Entrepreneurship isn’t a word that you hear often in the association space. Why not?
Is it because associations aren’t able to think entrepreneurially?
If we take entrepreneurial thinking to be a focus on the mission as well as on the bottom line, our organizations are perfectly poised to embrace this framework because we have passion, vision, and commitment both to our members and to society at large.
Is it because associations shouldn’t think entrepreneurially?
Entrepreneurship is an approach to strategizing and to strategy implementation, but beyond that it is a commitment to innovation. If we take seriously our responsibilities towards our members, then this kind of outlook becomes a way to ensure that we are always a step ahead of their demands. It becomes equivalent to listening — proactively and continuously — to understand their context and anticipate their needs.
An entrepreneurial outlook gives associations the push to depart from business as usual – to get away from the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality. Entrepreneurial thinking isn’t about changing minds so much as it about expanding them. This is an important point: entrepreneurship is more about adaptation than change. Having an eye to the future — or toward the many possible futures — is a way of pre-empting the challenges and changes around the corner, so we can empower member success.
Adaptation in the face of this changing landscape might mean finding new ways to deliver traditional association benefits competitively by leveraging technology and data, or it might mean re-negotiating the form and manner of these benefits through co-opetition (which, in essence is collaborating with the competition — if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em).
What stops associations from being entrepreneurial? A “legacy” culture, a business model that has worked for many years, lack of crises or threats to our existence…And sometimes it’s trying to do too much — to be all things to all members. It’s the inability to “think lean” as businesses have to if they want to succeed.
Entrepreneurial thinking is critical if we want to take on the increasing competition we as associations face. There is so much noise around us and members can find a range of resources for free or for a lower cost than association member dues. We need an enormous amount of flexibility if we want to continue to be a source our members depend on.
I have a hunger for entrepreneurship, and I am not alone! A group of us started chatting on ASAE Collaborate (the Executive Management Section and the Large Staff Association Executive Group) and it was so energizing to feed off of each other. I thought it would be great to carry on the conversation in person and start a community dedicated to sparking entrepreneurial thought. From this, ACE (Associations Catalyzing Entrepreneurship) was born.
For me, ACE is like a mind gym (although I hope to visit it more often than my physical gym — a classic membership scenario of pay my dues and forget about it). It’s helped me stretch, strengthen and take new ideas back to my job. It’s refreshing to have workout buddies — like-minded associations executives across departments and functions. And we’ve had some great trainers, too — speakers and panelists who’ve been sharing their experiences and framing the conversations.
We are an informal and evolving group excited about having these conversations, and figuring out how to encourage and leverage entrepreneurial thinking back at our associations. We’re trying to get more entrepreneurs from outside the association world to join our group so we can learn from them too. We’ve been meeting in person (with virtual options for those outside the D.C. area). And we are trying to foster an “ACE Case” community problem-solving approach — we want people to bring a strategic problem or situation they’re grappling with to the group for collective brainstorming and solutions.
Any interested association professionals are absolutely invited to join the conversation — connect with me on LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com/in/meenadayak) and I’ll invite you to our ACE group. We can discuss issues and I’ll keep you posted about meetings.
Ultimately, if we cannot be future-oriented, innovative, and expansive with our outlook, we are going to struggle to be responsive to our members’ needs. Having an entrepreneurial mindset might change the way we approach the journey, but the end goal remains the same: to bring value to members. Thinking entrepreneurially gives us the capacity to shape the future as much as it shapes us, and our efforts will become stronger as we meet and learn from each other.