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Should you be serving or leading your members?

We interrupt this social media month with an off-topic post...

Should your association provide what your members want or what they need? Others may disagree, but I think this is essentially the same question as does your association serve its members or lead them?

The copout answer to both questions is that associations need to do both. It’s a copout because I believe an organization can only be focused on one or the other (or, I guess neither, but that’s a different matter). There’s obviously some gray area and one side likely always spills into the other, but I think if an organization doesn’t focus on one or the other then the best it can hope for is mediocrity at both.

I’m pretty passionate about where I think associations should be: They should be on the lead/need side, not the want/serve side. To oversimplify why I think that way, I’m going to pull from my communications experience. An article that finishes a sentence that starts with “How to…” is the want/serve side, whereas an article that finishes a question that starts “What if…” is the lead/need side.

I’m not belittling the how-to articles. I just think that in the past associations were absolutely necessary to answer the how-to questions. I think it’s less important now because the online universe will almost always have more information and be a more efficient source either to find or, in the case of social media and online collaboration, to create the how-to answers.


Boards, committees, task forces, ad hoc groups, special industry group leaders—collectively all the leaders of an organization should be asking “what if” questions and working on “what if” answers.

An organization’s paid staff should be more than administrators; they should be participants in these discussions. Too many associations build a wall between the thinking and the doing.

Guess what paid staff? This is no cakewalk. You become obligated to develop more than passing interest in or marginal knowledge of what your members do. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t really break down so neatly into how tos and what ifs. As staff, you need to have some kind of radar that will help you distinguish between the two and push volunteers to work on the latter.

You know one of the seven measures (similar to one of the ways Collins says “great” companies distinguish themselves from “good” ones) is to be data driven. I love the principle but I hate how it’s described in 7 Measures and what it means to most people. Don’t use data to figure out what members want or how to serve them; use it as part of the discussion about what they need and how the organization can lead the profession/industry/interest forward.



The very idea that an association can serve its members without leading them is foolhardy at best. It's not an either-or; it's an AND.

Well, Jeff, I think that's my point. The counterargument is that it's arrogant to think an association should lead. The association should strive for broad appeal or, worse in my opinion, the lowest common denominator.

On the other hand, in thinking about the associations I've worked for and the many whose staff executives I've spoken with through the years, I think very few actually make leading their profession/industry/interest the unifying focal point of what they do. Oh, I think most would say they do, but it's not backed up with the products and services that would actually make the organization the leader of the field.

Scott - rockin' post. I totally agree with you. I would say there are probably many associations that simply serve without leading and those are the ones finding themselves irrelevant or unsustainable over the long term.

Scott, I wasn't disagreeing with you at all in case you thought I was. I was just framing your core message in my own language, albeit fairly blunt and to the point.

The staff and volunteer leadership of both of the associations I worked for saw the mission of their work more expansively than just "serving the members." We looked at what would be our members greatest impact on their workplaces, communities, etc. and then discussed out products and services to help them achieve success at that level.

While some might see that as a bit of semantics, I remember it being rather powerful at the time. I can still recall one of the core questions we discussed regularly: "If our members were making the greatest possible contribution on _____ (issue/topic/etc.) what would the association need to do to ensure they are equipped to do so?"

Scott, I think you have identified the dividing line between "reactive" associations and leadership, and "proactive" associations and leadership. I am expecting something of a blitz response by advocates of both. We'll see.

Here's another angle on your point. The old concept of the value proposition says that associations have to be good at all of the principles of the value proposition, but can only truly excel in one of the three (superior customer service, product excellence and operational efficiency). Some folks now think that effective advocacy may be a fourth principle.

So, if associations can only truly excel in one principle, what's the most important principle of the value proposition for "what ifs"? What is it for "how tos"? Why is it the same or different?

Thank you Maddie and Jeff, good points. To me, the bottom line is this: it's easy to find out what members want and give it to them. And it's easy to demonstrate how well you serve them. But as Maddie said, that's not even really close to enough anymore. It's much harder to figure out what they need, and harder still to demonstrate how the organization is a leader in the industry/profession/interest, yet that's what really matters.

Scott, I respectfully suggest we are generalizing about membership at such a high level that the discussion is not really actionable.

In my experience, it is not so easy to find out what members want, since there really is not such thing as a united, homogenous membership that can give a simple, vanilla answer. And it is most certainly not easy to respond to member segments, since resources and capabilities are always limited. Not everyone can get what they want. Or need.

Every association's membership is higly diverse and segmented. There are leaders, active members, not-so-active members and inactive members (which may comprise as much as 60%-70% of the total membership).

Of those that are active, there are those who are active in pursuit of the latest technical information, career and personal support, socializing, advocacy, leadership opportunities, business advantage, personal ego building, etc.

And of course, there are age, demographic and regional/cultural differences among a world-wide membership.

When one looks at the various membership segments and their diverse desires, it is not so easy to give everyone what everyone wants, much less give everyone what everyone needs. There's the rub.

For those who are interested in this topic, Kevin Holland was inspired to post his thoughts about Scott and Virgil's points at the Association Inc. blog.

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