Signs Of Healthy And Unhealthy Associations


Associations are complex systems.

Many players–board members, members, sponsors, staff, volunteer leadership–shape its up and down seasons. A jumble of external and internal factors affects the association as well.

The Life Cycle Of Associations

All living systems, including associations, go through predictable life cycles:

  • Birth
  • Growth (formation, adolescence)
  • Maturity
  • Decline
  • Death

Healthy systems work to avoid decline and eventual death by using the wisdom and calm of maturity to plan a rebirth. It often seems counter-intuitive to plan the new even as the current shows signs of abundant life. And that often frustrates those that are enjoying the fruits of maturity.

Nevertheless, the failure to anticipate the future will guarantee greater frustration and conflict during decline. And this usually occurs at the time of reduced financial strength.

Unhealthy Associations

Unhealthy associations avoid change as long as possible. They wait until the end is staring them in the face.

Leadership unknowingly adopts an entitlement syndrome that members have always supported the association and will continue to support. Or that members will always pay dues. Or that members will always attend the annual meeting, volunteer or ___________ fill in the blank. Leadership’s ego eclipses reality and they don’t recognize their denial.

During the decline stage, leadership often blames others for their decline. Those actions ultimately hurt trust and harm the community.

They squander limited resources to avoid death. They fight for more funds to retain staff and preserve ineffective, outdated programs.

They avoid critical self-examination and reflection. Thus they enter into turn-around efforts without knowledge of context or opportunity. They just want the pain of dying to stop.

Assessing the association’s current life-cycle stage isn’t easy. It depends on association metrics. A set of measures that quantify results.

These metrics are more than feelings of satisfaction or the absence of conflict. It requires candor about the vitality, life, momentum and future of the association.

Healthy Association Wellness Signs

An association’s wellness is more than 98.6 degrees on a thermometer. Here are several signs that your association is alive and thriving.

  1. A vibrant mission that makes a discernable difference within the industry, its members and overall community.
  2. Open communications.
  3. Members bring their yearnings, desires and questions to the association openly and freely.
  4. Staff and leadership adopt programming, plans and partnerships based on members’ best interest.
  5. Members’ needs and desires are placed above partnerships with stakeholders that fill budget reservoirs.
  6. Leadership willing to be guided by outcomes.
  7. Growth in membership – members’ maturity, knowledge and skills as well as numbers.
  8. Transformation of members’ professional and personal lives.
  9. Leadership able to take risks, fail without blame, and everyone learns from that failure.
  10. Authenticity, transparency and confidence when dealing with conflict.
  11. Nimble and able to effectively deal with change.
  12. An adoption of “We serve our members best, when we serve our industry/profession first.”

Wellness is dynamic, not a steady state that an association reaches and then maintains.

Wellness lies in how the association and its members respond to change, stress, opportunity, people’s needs and personalities.

What are some symptoms of a healthy or unhealthy association that you’ve experienced? What resources can leadership use when identifying their association life cycle?

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  1. […] Healthy systems work to avoid decline and eventual death by using the wisdom and calm of maturity to plan a rebirth. Unhealthy systems avoid change as long as possible, often to their own demise. […]

  2. Nice work. I do a lot of strategic planning and this is a good article to set up the planning session. Thanks for sharing the knowledge.

    One comment…there are a lot of associations losing members right now, but not all of them are unhealthy. Sometimes it is the underlying business of members that is causing the drop. Or, am I in denial. Loved the line, “Leadership’s ego eclipses reality and they don’t recognize their denial.” Hope that’s not me.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting. Your thoughts about being in denial made me laugh out loud…then I realized the seriousness of it. 😉 Can you tell us more about the underlying business of members that is causing them to drop their membership? If you can, expand on that for us.

  3. John Fox says:

    Reminds me of the four stages called forming, storming, norming and performing. Great reminder.

  4. The field of organizational development includes a five-stage model markedly similar to that which you describe. While the model is valid, in my opinion, it is often complicated by (external) factors such as legislation and the economy. The culture of an organization does not dictate, but strongly influences, how the organization as a whole reacts to these influences. Too often an organization that officially embraces “Type Y” management actually uses “Type X” management, thus hampering the ability of the members of the organization to assist with the revitalization, re-imagining, or re-birth process. Very few organizations have leaders willing to truly open up the process of re-imagining the organization; they tend to believe the organization’s mission statement is set in stone — if not in words, then in spirit.

  5. Paul Brawner says:

    Our association consists of insurance and financial advisors. Our membership is down, and has been trending downward for a few years now. We’ve had a few upward spurts here and there, but no sustained momentum. #1 is the economy, which has had a tremendous impact on our members. It’s forced them into a choice of membership dues or paying for a business related expense. Also, our national association raised the dues about 30% just after the start of this economic downturn, dramatically impacting our membership. Lastly, we simply have not had viable leadership development during these most difficult recent years. Some want to do a good job but lack the know how and mentoring. Others simply didn’t want to do it but joined boards anyway because of peer pressure.

    We’re doing everything we can to stem the tide and turn it around. So far we haven’t seen any one thing make the difference. Suffice to say, we’re open to suggestions!

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      I rarely find that conference that has a different vibe. Glad you do. I agree that the right speakers can create a great environment.

      Thanks for reading and commenting as always!

      Thanks for the vote of confidence. Let’s hope some people complete your survey. Thanks for reading.

      Ouch. That’s a tough one. Who has some suggestions for Paul about what his association can do to improve things.

  6. Dave Phillips says:

    Jeff, the reason my association is losing members is that the real estate business has been very difficult. We saw a 30 to 40% increase in members during the boom years of 05 and 06, but have seen declines since. This is simple to understand as the business my members are involved in, real estate, has declined sharply. Frankly it is amazing that membership has only fallen 20% since the real estate market has declined much more in the number of sales.

    I’m sure there are many other associations that have seen declines because the underlying business of their members has declined.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Ah, now I understand. I did not know which trade you were associated with. That has got to be difficult and challenging at best. Yes, I know of other associations that are experiencing similar declines. This is definitely the time when your leadership needs to be thinking about rebirth and reinventing themselves. I’m sure with your guidance and support we may see new life in the future.

  7. […] Healthy systems work to avoid decline and eventual death by using the wisdom and calm of maturity to plan a rebirth. Unhealthy systems avoid change as long as possible, often to their own demise. […]

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