
  • Adding secondary revenue streams by demonstrating the enduring strength of your primary programming.

The sad irony for associations at risk is that a resilience strategy is also the best way to capture the silver bullets—precisely because the organization’s survival no longer depends on them.

I've talked to my share of executives who face declining membership and lost revenue, and have a year or two to turn their associations around before funds run out. Some of them are looking for major sponsorship to fill the gap—but from the sponsors’ point of view, the risk may outweigh the reward. If the organization looks shaky, it’s hard to see why a donor or patron would agree to a major investment.

Which really means there are no short cuts. The associations that survive and thrive will be the ones that understand their communities and deliver the value their members need—steadily, reliably, relentlessly. And those spiders on the playground slide? They may be in for a cold, hungry winter.