This post first appeared on the Mid-Atlantic Society of Association Executives (MASAE) Blog last month. In Part II, I explored the relevance fallacy from the stakeholder perspective. In this final post in the series, I will extend this discussion to ...

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Deconstructing the relevance fallacy: part III and more...

Deconstructing the relevance fallacy: part III

This post first appeared on the Mid-Atlantic Society of Association Executives (MASAE) Blog last month.

In Part II, I explored the relevance fallacy from the stakeholder perspective. In this final post in the series, I will extend this discussion to consider why relevance thinking is a losing argument for persuading stakeholderto develop relationships with associations. 

Why should your current and future stakeholders want a relationship with your association over the next decade and beyond? 

As a result of 25 years of technological transformation, stakeholders are not only experiencing new challenges and opportunities in their lives and jobs. Today’s stakeholders also have abundant access to many of the tangible and intangible resources they need through their network relationships. Knowledge and expertise, trusted connections and even financial resources can be secured with relative ease through crowdsourcing sites, social networks and peer-to-peer sharing platforms. 

This unprecedented shift in influence toward individuals and networks, and away from legacy organizations such as associations, cannot be addressed with a traditional strategic plan developed using a relevance mindset. Instead, associations need to think and act beyond the orthodoxy of their membership-centric business models to co-create value with stakeholders in the three overlapping timeframes mentioned in the previous post:  

Solving short-term problems – Stakeholders have problems that must be solved in near real time, an opportunity ideally suited for applying mobile, social and cloud technologies. Associations, however, tend to be more comfortable operating on “association time,” which means value creation and delivery occurs on schedules organized around internal processes and requirements. This a business challenge that will not be resolved by making the association or its members offer “more relevant.”

Meeting intermediate-term needs – Stakeholders have a full range of needs they must meet to prepare for the future and advance and grow in their careers. They will consider products, services and experiences from a number of sources to meet them. The most significant differentiator among the many available offers will not be relevance, however, but the richness of the meaning and impact those forms of value can bring to stakeholders, as well as to their peers across personal and professional networks with similar needs.  

Achieving long-term outcomes – Throughout their lives, stakeholders will pursue ambitions and aspirations that they will need help to reach. Diverse and intimate network relationships will be a critical wellspring of both practical and emotional support, and associations also may be able to play a unique role in this context because of the sense of purpose (not relevance) that animates their work. To act on this opportunity, however, associations must be willing to listen to and learn from stakeholders and their networks in order to collaborate with them to create distinctive value. 

After many decades of trying to figure out what’s next, associations have arrived at crucial moment, and the choice for senior decision-makers is clear: embrace the transformation that is happening all around them and begin building organizations capable of thriving in the 21st century or continue to operate within the fallacy of relevanceIn my view, it is not a difficult decision. 


Deconstructing the relevance fallacy: part II

This post first appeared on the Mid-Atlantic Society of Association Executives (MASAE) Blog last month.

In Part I of this series, I began deconstructing the relevance fallacy from the point of view of association thrivability. In this post, I will continue this process by examining relevance from the stakeholder perspective.

What will your current and future stakeholders need to thrive over the next decade and beyond? 

In a world being buffeted by the forces of transformation, association stakeholders will continue to encounter both complex challenges and compelling opportunities. The profound impact of these forces, especially the application of powerful technologies in every industry, profession and field, is reinventing the very nature of work (and not always for the better), while also enabling more convenient ways to connect, cooperate and collaborate, i.e., to associate, with peers anywhere in the world, in any language and at any time.

On the surface, relevance thinking appears to be the exact approach associations should pursue to help their stakeholders thrive over the next decade and beyond. To further reveal the relevance fallacy, however, it is worth asking which players really benefit (or don’t) from this mindset and why.

The relevance mindset benefits boards – As I have argued before, association boards frequently adhere to a membership ideology, which is understandable given that most board members make some connection between association membership and their own professional success. Since it is tied to membership, then, the relevance mindset reinforces boards’ existing orthodox beliefs and nurtures a misplaced clarity for the overarching purpose of their work as senior decision-makers.

