I feel like the default planning rubric in the association world is “last year plus 2%.”
That’s not literal, of course—every association will pick its own growth targets each year for things like membership, attendance at the annual meeting, total sponsorship revenue, etc. But more often than not, the targets all end up in the category of “a little bit better than last year.” That’s what the industry expects of us. That won’t upset the Board. We feel that we already know how to do that. So instead of being bold, we settle for the proverbial 2%.
My first question is, why? Why not go for double-digit growth? Why not double or triple your profit in a particular area over the next five years? Why do we so rarely look for big opportunities like that?
The short answer is, we don’t know how. Granted, in some cases, we’ve already been burned by Board members that randomly challenged us to double membership, but without a plan to get there (or acknowledging that the value of your membership has actually been declining). I agree that stretch goals that are completely random or disconnected from reality are annoying. But even if you came up with a bold yet plausible target, you’d likely hesitate, because you’re just not sure how you would make it happen.
Associations, in general, are not good at building real growth engines into what they do. Building a growth engine simply means putting the right strategic and operational building blocks together, in the right combinations, to generate real growth. Your strategy must identify the specific levers that will drive growth, and your operations must be carefully aligned to make sure those levers get pulled at the right time and in the right sequence. I see three areas where associations routinely fall down when trying to achieve this.
Success drivers. Too many association leaders (at all levels) are not clear enough on the unique success drivers for their organization. What are the factors internally and externally that have a disproportionate impact on your success and growth? If those aren’t top of mine when you set your strategy or build out your operations, you’ll end up with 2%.
Data and metrics. Growth engines require some sophistication when it comes to metrics. You’ll need good in-process metrics that are leading indicators, rather than just measuring your growth percentage at the end of the year. You may also need to up your game on the data you gather and analyze from your customers to enable better decisions.
Culture. Even if you get those two things right, you can kill your growth engine if you ignore the impact of culture. Your culture tells your people what’s valued, thus it drives their behavior. If you don’t align the culture with the strategic choices and operational reality that are designed to drive growth, then the behaviors will be off, and the resulting friction is what brings you down to the 2%.
Building a successful growth engine is not easy, but if you don’t want to settle any more, you’ll need to add some rigor and discipline to your approach to growth and you’ll need to put culture at the center of the work, rather than on the periphery. This culture-based approach to growth is your best shot at break-through results.
Photo by Lindsay Henwood