Photo by Hector Vasquez via Unsplash

Associations might be the original purpose-driven organizations. 

For centuries, associations have brought professionals together to forge connections and share valuable information. This time-honored tradition has held true from 1560, when scholars and teachers gathered to form Naples’ Academia Secretorum, all the way through the present day. 

A lot has changed since associations’ earliest moments. In our ever-changing modern world, there are many options for discovering new information and discovering community on- and offline. Associations that truly thrive are guided by a purpose-driven culture that’s capable of cutting through all the noise.

So, what’s a core purpose, anyway? Many people assume their association’s mission statement is the same as its core purpose. In reality, an effective core purpose runs deeper, underlying everything your association does. It’s your North Star; your reason for existing; the ultimate “why” that guides all decision-making. 

Too many associations are burdened with vague, cluttered notions of what their core purpose might be — rather than a deep understanding of what their reason for existing actually is. These tips will help you nurture  a purpose-driven culture within your association.

Value inspiration over explanation

Defining your association’s core purpose is no small feat. Too often, associations settle for a wordy core purpose that attempts to list every goal or function they might hope to achieve. This is understandable — after all, many mission statements follow this formula. 

But this presents a key problem: It’s hard to remember an overly-elaborate core purpose. Plus, what happens when your association evolves over time? A hyper-specific core purpose will quickly fall by the wayside. And a rigidly defined core purpose can even hold your association back from long-term growth. 

Instead, your core purpose should drill down into the true reason for your association’s existence. It should take the form of a short sentence or phrase that includes an active verb. 

For example, Disney’s core purpose is simply “Make people happy.” Everyone who works at Disney — from top-level executives to theme park staff — can easily remember this core purpose, and apply it every day.

Embrace smart risk-taking

Once you’ve defined your association’s core purpose, other strengths can begin to fall into place. Among the most important: Cultivating a culture that rewards smart risk-taking. 

Like many organizations, associations tend to shy away from big risks. But not all risks are created equal. While organizations should avoid random or chaotic decision-making, experimentation is a necessary part of growth. Without some level of risk taking, your association can quickly stagnate or even become irrelevant.

A clearly defined core purpose will help your association evaluate risks. If a risk aligns with your core purpose — and has the potential to drive long-term success — it may be worth taking. 

For example, imagine a group of Disney employees are weighing an experimental marketing campaign’s potential risks and rewards. The employees can reflect on Disney’s core purpose to determine whether it’s likely (or unlikely) that the campaign would bring happiness into Disney fans’ lives. 

Could the campaign help customers discover joy through new products or experiences? Will it incorporate a beloved character to make audience members smile? If so, the likelihood of some level of success might be high.

Finally, it’s important to accept that not all risks lead directly to immediate rewards. Successful associations have a “willingness to fail.” As long as a risk doesn’t undermine your association’s core purpose or put your long-term stability at risk, you can proceed with confidence.

Start at the top

A purpose-driven culture won’t manifest all on its own. An association’s leaders play a crucial role in defining and cultivating the organization’s vision and values. In particular, managers can guide employees to apply the organization’s core purpose while completing daily tasks. 

When it’s time for employees to present new ideas, managers should strive to create an environment that welcomes vulnerability. Employees feel safer when managers remain open to critical feedback, talk honestly about their own mistakes, and normalize failure as a part of the path forward. 

Above all, an effective core purpose keeps everyone within your association aligned and working toward the same goals. When leaders thoughtfully establish the association’s core purpose, people at every level will reap the long-term benefits. 

You have to let people into your organization first so they can see the value of being part of it. Our worksheet will help you take a hard look at what your organization is doing — and not doing — to reach as wide an audience as possible. Download our FREE Open Garden organization worksheet to learn what an Open Garden model is and how your association can begin to reshape its thinking.

AssociationSuccess.org is a digital collaboration space for association professionals looking to challenge the status quo and think in innovative ways to move today's association industry into the future. We publish educational content from forward-thinking minds in the association industry and beyond. With articles, eBooks and our uniquely collaborative virtual conferences, including SURGE, we look to spark new ideas that can drive change and create new leaders. We don’t worry about where good ideas come from; we’re more interested in what those ideas actually are.

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AssociationSuccess.org is a digital collaboration space for association professionals looking to challenge the status quo and think in innovative ways to move today's association industry into the future. We publish educational content from forward-thinking minds in the association industry and beyond. With articles, eBooks and our uniquely collaborative virtual conferences, including SURGE, we look to spark new ideas that can drive change and create new leaders. We don’t worry about where good ideas come from; we’re more interested in what those ideas actually are.

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