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Associations 2021: Building New Norms


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This guest blog post is by Lowell Aplebaum, CEO & Strategy Catalyst for Vista Cova LLC.

Possibility. If I was going to capture what 2021 is bringing it with it – there is amazing potential and possibility. Many norms which were calcified in associations’ systems simply because of inertia have become dislodged. Over the past 10 months, associations have had to change so frequently the word ‘pivot’ has become hated. Not because of the change it implies, but because it is the norm which has defined each passing week. Yet, rather than reflect on what this upheaval has left in its wake, let’s look at the exciting new pieces in the next chapter of our narrative.

  1. Strategic planning renews focus on strategic vision, direction, and strategies. Associations, no matter where they are in the strategic planning cycle, should take a step back in 2021 to confirm their vision and mission still defines their purpose in this new landscape. Once they’ve done so, they have great opportunity to align the areas of focus of the association with corresponding strategies to achieve the vision. This strategic refresh can elevate a typical plan away from tactics which belong in a corresponding operation plan. As we continue to experience disruption, shifting the tactics but staying on course will assure organizational resource investment is still tied to mission.
  2. “No” is the secret to impact. Associations have the potential to adopt systematic programmatic review that recognizes which programmatic output is making fiscal and mission impact in this new environment. The power of leadership is not just in practices of innovation, but in leveraging the recognition of diminishing returns to stop efforts that are not contributing significantly to mission advancement. The better leadership is at saying “no,” the more potential they have when they say “yes.”
  3. Governance modernization. This is a moment where associations should take a step back and reflect whether the leadership structure they have in place will be the structures that will lead them their desired future. Does a House of Delegates still successfully drive mission impact? Does having a Board representative on each committee build stronger inter-governance connections? Do leaders easily and enthusiastically tell the story of involvement and meaning they find in their participation? In this time of rapid change, every association should take a close look at governance to make sure leadership aligns to the new growth directions the strategy work has created.
  4. Diversity & Inclusion: Greater Fluency, Greater Adoption. This is the year to demonstrate the new DE&I statements of 2020, and DE&I committees in general, were not just momentary efforts to respond to a societal focus. Leadership has the potential to gain a greater fluency in discussing issues of diversity and defining how a new path for inclusion will shape an association’s future. Though the output of processes that prioritize diversity in building the leadership pipeline will take years to show evidence, the first steps of serious change are ready to be put in place in 2021.
  5. In person returns, but it is not “going back.” Unless you have a time machine, there is no going back. In person events will return in varied forms – with board meetings or small group gatherings coming first. We will always desire and remember our powerful in-person experiences, but to be in person – to take that risk – we will have to be intentional in our choices around what we are trying to create. We will have to make an active choice about how the best outcome will be achieved. The choice to create an in-person experience will demand thoughtful design of intent, meaning, and safety.
  6. Virtual Community and Connection is More than a Platform. If we emerge from 2020 having sought virtual learning/meeting/networking platforms for those which best fit our association and culture. The gap remaining for 2021 is in leveraging those spaces to go beyond learning and transactions to intensify associations’ key role as centers of relationship building. Who on your staff will become the designer of virtual member-to-member connection? How will you innovate your approach to combat Zoom fatigue and find ways to surprise and delight members in your networking and programming?
  7. Intentional Design will Replace Crisis Response. Make a list of all that things associations changed in 2020 because of a crisis response. Virtual workforce? Virtual tradeshow? Virtual town halls? Online learning? Now it is time to step back and go through an intentional design exercise with each activity. If we had not pivoted because of crisis response and had known this change was coming, what would we have designed? Do you need to make adjustments or corrections? A program, product, or service created in crisis response should not become a new norm. Take the time to step back, reflect, refine, improve.
  8. Innovation Lessons become Routines. All associations created “new” last year – new programs, new processes, new communications, new communities. What worked well about the processes used to create? What were the effective practices in innovation that could serve as an overarching process for how your association approaches the need to innovate? Take those lessons and incorporate experimentation and risk assessment into association routines. Associations can design and codify systems of innovation to serve them far into the future.
  9. Differentiated Board Orientation, Refresh, and Onboarding – Association boards have been through the trenches in 2020. As new board members ascend in 2021, preparing them to serve needs a fresh look. There is a difference between “Board Orientation” – the transference of knowledge, wisdom, and skills to prepare a new Board member with the organizational and governance fluency to serve well in their position; a “Board Refresh” – the review of key knowledge and practice pieces to re-orient returning Board members; and a “Board Onboarding” – the simulations and workshops that provide a new Board of a whole the opportunity to learn to work together as a team. Associations should design each of these experiences intentionally to strengthen their governance.
  10. Empathy First. 2021 feels for many like a breath of fresh air after the bruised and battered year that was 2020. Colleagues, volunteers, staff, supervisors, and friends realize what we see on the surface does not tell the story of what is going on when Zoom is off. The association community and the individuals within it will thrive when we prioritize empathy in our interactions, expectations, language, and patience. If in 2021, we find ways to care more, we will see healing at all levels. No matter what additional disruption comes our away, we will triumph – together. We are associations. That’s what we do.

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