All Articles Leadership Strategy Where associations are failing and how they can succeed

Where associations are failing and how they can succeed

How will your team huddle up, plan levels of constituent value, avoid costly pitfalls and ultimately rise above direct competitors?

4 min read


It is no secret that associations, member-based organizations and nonprofit boards are facing fundraising challenges. Direct and indirect competition in the publicly financed marketplace is considerable.

What is being lost in the modern scramble for fiscal sustenance is improving the experience and recognition that guests and sponsors deserve for their patronage going forward.

There are four pillars to envisioning, funding and achieving any organization’s agenda:

  1. Loyal, paying members.
  2. Devout, content-reading constituents.
  3. Eager butts in seats.
  4. Cascading revenue or donations.

My firm is an expert in turnaround management and strategic communications value. In my 20 years of experience, there are five recurring failures as to the reason some associations, nonprofits and even political organizations lose fiscal steam in a highly resource-divided economy:

  1. Failure to recognize members, sponsors and donors well enough.
  2. Failure to provide approved inducement that warms hearts, minds and souls of diverse constituents well enough.
  3. Failure to prove that your “financial house” is in solid, ethical order.
  4. Failure to earn national editorial coverage among direct and indirect competitors.
  5. Failure to translate, transmit and train full understanding of your organization’s mission to multiple tiers of potential members and donors well enough.

A private-sector client came to us, enraged. The nonprofit it had sponsored for years routinely failed to include its logo on all event material, pronounce key executives’ names correctly and deliver a critical announcement before a client-sponsored keynote. The executive director casually apologized, cited short staff and enjoyed another cocktail whilst earning a $250,000 annual salary. Unhelpful.

How can these four pillars and five failures be tackled once and for all? Four steps:

  1. Engage these pillars and failures simultaneously –– as a committed team. This approach might seem overwhelming at first, yet it’s extremely effective on day one if exhausted fully.
  2. Map out a custom workflow, and assign new levels of staff responsibility, especially during crunch time. When pressure mounts, critical details begin to suffer, and sponsors become underwhelmed. Detailed, living, breathing action is essential.
  3. Measure results and improve constituent benefit, qualitatively. Utilizing an outside moderator, engage a focus group after each event to install improved results using a round-table format.
  4. Earn national, well-respected editorial coverage for your organization. Informative national news earns your organization interested constituents by explaining your mission and accomplishments. National publicity also skyrockets your organization’s search engine optimization results.

Quick case study: Over three years, our firm persuaded hundreds of South Carolina for-profit companies, business leaders and community organizations to reach out nationally, earning tangible journalistic exposure beyond state borders. One such public relations project urged privately held South Carolina companies to apply to Inc. magazine’s annual fastest-growing 500 and 5,000 list. Three years ago, zero South Carolina companies made the list. Last year, more than 40 did. In an entrepreneurial yet “marketing-stubborn” region, results of proactively reaching out nationally have been vibrant and progressive for the state’s public- and private-sector economies.

Developing media content that editors are interested in publishing nationally requires working smarter and thinking outside every old box. The end goal is to improve strategic DNA and technical media DNA and to communicate your overall brand integrity to all constituents more carefully.

Fundraising prowess amid direct and indirect competition requires a more segmented strategy. At the end of the day, members and donors expect to know that your organization cares about them and their contribution.

How will your team huddle up, plan levels of constituent value, avoid costly pitfalls and ultimately rise above direct competitors?


Baron Christopher Hanson is the principal and lead strategist at RedBaron Advisors in Charleston, S.C., and Palm Beach, Fla. A former rugby player, Harvard graduate, and expert on workplace and small-business turnarounds, Hanson has written for Harvard Business Review and SmartBrief considerably. He can be reached for consulting roles and speaking gigs via e-mail or over Twitter @RBC_ThinkTank.