Your Association: The Living Organism

A social network map created by billions of individual interactions within overlapping, interconnected communities.

Nonprofit associations:  institutionalized organizations or living, dynamic organisms?

Which view do you embrace?

The Human Factors

Associations are not buildings. They are not organizational charts. They are more than institutions governed by sets of rules, processes and formalities.

I believe that associations are living organisms…when we allow them to be so.

Associations are groups of like-minded individuals that form communities. Each community becomes an operational unit of a more structured, formal organization. These communities express a common vision and mission.

Behind every organization chart, whether it be staff or volunteer structure, is a living system of people. While this is painfully obvious, in most of our associations, we frequently overlook the human factors. We forget that we are by the people, for the people.

Outdated Structure Models

Unfortunately, most associations design their organizational models on routine, mechanical, automated principles. They design their methods and process based on systems of data and record keeping.

Too often we organize our associations anchored in internal structures. We align staff and resources by programs, logistics and record-keeping. We compartmentalize everything from the detailed analysis of how to do something. We build organizational charts.

The expertise of the association staff is oriented toward professionally managing the resources allocated to them. Their focus becomes the utilitarian management of those resources as applied to the programs they oversee.

The result? Performance gaps. Status quo initiatives. Progress in one department that has negative repercussions in others. Members feeling disconnected, like the organization exists to keep staff employed. Staff feeling like members don’t care about the organization’s mission or vision. Inactivity.

Everything is designed to be controlled, managed, dominated, ruled, manipulated.

And then we wonder why more people don’t engage with staff and leaders.

New Models Of Engagement

We need to rethink our systems and design principles based on levels of engagement. We need to think about setting up processes that allow for the human factors.

We need systems of feedback. Not forms to complete. Not online “contact me” questionnaires.

We need to start thinking of our organization in terms of living systems, not ways to control people. We need to think about ways to empower people.

The Physiology Of An Association

We need to shift our thinking from an anatomy perspective (programs, departments, tasks, silos) to the physiology of the organization (how it works, grows and stays healthy).

Physiology is the way an organism works. It deals with the internal functions of living things such as metabolism, respiration and reproduction. It focuses on the systems within the body that keep it alive, healthy and growing rather than the shape or structure.

We need to think about how the organization rears its young. How it responds and adapts to change. How a change in one part of the physiology can impact the entire system.

We cannot change the performance of our associations without a deeper understanding of how organisms work.

We need to remember that an organism can only exist through the living cells from which it is composed. Our associations can only exist through the living communities made of human factors from which it is composed.

Ignore the humanness of its members and the organism will become a stale, lifeless institution.

How can we structure associations differently to focus on living systems instead of the archetype of anatomy? What analogies can you draw about the physiology of an association as compared to the traditional departmentalized anatomy structure?

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  1. I’m encouraged that you’re raising this issue and discouraged that it still needs to be raised. I remember writing similarly in a GWSAE article more than a decade ago. And bigger names like Meg Wheatley and others have long been making this case. It makes me wonder why is seems to continually fall on deaf ears.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Yes, thanks for plowing the field and starting this conversation years ago. We Jeffs (you, De Cagna, Cobb & myself as well as everyone else) need to continually remind people that our organizations are living organisms with human factors. Let’s keep the drumbeat up until we can affect change, even if it is one association at a time.

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. I greatly appreciate it (and it was nice to finally meet you F2F to recently!).

      I love what you said, “Associations are sociological systems, not organizational charts.” That sums it up well.

      Thanks for adding to the conversation.

  2. Jeff –

    Thank you for this post. I absolutely agree with you. Associations are sociological systems, not organization charts. I am encouraged to see acknowledgement of that said in such a powerful way!


  3. Jeff – Great post! While I love the conversation you have opened, I actually don’t think either view is the best way to view associations, Rather than leave a long response here, I have made a separate post at (Hope you don’t mind I borrowed your question as a post title!)

    Also, for those interested in the view of associations as living organisms, there’s a good related Journal of Association Leadership article at

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for reading and continuing the conversation on your blog. I really like what you wrote and how we all struggle with organizational culture versus systems thinking.

  4. Trish Hudson says:

    Jeff – thanks for the post. It reflects the feelings of a growing number of folks – assn professionals and others – who feel as you do. The good news is that we’re finding each other. While we tend to see this as a contemporary issue, published histories of assns prove this dynamic has been endemic to these social systems. We owe it to members to take the leap you mention – explore whether a new approach – a different model designed specifically for these unique social systems will affect the kind of changes that we believe deliver meaningful and transformative experiences for members – and the discipline they represent. Would love to share notes.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for reading and shaing your insight.

      I like how you framed it, “We owe it to members to take this leap…” That’s ultimately who it is all about anyway, our members.

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