Fresh Thinking for Modern Professional Associations

by | Dec 22, 2022

Much has been written about “reinventing nonprofits” for the digital world. Declining membership threatens the future of many associations, as does the graying lines between for-profits and nonprofits when it comes to being “purpose-driven organizations.” Turning the ship around requires significant rethinking around your core value propositions.

There is a six-stage process to find new success:

While this may sound overwhelming, the need to embrace change is quite simple: the risk that your professional community and stakeholders perceive that your organization matters less. At a time when professional associations should matter more than ever, pivoting to find new ways to be relevant — including implementing the systems, tools, and disciplined processes that enable you to do so — is an operating imperative. More so, this will also create tremendous room for creativity, innovation and optimism for the future success of your organization.

This paper provides some examples of the kind of fresh thinking we have referenced. By extending beyond the boundaries of their traditional operations, these organizations have cultivated new sources of revenue, improved member retention, and deeper, ongoing engagement from their professional community. Hopefully, these stories will inspire CEOs to meet challenges head-on and to take immediate action. Opportunities are out there for the taking, and associations have the resources and advantages to capitalize if they’re willing.


The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) is, at its core, a membership association, with all of the traditional functions that entails — publications, meetings and career resources. But that’s not enough when members can find community elsewhere these days (social media, etc.) and endless free news and information online.

Smartly, the ASCE learned long ago that the best way to serve its civil engineering members is not to simply cater to their needs as individual professionals, but to also be a policy leader for the broader public works ecosystem. Since 1998 the society has published its influential Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, which analyzes and grades the condition of the nation’s highways, roads, bridges, transit, ports and other categories, state by state.

Over the years, the report card has evolved into a deep, highly valuable repository of data and reports that generate significant press and greatly influence federal and state-level funding and policy decisions for roads, bridges, transit and public works projects. The annual report card also highlights the importance of civil engineers to our future, which helps members in the job market and inspires new generations to join the field.


For too long, associations have worried about capturing their members’ attention, afraid that if they went elsewhere

  • to meetings and communities outside of the association’s tent, or to use resources hosted by another organization
  • they might lose those members (and their loyalty) forever.

But the horse is out of the barn, so to speak, and the best way to maintain loyalty isn’t to try to keep members captive but to understand that there is a universe of opportunities out there in the world, and you can be their curator.

The American Geophysical Union (AGU) — the leading professional society for the Earth and space sciences — has made a concerted effort to move beyond a siloed, members-only mentality and embrace the wider world of geophysics, adding value for members (and non-members) by claiming domain over the entire scope of industry activity rather than building walls to keep non-members and outside initiatives from breaking in.

Going to their events or publishing in their journals doesn’t require membership, and they’ve created an industry directory that aims to be complete regardless of membership status. If you’ve been to an event, published a paper, or interacted with AGU in any way at all as a professional in the Earth and space community, you become part of their directory, and others can find you and reach out. The aim is to pull as many people as possible into their circle, to create an ecosystem that serves the entire field — and to keep themselves as relevant as possible.


We are used to thinking about associations as publishers and conveners — you create content, and you host events. But you can do so much more. One of our consultants led an applied technology association that looked past these limits, abandoning the notion that their mandate was limited to individual members and their needs. First, they acquired an external organization that brought unique IP allowing the association to expand its reach into companies, and not just individual professionals. The association leveraged that IP to create a cloud-based product that allowed enterprises to assess their level of vulnerability to cybersecurity attacks and, based on assessment results, review a recommended action plan to increase the company’s resilience. This was a value-added and unique offering in the marketplace, and to complement adoption of the solution, the association also established a new revenue stream.

This offering was well beyond the traditional product portfolio, and it further reinforced the association’s purpose — and improved how its members and the industry valued and engaged with the organization.

In an adjacent model, the Construction Specifications Institute provides an example of extending into the software space. The organization created CrossWalk, an application programming interface that connects to construction software and puts classification standards directly into project workflows — automating a complex process and bringing value to the entire construction industry. As the association at the center of the field, they owned the IP and were uniquely positioned to create this innovation.


It’s not just what you can do alone. The American Institute of Chemical Engineers created a set of federally-funded spin-off institutes to execute research in spaces relevant to their members and the industry. By pursuing government grants and running an internal research enterprise, they provide opportunities that individual engineers could never have achieved on their own, and work to create impact through their research that would help professionals and companies throughout the industry.

They’ve done this in partnership not just with the government, but with industry — cementing relationships that serve their members and bringing federal funds to their industry that would otherwise be deployed elsewhere.


It cannot be overlooked that associations sit in a wonderfully privileged position when it comes to data. Their ongoing relationships with members give them the opportunity to collect so much information about their industries — and there are tremendous ways to use that data to benefit members and the broader ecosystem.

One association we know has created a set of predictive analytics that can help researchers understand the areas of study that are gaining attention, and where the industry is likely to turn next. This knowledge can inform what researchers choose to turn to, and what kinds of articles will get the most attention. This provides real value beyond just publishing a journal and hoping the research strikes a chord with the industry.

We can also look at the work of another nonprofit, Climate Central, which found a way to use data to benefit its stakeholders: Humankind They created an interactive data visualization tool that journalists everywhere in the country can use to more effectively report the weather in their area of the country. The value created is tremendous — and what’s interesting is that any of a number of scientific climate-related associations could have taken on this challenge themselves. The one that moved first — and quite effectively at that, garnering coverage on PBS and elsewhere for their work — reaped the rewards.


These examples highlight a number of ways that associations can look beyond their traditional roles to find new innovations, provide value to members and non-members, and extend their reach into the industries they serve. As you think about opportunities for your association, we urge you to use these examples as inspiration, while at the same time asking yourself and your executive team some mind-expanding questions:

  • How can we look beyond our membership and serve the broader industry?
  • How can we provide a more personalized experience to our members?
  • How can we use data to further our mission?
  • Are there new products or services we can launch that go beyond our traditional offerings?

It’s easy to become passive and think that the things you’ve always done are the limit of what your organization can do. But associations have the potential for so much more. We hope this paper inspires some fresh thinking. If you would like to explore further, please contact us at Mod Op Strategic Consulting.

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Mod Op Strategic Consulting


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