The relevance mindset benefits senior staff teams – For association CEOs and their direct reports, adopting and acting on the relevance mindset is an attractive alternative to the more challenging work of creating truly 21st century associations. This observation is not offered as a criticism, but as a clear-eyed recognition of reality. Building an association to thrive in a time of societal transformation is a highly complicated and unpredictable endeavor, while relevance thinking is an intuitive, if incremental, approach to making improvements.

The relevance mindset does not benefit stakeholders – Contrary to popular belief, current and future stakeholders do not benefit from associations’ focus on relevance. The combination of problems, needs and outcomes these stakeholders face demands a stronger response from associations, a genuine commitment to create distinctive and meaningful value that effectively harnesses the forces of transformation for innovation.

In the final part of this series, I will consider the relevance fallacy in the context of why current and future stakeholders should want to have relationships with associations over the next decade and beyond.


Deconstructing the relevance fallacy: part I

This post first appeared on the Mid-Atlantic Society of Association Executives (MASAE) Blog last month.

As I travel around the country for both client work and public presentations, I hear a growing number of association decision-makers staff and voluntary alike – repeating a very familiar refrain: we need to make our associations relevant. Whenever someone expresses this point of view, I have a decidedly mixed reaction. On the one hand, I feel genuine empathy because relevance thinking usually is shared as a sincere, well-intentioned response to the complicated challenges created by a volatile and uncertain marketplace.

On the other hand, I almost always feel a strong wave of frustration wash over me whenever I hear the word “relevance” used in this context. As a long-time association contributor who is committed, as a matter of both purpose and passion, to building 21st century organizations, it is difficult for me to view the relevance mindset as anything other than a serious threat to the real work of building associations to thrive in the years ahead.

To better understand why relevance is a dangerous fallacy that associations must immediately abandon, I will use my guest posts on this blog to examine and deconstruct the fallacy by applying the three core questions that underpin long-term association thrivability:

  1. What will it take for your association to thrive over the next decade and beyond?
  1. What will your current and future stakeholders need to thrive over the next decade and beyond?
  1. Why should your current and future stakeholders want a relationship with your association over the next decade and beyond?

Legacy organizations of all kinds are asking themselves the same questions, even if their versions use different words. For association decision-makers, these three questions provide a helpful structure for encouraging both greater discipline and greater creativity in their thinking about the future.

What will it take for your association to thrive over the next decade and beyond? 

Over the last 25 years, comparatively stable experience of linear change to which we have all grown accustomed has been supplanted by a profound, intensifying and accelerating experience of societal transformation, driven primarily by the relentless impact of technology on every field of human endeavor. In 2015, we are still closer to the beginning of this transformation than the end, and associations must act now to prepare for even more significant developments yet to come.

Thrivability is about creating an association that can flourish in a world experiencing transformation. To be thrivable, associations need to be both adaptable to rapidly shifting conditions and resilient in the work of co-creating distinctive new value. While thrivability is about nurturing the development of new organizational capabilities for the future, the relevance mindset leads associations to limit their thinking about the future in (at least) three important ways:

The relevance mindset is tied to membership. For the most part, when association decision-makers speak of making their organizations more relevant, what they are really talking about is making membership in the association more relevant. The focus on thrivability, however, challenges decision-makers to think beyond the sacrosanct orthodoxy of membership and act to develop meaningful relationships with distributed networks of stakeholders, including those who will never join, to collaborate on the creation of value.

The relevance mindset ignores resistance and risk. Many decision-makers honestly believe that diminished relevance explains their organizations’ inability to realize their full potential. The work of thrivability acknowledges the true problems – the unchecked influence of internal resistance to transformation and the misplaced fear of the external risk of innovation – and focuses organizational attention on addressing those problems directly to build adaptability and resilience.

The relevance mindset is not generative. In my experience, association decision-makers see relevance as something that can be addressed with a combination of fairly incremental programmatic and promotional initiatives. Thrivability, in contrast, demands a truly holistic and generative approach and, as I have previously written, “[w]hen we focus on being generative, we can create new dimensions of success both organizationally and for our stakeholders, but only if we’re willing to think differently about how we do our work.”

In Part II of this series, I will look at the relevance fallacy through the lens of what association stakeholders will need to thrive over the next decade and beyond.


