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.

Jamie Notter