Six Disruptive Forces Poised To Revolutionize Nonprofit Associations

Bang on Banking

It takes courage to move out of the comfort zone!

So many nonprofit associations and their boards have adopted a risk averse environment. They see little incentive to change or experiment.

In the coming three to ten years, those organizations that stay the course will not succeed. Those that refuse to think differently, quickly and innovate will not survive.

The traditional nonprofit approach to risk must be recalibrated to assume a level of risk tolerance.

Defining A Disruptive Force

What is a disruptive force?

  • A monumental, unexpected change that does not fit previous patterns. “Managing The Future-The Short Version,” Stephen M. Millett, PhD, 2011.
  • A circumstance that creates such dramatic change that it transforms existing industries or creates new ones. “Tools For Discontinuous Innovation Research and Development,” Michael Ali, 2004.
  • A revolutionary force, not an evolutionary progression. “Disruptive Forces,” Alliance for Children and Families, 2011.

Disruptive Forces As Opportunities

Usually disruptive forces create negative images in our minds. The mere word disruptive implies something troublesome, unsettling or disturbing. The word force also can scare us as it means power beyond our control. Together the words disruptive forces don’t exactly cause us to shout with enthusiasm.

However, inherent in a disruptive force is the opportunity to dramatically enhance responsiveness and the efficacy of the delivery model of the future. High performing strategic-thinking organizations recognize and capture the opportunities that rest within disruptive forces.

Unfortunately, organizations that choose to ignore these forces are unlikely to survive.

I am optimistic. I believe that there will be associations that are willing to adapt to the changing landscape as well as their changing needs of their communities. I believe some will have well-honed radar to position their organization to recognize, act upon and adapt to disruptive forces.

Six Disruptive Forces

The Alliance for Children and Families and Baker Tilly released the 2011 report Disruptive Forces: Driving a Human Services Revolution that identified six forces for human services. These six forces also have implications for traditional nonprofit associations. Here is my spin on these forces for nonprofit associations.

1. Purposeful Experimentation

Much broader levels of experimentation are needed in the nonprofit association sector. Multiple forces from

  • for-profit competitors’ risk taking activities
  • members own thought leadership initiatives that become competitive
  • low-cost information technologies
  • social media growth
  • increased desperation as membership and funding declines

will force organizations to experiment or close their doors.

Savvy leaders will push their organizations to take calculated risks. Organizations will succeed if they have boards that adapt courage-based vision execution.

2. Information Liberation

A new generation of consumers has emerged. People share information with friends, family and communities both online and face to face.

Associations are used to private, exclusive information behind the membership wall. They have used this exclusivity as an excuse to avoid developments that promote information sharing. Yet information sharing can improve the industry and give industry professionals the ability to progress.

Associations will have to figure out how to move from privacy and exclusivity to communities of shared information.

3. Integrating Science

Advances in science, engineering, and neuroscience will be adopted rapidly by courage-based organizations. Imagine the association leadership adopting brain science and measuring brain activity at the annual meeting like individuals measure blood pressure and cholesterol today. Consider if conference organizers partnered with scientific researchers to improve the effectiveness of education and networking.

4. Uncompromising Demand For Impact

Association constituents are placing higher demands on leaders for proof that their dollars given to the organization provide personal ROI. The ability to demonstrate that particular innovations have efficacy will result in constituents paying fees. More members and non-members are looking for low-cost programs that prove impact.

5. Branding Causes, Not Organizations

Most nonprofit associations have marketed themselves and their services based on their offerings. In the future, it will be more effective to leverage causes based on issues than on brands and programming. Brands by themselves seem fake, institutional and sterile. Movements create a vision and goal for change.

6. Attracting Investors, Not Just Sponsors And Members

Investment is the purchase of a financial product or other item of value with an expectation of favorable future returns. For years associations have embraced an entitlement syndrome that their members will always pay for membership or conference registration and expect nothing in return. Members and sponsors are demanding a shift to an investment paradigm with performance-seeking portfolios aimed at a return that seeks to solve personal problems, contribute to a movement or eliminate an issue.

Potential For Success

Too many nonprofit associations have been in survival mode for the last several years. The bunker mentality of focusing on points of differentiation and segmentation in the marketplace are not enough.

It’s time for innovation, collaboration and new partnerships.

There must be a shift from institutional organizational-centric focus to an acknowledgement of networks and collaboration. This means becoming less defensive about “my personal association baby that I’ve raised” and “home turf.”

It’s time to view disruptive forces as opportunities and offer innovative strategies.

What will it take for association leadership to embrace disruptive forces and assume a level of risk tolerance? How can association members encourage association boards to embrace disruptive forces?

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  1. Good post Jeff,

    There seems to be two types of people in the world. Those that fear change because of the downside risk (to them) and those who embrace change for the opportunities it presents.

    I think that as people get older they tend to shift from one of searching for opportunities (risky as they are)to searching for security. Life has a way of smashing our dreams of grandeur and once we find ourselves making a solid living we don’t want to shake the boat and risk it.

    Those folks sitting at the tops of established organizations are making a pretty darn good living in a time when long-term unemployment is a real fear. I have heard more than once that unemployed 50 year old may never work again.

    So, to answer your question, many organizations may put on the appearance of embracing the changing world and the opportunities that it presents but it is mostly a facade. For example, having a Facebook page, Twitter account, and a mobile site can make your organization look modern and you can defend yourself at the board meeting. But the reality is that embracing the social media revolution (as one example) takes full integration, new models, true risks to ones leadership and comfort.

    It will be the X’ers who have continually invested in their personal development these past 20 years who will bring about the change that is possible. The Boomers will step away to the golf course. The X’ers who haven’t even read a book in the last 20 years much less kept pace with tech will look for security and vigorously defend the status quo. X’ers who are willing to risk and sacrifice will create amazing new organizations out of the old.

  2. […] Six Disruptive Forces Poised To Revolutionize Nonprofit Associations by Jeff Hurt. […]

  3. thom singer says:


    This is a post that made me think. It is true for so many organizations even beyond associations.

    Your first point of “Purposeful Experimentation” is paramount to success for everyone (in career and life). People who attend events no longer want the same thing year after year. If a group is not trying new things they will quickly be seen as stale. However when you “try”, it means there could be times you stumble. I once had a boss who told the team that any stumble was unacceptable — and nobody ever tried to do anything but keep the status quo.

    I also like the point that Frank Kenny made in another comment on here: “The X’ers who haven’t even read a book in the last 20 years much less kept pace with tech will look for security and vigorously defend the status quo” – WOW, he is right…. lots of people out there not actively learning, and yet we are in an era of rapid change. Recipe for disaster!

  4. Thanks Thom. Appreciate the mention about my comment.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      I think you nailed it with the following statements: “There seems to be two types of people in the world. Those that fear change because of the downside risk (to them) and those who embrace change for the opportunities it presents.” Amen!

      Thanks for faithfully reading and commenting too.


      So many organizations, especially associations, are risk averse that they miss taking advantages of opportunities. The larger the association, the less likely to be nimble and adapt to change. It’s so true that conferences need to experiment and try new things. We don’t need another wet melba toast conference experience for sure!

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