Monday, January 12, 2015

So You're Trying to Build an Int'l Association?

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

A number of years ago we were asked to assist a US-based association in overcoming problems associated with its growing international membership. Its problems were complicated, far reaching and -- as the consultants have since found – virtually identical to the problems faced by many other associations.

If you are the executive of an international association or an association with a growing membership base on either side of the Atlantic, you may find it reassuring to know your problems are not unique and in fact probably not even of your making. What are these problems, where do they come from and what can be done about them?

Let’s call this "association X." Association X is a trade association representing a rapidly growing sector of the professional services industry. As is the case with many trade associations, association X became international through the expanding international operations of its members.

However, many of the overseas operations of their member companies were separate legal entities. While they shared names and had certain other arrangements with their US counterparts, they otherwise were autonomous. Because of this, they felt they needed to have a separate presence in the association. Little by little, the involvement of these overseas affiliates drew other companies from their markets into the membership ranks of what had been a primarily US dominated trade association.

Almost before they knew it, one half of the association’s members were from outside the United States. Problems began surfacing almost immediately. The Europeans-- recognizing the force of their numbers--demanded an equal presence on the board and the transformation of a US-oriented association into one that was more international, if not global in outlook and structure. The Americans welcomed making a place at the table for their European counterparts, but there were a couple of fundamental problems that needed to be addressed.

The first was that the Europeans were not paying as much as the Americans in supporting the international association. The Europeans did not deny this but pointed out that their national and regional structure created two levels of activity and management that needed to be funded, whereas the Americans had only one. When taking all this into account the Europeans noted that they were paying as much if not more than the Americans for activities that were just as valuable to the association as what the Americans were doing. The feeling of the Americans was straightforward, if not very understanding--if the Europeans wanted to participate in the association they should pay their fair share for international activities.

The second problem related to the nature of the relationship of the American multinationals with their own European affiliates. The Americans saw them as an extension of their US headquartered corporate operations, but the European did not see themselves in the same way. When it came to deciding matters relating to professional standards, dues payments and other professional priorities the European affiliates felt more at ease siding with their European competitors than with their American colleagues.

As we tried to devise solutions to these problems there were many times when it looked like the association was simply going to fall apart. At first we thought these problems stemmed from the peculiarities of the personalities involved. But as we have worked with other associations in the fields of healthcare, manufacturing, accounting and auditing, and others we have seen a repetition of the same problems and frustrations. 

The problem begins with unrealistic expectations. We have heard so much about the global economy that we risk minimizing the very real linguistic, cultural, legislative and regulatory differences that exist between countries. Charles De Gaulle called America "the daughter of Europe." Indeed America is largely an offshoot of Europe, but we who live here know just how diverse and different we are compared to Europe. However, that does not stop us from jumping to our own erroneous conclusion that there are no problems or differences that cannot be managed. We are surprised and possibly slightly wounded when we learn that the Europeans like--even cherish--their differences. They do not want to be made into Americans--even for the sake of greater efficiency!

Taken as a whole, Europe is the most economically powerful region of the world--yet the United States continues to define cutting edge thinking and research in most areas of professional activity. If you are part of an association, it is inevitable that you too will find yourself embroiled in your own trans-Atlantic tug of war over issues of governance, standards and sharing of resources. There is no way to avoid it.

Here are some lessons learned:

  • Develop a vision for your association. Among other issues, determine if you wish to be international or multinational and make sure your members know the difference.
  • Recognize and accept the basic differences that exist between the national markets of your members and identify what you have in common.
  • If you are seeing that your regular national members are reluctant to see their dues increase, know that this is even more the case for an international organization. Resist the temptation to build a mini-UN. Keep overhead to a minimum and link payments to products and services. Your members need to know what they are getting for their money, and it needs to be something tangible.
  • Finally, learn to see that diversity is good and that the road to a global economy is hard. If you steel yourself and your members to expect difficulty and differences of opinion, then you may be less discouraged when you actually encounter them

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