The Deeper Issues Behind Race for Relevance

I have had the book Race for Relevance: 5 Radical Changes for Associations for a couple of months now, wanting to do a review here in the blog. I struggled a bit, though, because I am of two minds about the book. There is a lot in this book I really like. Coerver and Byers do a good job at pointing out the need for change in the way associations do things, and their ideas about running associations like responsible businesses (that don’t try to be everything to everyone) are definitely in line with my thinking. But, of course, I bristle at the word “relevance,” and I question some of the underlying assumptions about their call for smaller boards and more empowered staff (I agree with them, but it feels too self-serving to me as an association exec).

Then I saw Deirdre Reid’s post on Avectra about the book, and Maddie’s comment. Maddie said:

These are all good ideas, but this to me is like summer school for your failing student – you’re just trying to get them to a pass grade. Which is a noble goal and all, but I think we’re going to see a lot of associations fail soon, as the pace of change accelerates. I don’t think this will be enough by any stretch of the imagination.

That’s when I got some clarity about this book. It’s not just five radical changes for associations. And the issue to discuss is NOT whether these five radical changes are the right ones (which is where my head was going initially).

The issue is that our community is filled to the brim with failing students.

I don’t think this will be a popular sentiment. Sorry to be a downer (and hey, maybe I’m wrong), but I’m getting the feeling that we’re systematically preventing this truth from coming to light. We don’t want to hear it, so…we don’t. But our community is filled with associations who are still alive financially due to reserves and a bit of luck, but are fundamentally running on engines of mediocrity that chug along, slowly shifting our bell curve so that “average” equals what in objective terms would be graded a D at best. What we call excellent and outstanding is likely to be viewed as middle of the road and probably a little outdated by much of the rest of the world. That’s not a bubble I want to be in.

Race for Relevance feels like an emergency stop-gap measure. And it’s a good one in that context. Take back control from the volunteers and start running smart businesses. Let’s keep the lower half from falling off the curve entirely (because that’s a real risk). But it doesn’t address the broader problem. It doesn’t help us shift our curve back up, so that associations are held up as examples of outstanding enterprises by anyone’s standards. It doesn’t help our community change its trajectory.

And I’m not sure we’ll change that trajectory by shifting the control to a small Board and an empowered staff that narrows focus. Those are short-term measures at best. And to solve the bigger problem, I think we’re going to have to re-examine our own definition of the association “community.” We are trying to change “associations,” but frankly our community is not made up of associations. It is made up of “association executives.” Volunteers and members really aren’t part of our community. And that’s okay. It’s okay to have a vibrant community of association executives. It’s awesome, actually.

But we have hit a problem that we cannot solve exclusively within our community. Race for Relevance is, as I’ve said, a good answer on what to do from the perspective of the association executives. In essence, it says let us professionals do our jobs. That makes sense for a lot of individual associations, and it will likely produce good bottom line results for those who choose that path. But go up to 10,000 feet and it’s a different picture. Our society is currently witnessing all sorts of revolutions against “professionals” being the only ones that can do things. Amateurs have been getting great results AND they have been energized in the process. It’s not that professionals don’t have value–they do, and they always will. But it seems clear to me that the path forward does not look much like the path we took to get here. And if we want the path forward to be smart, we’ll start conversations that cut across our existing professional/amateur boundaries as we figure out what to do next.


  1. 10.10.2011 at 9:11 am

    I wonder if the financial data would bear witness to what you suggest … that a significant number of associations are being kept alive by reserves. Whether or not that is true doesn’t dilute the power of some of your assertions, but it certainly might help make the case to some people who things things are chugging along swimmingly for the entire community.

  2. 10.10.2011 at 11:53 am

    I’m with Jeffrey that I wonder if the financial data would concur with what you’re saying. I do know a couple of associations that have been using their reserves for several years now and not seeing any upticks. It’s too bad that the financials are not easily available for all to see and evaluate.

    I’m with you Jamie & Maddie that the book feels like Summer School for failing associations. The challenge is that what ED wants to be an alarm for the board that they need to do some drastic rethinking and innovation in order to be meaningful in today’s society.

  3. 10.10.2011 at 12:10 pm

    Great points, guys. You are right that I made some assertions without data to back them up. This whole post was more of a question for me, than an answer.

  4. 12.10.2011 at 9:20 am

    I guess I am so jaded about the state of many/most associations that I actually liked Race for Relevance. To me, relevant with decent business practices TODAY–not what has worked for the past 50 years or whatever but is now outdated– would be a decent improvement for many (most?) associations. Wanting more than that is like wanting a kid with an average IQ–or slightly lower than that–to not only graduate from high school but take all honors classes, get straight As and get into an Ivy League school.

    I also feel that, like any situation where there’s a message aimed at the orgs/people who most need to hear it, associations who most need to change yet are still able to remain afloat won’t pay attention to advice for being relevant, let alone anything more than relevant. As long as execs are able to pull a paycheck and doors are able to remain open, there is no incentive for most orgs to change. It’s only when they inevitably do fail and go to rebuild that maybe there’s a chance for building something better and more in tune with what works for today’s members.

    Now who’s the downer? 😉

    • 12.10.2011 at 10:22 pm

      Wow, what a downer! But hey, what should I expect from someone who’s all down on Apple lately! 😉

      Your point about honors/Ivy League is taken. And in this post I really didn’t talk about the value of the Race for Relevance book, which is where you were going with it. But on your point of “the people who need it don’t hear it,” I’m wondering if I’m being too “Darwinist,” but maybe a bunch of organizations should fail. Maybe it doesn’t make sense for all organizations to stay alive. Maybe by fading away the resources can be recycled into newer organizations?