Monday, March 31, 2014

Following Market Drivers To New Destinations

By Steven Worth
President, Plexus Consulting Group

Associations are finding success in adapting business practices from the for-profit sector for their own use, and this includes the discipline of detecting and targeting market trends. One nascent trend is the concept of creating a market focused organization – an organization that defines itself by being active in detecting and positioning itself to serve new needs in a rapidly changing environment, rather than simply responding to member requests.

Such organizations not only identify market trends but their own competitive advantages – those areas in which they are uniquely positioned to address what might be either opportunities or threats.

In this regard, one little known fact according to the US Department of Commerce is that the greatest growth in international business transactions lies within the small –and medium-sized business communities. To a certain extent it makes sense that smaller enterprises are best suited to take advantage of the quickly evolving needs of a global marketplace in a quick and cost-effective way. But unlike the slower-moving, large, multinational corporations, the smaller entities do not have the infrastructure to easily gather the information needed to do that. For these services, they must rely on outside providers, including government resources, chambers of commerce and -most importantly- business and professional associations. Market-driven U.S. associations have recognized the advantage of positioning themselves to provide such services to this fast-growing segment of the U.S. economy, including:

  • Gathering market statistics,
  • Researching potential partners
  • Finding and training staff, and
  • Informing member of the legislative and regulatory environment in potential markets.

In addition the smart trade associations have either anticipated or followed their members’ emerging needs in foreign markets by setting up chapters abroad or establishing strategic alliances with sister organizations.

Roles for professional societies

Professional societies can also position themselves to take advantage of these trends. Societies such as the Institute of Internal Auditors, Orlando; the Project Management Institute, Newton Square, Pennsylvania; and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, New York City; have recognized that both U.S. and multinational organizations that employ their members have serious education, training, and quality-evaluation needs as they enter foreign markets. While these organizations remain single-member societies, they have identified and formed mutual help alliances with their particular market drivers-those organizations (including both corporations and governmental entities) that emply the professionals the societies are intended to serve.

Turning challenge into opportunity

As we read, hear, and see more evidence of the outsourcing of U.S. jobs, the professional societies that serve those segments of the employment picture that are vulnerable to outsourcing have found themselves with fewer and fewer U.S. members-not necessarily because they are doing a poor job of serving their members but because the total pool of potential members in the U.S. is actually declining. For some organizations, this situation heralds a bleak future. But for others-such as the associations noted earlier-that remain focused on recognizing these trends and identifying the market drivers behind them, the situation can turn into a tremendous opportunity for growth. Therein lies the principal distinction between the winners and losers among nonprofit organization functioning in the global economy.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Is Your Association in a Class by Itself?

By Steven M. Worth
 President, Plexus Consulting Group, LLC

The American Society for Public Administration conducted a survey to identify the common characteristics of managers in public office who had longevity in their positions. Among other findings, the study found that introverted personalities seem to be more successful in retaining their positions than their extroverted counterparts. It is curious in the first place that introverts should be attracted into a role that is associated normally with meeting and working with large numbers of people. 

It also reveals a tendency, particularly in associations, to stay within comfort margins by working with smaller groups of people and staying with what is familiar rather than venturing into something new. But in the time when associations are going out of business, merging, or otherwise undergoing fundamental restructuring challenges, could this tendency be leading to two classes of associations?

One class might be defined by a club-like familiarity of association members and staff participating in programs of long standing. These associations are marked by the longevity of their executives and have learned to rely on cash cow programs that may not be growing, but are profitable and predictable.

The other class is defined by environments that are more entrepreneurial, growth oriented and marked by movement and change. 

Now if the reader thinks that one class is more likely to realize success than the other, they would probably be wrong. The first class described above may sound boring, but boring can be good and profitable, not to mention less nerve racking! Entrepreneurial environments certainly are exciting, but more entrepreneurial start-ups fail than succeed and, as the ASPA survey found, chief staff executives who tend to run such associations tend not to last long in their jobs! On the other hand, virtually all the biggest success stories had entrepreneurial beginnings. In Darwinian terms, stressful and trying times create the ideal environment for evolution; however, ancient species like crocodiles and sharks have shown us by their survival from the dinosaur era that if you find your niche in the evolutionary mainstream, there is very little need to adapt to change. 

