What do associations do better than anyone else?
Here's a question to melt your brain: if your association had to decide which one product or service it was best at providing and from then on produce that one item alone and nothing else, what would it be?
This came to mind after reading Jeff Cobb's post this week titled "What if you were the Dyson of your market?" He writes:
I have in mind that obvious and yet amazing claim for a vacuum cleaner manufacturer to make:
Our vacuums have strong suction and they don't lose it.
[…] imagine if you could validly say "People who participate in our learning experiences gain high quality, actionable knowledge; they retain it; and, they use it. We guarantee it."
I often find myself envious of companies that design and manufacture one type of item, like Dyson does with vacuum cleaners (or perhaps "turbine devices" to account for their fans, hand dryers, and washing machines, too). It's that kind of singular focus that makes it a lot less complicated for a company to strive toward being the best in the world at what it does.
Leah Busque's recent post at Fast Company's Co.Exist blog on comparative advantage ("If You Want It Done Right, Don't Do It Yourself") drives this point home:
There is tremendous power in focusing on the things you are most skilled at, while relying on others to do the rest. … It's necessary (and a real skill) to acknowledge where your time is best spent and make conscious decisions to focus on those areas.
The variety of endeavors most associations pursue, however, is broad: meetings, education, knowledge sharing, advocacy, standards, fundraising, research, group buying, and so on and so on. (I'm reminded yet again of C. David Gammel, CAE's postulate about an association being "a conglomerate of small businesses.")
I commented on Jeff's post to say that I worry that this lack of focus in associations might prevent them from achieving a Dyson-level of quality—the level of "we're the best in the world and we guarantee it"—in any particular product or service. Of course, any given association could, theoretically, pick one of its offerings, eschew the rest, and pursue it at the highest level. And the particular offering chosen would likely be different at every association, depending on each one's unique circumstances and skill sets.
But is there one comparative advantage for associations overall? For the association model? What is it that associations are better at than anyone else? I'll admit I struggled with this for a while, but I think the answer is rather straightforward: associations are the best at being large groups of people with common interests and goals. Their comparative advantage lies in having a critical mass. Power in numbers is what lends credibility to all the products and services associations create.
A lot of people would call this "membership," so it's understandable that we all get whipped into a froth when we debate the future of the membership model. If membership is the fundamental advantage that associations carry, and they lost it, they might cease to exist. I think this viewpoint is half right. "Membership" often denotes payment to enter, and I don't think that's always necessary. "Community" seems like the better label to me. As long as an association can foster a community, whether the community members pay to be a part of it or not, it will have opportunities to remain sustainable.
But you can't sell membership in and of itself. People don't join a community just to be a part of it. They join for all the benefits that its power in numbers enables. And so maybe the question at the start of this post is irrelevant. Perhaps we're comparing apples to oranges. What do you think? What is that associations can guarantee they're the best in the world at? Or can they at all?