Three things your association needs to STOP doing to thrive


The central imperative for 21st century association decision-makers is to build their organizations to thrive. If you’re serious about taking action on this imperative, then it’s high time to create the necessary conditions for moving the work forward by ending three orthodox mindsets that still exist within the vast majority of associations:

1. STOP pinning your association’s future to the notion of relevance–More than seven years after I first described it as a losing argument, achieving relevance remains the holy grail of association strategy-making. The continued focus on relevance, however, accurately reflects most associations’ preference for short-term, incremental thinking and action, a highly detrimental choice for future thrivability during a time of profound and relentless societal transformation that is affecting every field of human endeavor.

2. STOP underestimating the influence of internal resistance to transformation–Associations continue to struggle with understanding and harnessing the forces of transformation that are reshaping our world because of internal resistance to being a part of that transformation. Whether it comes in the form of outright opposition to adopting next practices or more subtle forms of organizational inertia that slow the pace of progress toward the future, internal resistance endangers association thrivability.

3. STOP overestimating the impact of external risk for innovation–As exceptionally risk averse organizations, associations tend to see only the downside impact of risk when considering opportunities to innovate. The failure to give equal consideration to the upside return of innovation, or recognize the existence of effective practices for mitigating risk, denies associations the chance to build innovation as a strategic capability that is a critical element of future thrivability.

The only responsible course of action for association decision-makers is to defeat these dangerous ways of thinking by challenging them at every opportunity, not just with strong words but with consistent actions. Now is the time to build associations to thrive. Are you prepared to make it happen?

If you would like to learn more about what it will take to build your association to thrive, please join me in Chicago on April 21, 2015 for a full-day workshop, The Six Rs of Association Thrivability: Creating a Truly 21st Century Organization. For more information or to register, please visit


Business Model Thinking: Three Things Your Nonprofit Board Must Understand

Post-It Note Light Bulbs

This post first appeared on the Exceptional Boards Blog in August 2014 and on LinkedIn in September 2014. The post is co-authored with Michael Anderson, president and CEO, Canadian Society of Association Executives.

As the pace of societal transformation continues to accelerate, nonprofit boards must develop their capacity for generative business model thinking. The business model, which we define as the rationale of how an organization creates, delivers, and captures value, is also the framework that integrates the organization’s commitment to purposeful action with the equally critical pursuit of a responsible level of profitability. (Yes, you read that correctly. “Nonprofit” is simply a tax status, not a business model, and a measure of profitability is essential to make investments in building organizational capacity every year.)

To help your board fully embrace business model thinking, here are three things you and your colleagues need to know:

  • Business model stewardship is the most important form of fiduciary responsibility. Most nonprofit boards pursue fiduciary responsibility through the regular review of key financial documents, such as audits, balance sheets, and P&L statements. This type of oversight, although absolutely necessary, is mostly retrospective, and thus insufficient to build organizations capable of thriving in the years ahead. For 21st-century nonprofits, fiduciary responsibility requires energetic business model stewardship. Every nonprofit board has a duty to build a deep understanding of the organization’s existing business model to grapple productively with more complicated questions about new value creation for both current and future stakeholders.
  • Business model innovation must be an ongoing priority. When it comes to creating value, nonprofit organizations must listen closely to and learn with empathy for their stakeholders, many of who have demonstrated a strong preference for more open and inclusive platforms that embrace their technology-enhanced mobility, create more meaningful interactions, and enable simpler collaboration with their networks. For 21st-century nonprofits, coming to terms with and capitalizing on these new dynamics of value creation means boards must make consistent and well-paced investments in business model innovation in the years ahead.
  • Business model design is about nurturing both adaptability and resilience. The critical business model design challenge for nonprofit boards is crafting new business models that are both adaptable and resilient. Adaptive business models can more easily adjust to shifting conditions and are flexible enough to take advantage of emerging opportunities. Resilient business models are organized around a coherent strategic core that creates lasting influence with stakeholders by solving their short-term problems, meeting their intermediate-term needs, and helping them achieve their long-term outcomes. For 21st-century nonprofits, designing adaptive and resilient business models is essential to building organizations that can thrive.

For 21st-century nonprofits, the business model conversation is the most important dialogue your board will have for the foreseeable future. To have the right conversation, nonprofit boards must work with their staff partners to remove any obstacles that may interfere with the serious work of business model stewardship, innovation, and design.


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