Relevance Is Not Enough

I’m thinking about submitting a proposal to speak at a conference with “Relevance is not enough” as the title. I’ve heard a lot of people in the last six months or so talk about how relevance is so crucial for associations. As usual, my friend Jeff De Cagna is a bit ahead of the curve, because he’s been arguing for a long time that if your goal is relevance, you’re already history. And Maddie has likened the quest for relevance to living your life with the goal of being “not dead.” The idea was debated on the acronym blog a bit as well, thought it got a bit into wordsmithing (say the word “relevant” a dozen times fast and it stops meaning anything).

Here’s the deal. We, as associations, want to be relevant to our stakeholders. We want to really MEAN something to them. That way, they will join us or buy our stuff or use our services or support our advocacy or whatever. If we have a deep meaning, we will be successful.


Sorry, but it’s not enough, at least not any more. I am a member of ASAE. I volunteer, I am part of an (expensive) circle club membership. I go to LOTS of their meetings. I give away tons of speaking/consulting services to them for free. I love ASAE. I am a consultant (as well as an association executive) with a master’s degree in conflict resolution and I regularly use coaching, training, and organization development theory and techniques in my work. So I should belong to:

  • Association for Conflict Resolution
  • American Society of Training and Development
  • Organization Development Network
  • International Coaching Federation

Among others. But I don’t. Okay, I think I’m still a member of ODN, but I’m not engaged. And here’s the trick. All of those are relevant to me. They mean something to me. I even feel the urge to join or get involved every now and then. I remember fondly when I used to be more active in the local chapter of ODN. 

If relevance is the bar, I’d belong to all those groups, but it’s not enough. ASAE has me covered from so many angles. It connects me with clients AND helps me think deeper thoughts AND houses my community of close friends AND provides me with great education AND mixes online and in person interaction AND makes me laugh AND boosts my ego. Among others. I have a limited amount of time, money, and social capital to invest. With returns like that, ASAE gets my business.

Meaning is important, and it will continue to be (read Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind for more on that topic). So sure, pay attention to relevance, which I translate as having meaning to someone now and into the future. But if that’s all you’re offering, at most you’ll get a passive membership from me, and I don’t believe that’s where the real growth is. 

Here’s relevance: I want to be noticed. I want people to like me. I want them to know who I am. I want them to think I’m cool. I want to think similar thoughts as them. I want them to agree with me. I want them to be proud of me. I want them to be aware of my features and benefits. I want them to know what I can offer them. 

Here’s value: I want to solve problems for them (with them). I want them to grow when they engage with me. I want to create new things with them. I want to blow them away. I want to engage their whole selves. I want to have fun with them. I want to grow and learn with them. I want them to push me. I want to do things they (and I) have never done before. I want awesomesauce. I want love. I want our time together to be worthy of the stories you tell your best friends. 

I am finding, these days, that I am getting value (as defined above) more easily than I used to, and not necessarily all in one place. This spells trouble for associations who believe their target is relevance.


  1. 18.09.2009 at 1:43 pm

    Wow, Jamie, it’s so great to hear that you get so much out of your ASAE & The Center membership! I hope you know that you give back even more (at least in my opinion).
    Although, I do find it interesting how many of the things you list as finding valuable aren’t really things ASAE & The Center provides–they’re things we facilitate, but that you’re actually getting from others (your friends, potential clients, etc.)Maybe that’s something associations could benefit from thinking about: if the value associations provide is more about bringing people to each other rather than bringing people to us. The skills involved in one or the other seem very different to me.
    Hope you have a great weekend!

  2. 18.09.2009 at 5:26 pm

    Um, I think this is the best blog post I’ve ever read. It’s like an MLK speech! Seriously–this is a great post and you have captured my sentiments exactly when it comes to association membership. There are plenty of ways to connect/get content for free. If I’m paying, it’s for the exact reasons you list. And I am willing to pay for those things, even when there is so much free stuff out there.
    I recently joined–for the first time ever out of my own pocket–a group that requires membership. Expensive membership. What sold me on joining? The fact that the leader, when I inquired about membership, asked me when a good time to chat would be and called me to discuss exactly what I could get out of membership. How many associations do that? Granted, the group is small for now, but I’m willing to bet with a business model like they have, they will grow despite the cost. They deliver exactly what you’re talking about: personal relevance.

  3. 22.09.2009 at 3:42 am

    Relevance is necessary, but not sufficient, for people to make the decision to join an association. Personal value and benefits, such as those you mention, provides the compelling attraction that makes the decision to join or renew a “no brainer.”
    When membership becomes a lifestyle to someone, they can’t conceive of not renewing their membership.

  4. 24.02.2010 at 4:09 pm

    I think the best comment I’ve heard in YEARS and it is so true for me and my memberships as well as the association I run is…. “When membership becomes a lifestyle to someone, they can’t conceive of not renewing their membership.”
    I believe that sounds like a new brand for our association….