Association Members Want Movement Not Organizational Institutions

The Blue Room

I have devoted more than twenty years of my adult life to nonprofits and associations.

I have spent countless hours volunteering my time to help nonprofits succeed. I have given many staff hours to helping an industry progress.

When a nonprofit works, it is a thing of beauty. It is uniquely able to do radical things such as helping the downtrodden, lending a hand to the underdog, assisting an industry’s progress, educating the unlearned, challenging status quo, bettering our world, improving a profession.

When as association falls victim to fear, institutional lethargy, political infighting and posturing, ego thumping and pride, it can destroy hope, crush dreams, drain visions, slaughter spirits and abuse privileges like tax benefits and member trust. Many associations get caught up in power struggles frustrating staff and volunteers alike, sending their faithful leaders to the exit sign.

I have tried hard to comprehend why something so promising can become so hurtful. I’ve even been caught in the crossfire before both as staff and volunteer. It is not fun.

Organizations Vs. Movements

Seth Godin has written about organizations and movement in the past.

According to Godin:

An organization uses structure and resources and power to make things happen. Organizations hire people, issue policies, buy things, erect buildings, earn market share and get things done.

A movement has an emotional heart. A movement might use an organization, but it can replace systems and people if they disappear. Movements are more likely to cause widespread change, and they require leaders, not managers.

The Birth Of Your Association

When your association was originally formed, it was to launch a movement, not create an institution.

When your founders first met together, they taught each other, broke bread together, had deep conversations about their futures and developed a vision. They were nurturing a movement, not creating the cornerstone of an institution.

Those forefathers and foremothers were launching a movement, not an organization. As the movement grew, they handed it over to others to continue. Keep moving forward, keep progressing, keep changing lives they said.

From Movements To Institutions

Here’s the tragic truth: so many of our associations turned a movement into an organization.

They formed an institutional structure, created rules, enforced boundaries, sought power, allocated power, built physical and intellectual buildings of increasing hubris, and were effective mostly in perpetuating institution, not in changing lives for the better.

We are increasingly stuck: trying hard to keep that organization alive while also seeking the “emotional heart” of a movement.

From Institutions To Passion

As institutions, most of us are failing.

We have floundered on the issue of ownership, as well as fear of change.

We have allocated resources to what we enjoy rather than what our industry or profession needs.

We have fought to find new revenue streams to keep our institutions alive, sustaining staff while systematically undermining strong and creative leaders.

As movements – on those occasions when we let our hearts free, allow leaders to emerge and stop fussing about ownership – associations have hopeful futures.

I think it’s the passion of movement that we seek. What I am hearing is a quest for community, life purpose, and mission in the world.

I think we want what our association founders created: a movement to change lives and make the world better.

How can we get our association institutions to become movements again? What does it take to create a movement?

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  1. Reminds me of one of my favorite quotes:

    “Passion begts success.
    Success begets success formula.
    Success formula begets isolation from passion, vision, and information.
    Isolation begets atrophy, decay, a fading away.”

    Gordon MacKenzie
    Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s GGuide to Surviving with Grace

    As you note, instead of institutionalizing the movement we lapse into institutionalizing the institution. Very few associations have metrics tied to how well they are achieving their mission. Most are tied to activities: membership, conference attendance, and the like. As a result the conversations are always about those efforts instead of how do they support the movement or what would help advance the movement (and the mission) right now?

  2. Jeff:

    What kool Aid are you drinking because I want some. So many of your posts (including this one) leave me asking the question, what are these associations, organizations, and monolithic institutions thinking? I end up assuming that the answer is always about money. Can you monetize a movement. Should you even try? I’m with you. I want be part of a movement and not just a member of an industry. But, at the end of the day, we all have to eat. The real question is how can we all get what we want? How can associations be more respectful of our emotional needs for recognition, to effect real change, to leave the world better than we found it, and in exchange, how can and should we support them? There is still a role for associations to galvanize communities. As you have pointed out, they’re just going about it the wrong way.

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  4. Jeff –

    Well said. I believe this is a complex issue. I do agree that once an organization becomes all about self-perpetuation, policy and turf wars then mission becomes an afterthought if any attention is paid to it at all.

    I long to be involved in an association movement that makes a difference and truly lives up to my expectations. So far? I seem to be coming up empty.


    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      I agree that it’s a very complex issue. The tension between doing what’s right for the movement and sustainability of the institution seems to get stronger the more the association matures. At least that’s my experience. Keep looking for those associations that are really about making a difference! I suspect there are some out there…just like finding a needle in a haystack. 😉

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