But what happens if you suspect your organization might be in the current that is headed for the falls or for the morass of a stagnant backwater? Is it possible to change direction? The answer is “yes,” but not without a leadership change.

In his book Who says Elephants Can’t Dance? Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. describes how he wrestled IBM into undertaking the changes it needed to ensure its own survival. In this case, IBM’s long and distinguished history of success proved to be its own worst enemy. Gerstner’s fresh perspective and rigorous top to bottom strategic planning saved IBM from the fate of other once great companies like Pan Am, Studebaker, and other names that have faded into history.

There are other successful change models for success, but whatever methodology used, common elements of successful organizational change are: 1. board members and management to recognize when change is needed; 2. the board to match the organization’s needs to the personality and leadership characteristics of a new CEO; 3. all stakeholders to resist the
temptation to establish “sacred cows”—programs and policies that are off-limits to change; and 4. all stakeholders-and the willingness-to identify themselves as a team and to make the sacrifices needed to identify and to achieve essential goals.

For Norman Mailer in his classic career-launching book, The Naked and the Dead, the conflict in the Pacific during the Second World War stripped his soldier-characters of whatever social pretense or frivolity they may have had before the war. If the war did not kill them outright, it pared them down to their essential souls.

Many associations are undergoing trials not dissimilar to warfare. For some the future is to stay the course, and for others it is to embrace change. In which class is your association?

Monday, March 17, 2014

Nonprofit Industry Survey


This link: will take you to our annual strategic monitor through which we track the changing opportunities and concerns of a little over two thousand association executives worldwide. Overall results of each year's survey are shared with those who participate as well as the participants of CESSE's Association Leadership through Partnership ( Individual responses remain strictly confidential.

I would also like to take advantage of this year's survey to introduce myself to you as the person taking over from Dr. Paul Duffy who retired last year as director of Plexus Consulting Group's market research services. My academic degrees and research experience can be found on the Plexus website ( 

It is no secret that these past six years have been extremely stressful for just about everyone-even those in the world's fastest growing developing economies have not been immune to the effects of the Great Recession. So it is of particular interest to us to see what sort of changes the associations we have tracked over the years might be seeing---this year, the fifth year into our so-called recovery. 

The survey is designed to take no more than 15 minutes of your time. Thank you for contributing your time and effort to this important exercise.


Emily Hoagland | Director of Research
Plexus Consulting Group, LLC

Friday, March 7, 2014

Where is your organization in its life curve?

(taken from the Association Leadership through Partnership program of CESSE—Agenda)

(Click to enlarge)

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

'Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.'—Leo Tolstoy

By Steven Worth

This famous quote touches a sensitive spot, doesn't it?  Whether it is about organizations or individuals, we all seek to change the world in one manner or another but in my experience few actually are ready to change themselves.

The nonprofit world is full of would-be world changers, but this recent article in the Wall Street Journal should give us pause.
"Clueless at the Corcoran: What the museum's latest bad decision says about nonprofit governance"

This article appears on the heals of a series of articles written earlier this year by the Washington Post in which it was pointed out that the nonprofit sector is second only to the financial sector in the prevalence of fraud.

How can anyone in the nonprofit sector profess any lofty aspiration of any kind if we are not ready to scrutinize our own governance and management practices to ensure efficiency and effectiveness?  Greed and fraud in the nonprofit sector are easy to condemn in others; but don't we realize that we are all tarred with that same brush?--that we set the stage for this abuse through the examples we set in our own governance and management practices?

I am going to be giving the keynote address at the AFG annual conference in Washington, DC on the morning of 8 May and I will be touching on this topic.  If you care about this issue, I would welcome your presence.