The global pandemic has rocked our world, and I’m gravely concerned about what this means for the future of our associations.

Prior to the pandemic, research indicated the majority of associations were facing declines in membership and revenues.


Because many associations were resistant to change and struggling to plan for their futures.

Despite social change, recession, economic shifts, and rapidly changing technology, research indicated the majority of associations weren’t intentional about future planning and struggled to be inclusive of new people and new ideas.

The faster change happened, the more difficult it became for associations to innovate, just as it did for government, education, healthcare, and many other sectors.

There is a solution, but before we can address it, we need to understand why change is such a challenge for our organizations and for us as individuals.

There are three reasons why this is happening, and the answers might surprise you.

It’s scientific.

When we encounter a change, it lights up the pre-frontal cortex of our brains. Initially we feel excited and willing to tackle the challenge. But the pre-frontal cortex’s capacity is limited and quickly burns out, which is why that excitement can quickly lead to fatigue, anxiety, and even anger. This is when the ‘ostrich with its head in the sand’ mentality emerges. Our brains dislike the way change makes us feel. We feel more comfortable when we avoid change and rely on what we know. As a result, it becomes increasingly difficult for our leaders and organizations to innovate and adapt to new association trends.

We have allowed our leaders to do more of the same.

The late 19th and 20th century approach to leadership was aimed at making money: manufacturing more widgets, expanding assembly lines, building bigger buildings, and generating more jobs. Then, society decided the leaders leading their companies to bigger profits should be compensated for those profits. In 1965, executive pay was 24 times worker pay. Now it is a whopping 275 times.

The association community may not have observed the same pay increases as corporate America, but it does have an equivalent. I’ve known of many which observed considerable losses of membership or revenues under certain leaders but didn’t ask that leader to change the approach and didn’t replace the leader. In any case, the acceptance of mediocre performance and the expectation of annual raises empowered leaders to maintain status quo and backburner concepts like innovation and change.


Leadership has historically been reserved for those with the most experience.

Board seats and executive roles have all too often been rewarded to people based on experience, titles, and prominence alone. Rarely have we measured leadership capacity on a person’s ability to innovate and inspire. Throughout history we’ve filled entire rooms with people who have similar backgrounds, experiences, and ideas. Many associations today are structured in such a way they still consider experience the sole advantage. This is a flawed approach to leadership. If everyone thinks the same, innovation becomes an impossible feat right alongside relevance.

What is the solution? What could possibly resolve all of these ingrained tendencies and traditions?

The solution is quite simple, actually.

It’s collaboration.

When we work alongside others to solve problems, we feel inspired and comforted. When people in leadership roles gather ideas and insights from others, performance improves substantially. When we practice cognitive diversity, bringing people with diverse backgrounds and skillsets together, organization-wide engagement and morale improves, as does productivity and profitability.

Collaboration has been directly tied to the brain’s ability to innovate, yet in so many organizations – associations included – we hold steadfast to the concepts of hierarchy and siloed approaches to leadership.

All tendencies and traditions considered, it’s no surprise associations have struggled to innovate and navigate disruption. Collaboration is key to an organization’s ability to build inclusive, adaptable, competitive, and relevant communities.

Here and now, the pandemic has forced us all into the unknown, and our organizations have likely been more open to change and contemplative of their futures than ever before.

But when all the dust has cleared, so to speak, will our associations be forever changed?

Will we be ready to forge a new path?

Or will association leaders try to put everything back into place, forgetting what has happened and returning to their previous habits, traditions, and expectations?

There are many questions still to be answered and just one certainty: The actions leaders take today will influence their associations’ futures.

Collaboration is key, and there are other strategies that need to be implemented as well.

I’ve been in leadership roles during times of crisis, and I’ve researched organizational trajectories in times of crisis. In times like this there are organizations that make decisions that position them for long-term growth, and there are organizations that make decisions which create additional obstacles resulting in on-going decline.

It’s critical your organization utilizes a futurist mindset right now, to anticipate the changes that will occur and envision where you want your association