Tuesday, March 10, 2015


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Most associations, especially trade organizations, got their start by what I call chasing the dragon. Simply put, that means there is (or was) one major threat so challenging to the industry that competitors put aside their differences to come together to fight the great fight for their own preservation. Though dragons may take many forms, they generally emerge from legislative or regulatory issues that industry perceives as a common threat to all — and an association is born.

The benefit of chasing an industry dragon is that it provides a very unique identity for the organization and the 30-second elevator speech on who you are is simple and understandable like, “The Nut and Fastener Association is a group of manufacturers that joined together to keep from being screwed by unreasonable regulations on building, bridge and tower construction.” (See, only 12.5 seconds)

In reality, the issue probably started with a regulation of something that riled the entire industry. As an afterthought, the association broadened its perspective to all unreasonable regulations due to government’s innate inability to understand when they have solved the issue and should stop writing regulations before they cause more problems.

The association continues to develop as progress is made to study, stalk and corner the dragon. Its identity remains intact as long as the primary function that created it remains. As the association progresses in its clearly identified goal to slay the dragon, its membership and programs continue to grow, even as it begins branching out into program areas that do not conform to its original purpose. Over time, pet projects of officers and committee chairs begin to broaden the scope of organizational activities putting more and more stress on financial and human resources. But as long as the dragon remains in view, the purpose of the organization and its public identity remain intact.

While the hunt to slay the dragon has allowed the association to build its identity, stature and influence, one of 3 things must inevitably happen:

1.     The process takes so long that the industry becomes disillusioned with the organization’s efforts and support drains away, or
2.     The market or industry changes over time and the dragon becomes irrelevant in the new conditions, or
3.     The association actually slays the dragon, it is dead, and there is no new dragon to replace it.

Now all those little extra special projects that directors and committee chairs installed over time come home to roost. No affinity programs, purchasing discounts for minor services and similar little fiefdoms that typically garner support from fewer than 20 percent of the membership can generate enough glue to hold the whole organization together. In fact, their care and maintenance become an economic drain and organizational distraction from the life-saving task at hand: finding a new dragon everyone needs (or at least wants) to slay.

Without a new dragon, the organization’s identity of purpose quickly withers. The typical 80 percent of marginally involved members start slipping away. Prospective members don’t see a new purpose or valid identity and refuse to join. And while the Board of Directors desperately keeps trying to do better what it has always done, the ship of state sinks slowly into a sea of red ink and on to non-profit oblivion.

If there is no new dragon around which your industry can or should rally, then your useful time as an organization is passed and you may well be irrelevant — pack it in. But it is extremely rare that there are no new dragons so long as government regulations or unfair trade practices or other circumstances exist that will distort a fair market and prevent a level playing field.

The route to recovery is littered with organizations that were unable, or unwilling, to jettison all but their key programs and search out a new dragon around which they could build a new coalition of members willing to fight. Smart organizations look even harder to find more than one dragon of EQUAL importance.

If your organization is in the tall weeds looking at the ground for scraps to survive, look up at the horizon and the future. Real dragons have wings and they are not on the ground. You just have to know where to look.