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Leadership in the Toughest of Times

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When associations fall on hard times, their staff and volunteer leadership may have to make the toughest of decisions: whether to transform the organization into something new, shrink operations to the brink of irrelevance, or sell off the assets and close the doors.

The conversations are bound to be difficult, and there may not be an obvious “right” answer. But one thing is crystal clear: A moment of crisis does call for smart, effective, sensitive leadership.
Shelly Alcorn, author of the Association Subculture blog, covers this territory in the last of five posts on associations in peril.

“We may not necessarily be out of sponsors, members, or even hope,” she writes. But  “the organization faces a potential death spiral—lurching from cycle to cycle, paying what bills they can, and myopically focusing on meeting short term obligations.”

She continues: “New programs may be necessary but out of reach because of staff layoffs or lack of investment capital on hand. As cash continues to tighten, choices become narrower and the ability to provide value becomes a practical impossibility...”

Shelly is describing a moment of decision that will make or break any organization that experiences it. We’ve seen some associations come through the fire and emerge stronger, but not all have fared as well. Consider these scenarios, and decide which is the better recipe for success:

  • Association #1 understands that cash is short and prospects are poor. The board of directors goes through a strategic planning process that produces 14 scenarios for the future. To collect input and build buy-in, the board decides to circulate the 14 options to members, then make some tough decisions after all the feedback is in.
  • Association #2 has the same moment of realization that something has to change, and soon. The board reaches out to members with a clear statement of the problem, a recap of the organization’s core values, a checklist of program priorities that could guide the next five years of operation, and a request that members indicate which items matter most to them—and why. Based on the response, the board builds three scenarios for future operations, then digs more deeply to decide whether any or all of them would keep the organization viable.

Both approaches recognize the seriousness of the situation and seek member input on next steps. But in the second scenario, the board takes a leadership role and translates members’ priorities into an action plan—if it turns out that any course of action will bring the organization back from the brink.

Here’s hoping that this post does not describe your association’s current position. But if it does, now is the time for your board and executive staff to take the lead.