Beyond Bronze, Silver, and Gold—Grow Success With Purpose


A colleague recently referred to the time before the pandemic as “innocent.” That description struck a chord with me. She was talking about how unprepared we were for the dramatic changes we experienced.

Our lost innocence isn’t a bad thing. We now understand that on this ship nothing is nailed down and the sea is getting rough. There are endless unanswered questions about where technology, and particularly AI, will take us, our lifestyles, and our careers.

This uncertainty prompted me to invite two of the most visionary people I know to spend time with me on my podcast considering the future of the association industry. This episode will air on March 30.

Sharon Rice is Managing Director of Business Strategy at .orgSource and Garth Jordan is CEO of the American Animal Hospital Association. Both are steeped in the world of associations and are avid students of strategy, business, and culture beyond this industry.

I’ve always regarded Garth as a forward thinker, but during our conversation, he revealed a futurist credential that surprised me. Because this is a fun fact, I’m sharing it with you. Garth’s first job was with Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars initiative. Yes, he worked on space lasers!

Back on earth, our discussion centered on this question: How is the role of associations in society changing and is it expanding, contracting, or being completely reshaped?

Change Without Changing

“AAHA has been around for 90 years,” Garth notes. “Right now, there are areas where we are significantly changing our operations and others where things are staying the same. Hopefully, our experiences can inspire organizations that want to evolve, transform, innovate—or whatever paella of words you care to use to describe looking beyond the moment.”

Sharon offered an idea that has been on my mind for some time. Beyond technology, there are cultural shifts that are making a major impact on the association community.

Trust has declined in every sector.

“I like Garth’s description of changing but not changing,” Sharon said. “It’s a more challenging operating environment for associations. The erosion of organizational trust compounds that complexity. The kind of unquestioning confidence that society had in professional and trade associations is no longer there.

“Trust has declined in every sector. Government, healthcare, educational, and financial institutions are being viewed with skeptical eyes. Even the Supreme Court is not exempt. That’s a major change. What remains the same is that networking continues to be important. But today the focus has shifted. It’s no longer centered on helping members have a successful career or take that next step up the ladder. Community building and engagement are new priorities.

“Association professionals are seeking a support group to help them face challenges and to gain the skills to stay ahead of trends. People benefit from the encouragement and wisdom of groups like .orgCommunity’s Leadership Circles. This shift may be aligned with the sensibilities of millennials, who are currently the majority of the workforce. It’s an example of changing but not changing. We’re leveraging an existing strength but shifting the perspective.”

Build Value

“In an increasingly competitive environment, the priorities may need to be realigned,” Garth noted. “Typically, the focus has been on commodities. For example, you pay a membership fee to join an association and receive a long list of available products, like newsletters or certifications. In my way of thinking, this is the wrong business model. People don’t need or want this stuff. Almost everything that we make in associations is commoditized. But you’re not playing in a unique sandbox anymore.

“When I consider where we must go, I think you have to build value for society, and that may or may not be through the professionals you represent. You need to have a value proposition that is for the greater good. For example, the idea of ‘being a leader’ in the profession, which is a goal that’s included in many association’s mission statements, is self-interest. Being a leader doesn’t advance the greater good.

“It’s easier to represent a profession than it is to improve society, with and through that group, or even just within our industry ecosystems. A representational mission seems too self-interested. Leading is not a mission. That’s self-proclamation, and I don’t buy it.”


“My early experiences working in associations were primarily with physician groups,” Sharon responded. “During strategy sessions, every mission we crafted was about improving the patient’s health. But then the conversation started to shift. It changed because the impact on patient health was indirect. The focus began moving away from the patient and toward the practitioner.

“That repositioning resulted in strategies that revolved around the physician, and it drove products and services in the same direction. Eventually, the profession took center stage, and the patient fell back. But what we see emerging now because of the digital world that we live in is that public engagement is more accessible than ever.

“Organizations are taking their messaging directly to the people they want to influence. Outreach campaigns are helping the public to understand why the profession is important and how it serves them. I’m intrigued about how this direct approach will expand the association arena.”

Organizations are taking their messages directly to the people they want to influence.

Sharon’s observations mirror what I hear from clients. I recently had a conversation with an accounting group, who are struggling to combat the message that AI is diminishing opportunities in that profession. They’re doing outreach to inform the public that accounting is still a great career choice. It’s interesting to consider how to strike a balance between external and internal outreach. Garth’s thought-provoking response to this trend is pertinent for any smaller association.

He noted, “At AAHA, we accredit animal hospitals and veterinary practices. Unlike with human healthcare organizations, the accreditation is voluntary. Some members would like AAHA to market to pet owners, to help differentiate their accredited facilities. I understand that sentiment. But there are not enough zeros in our reserves and in our bank account to launch a massive consumer campaign.”

Promote Accountability

“My response to those requests is to remind members that it is their job to help people in their communities understand the benefits of taking their pets to an accredited practice. We can support you in that. But I’ll go back to our value statement—we don’t create things for our members.

“Members are part of AAHA because they want to begin a journey of continuous improvement. Our value is not in a magazine or even standards. Our value is in promoting accountability. We make content to support people in that journey. The money comes after that. It’s a harder balance. But the CEO has to make that choice. Who else is going to be responsible?

“Here’s an example of what I mean. If you decide to start a workout regimen and you hire a coach, you are still the person who must wake up at 5:30 a.m. The personal trainer isn’t going to come to your house and shake you awake. But they will be there to encourage and motivate you throughout the process.

“This is not to say that those who want to have a more direct to consumer impact should or shouldn’t do it, but I would advise being careful with that. It’s a rabbit hole that may not deliver growth, loyalty, or any of the other advantages you are seeking.”

“Exactly,” Sharon said. “Maybe your retention rate isn’t as high as you’d like, or your topline revenue isn’t where you want it to be. To fix the problem, you begin adding perks. Once you start segmenting benefits based on membership levels, it’s hard to jump off that merry-go-round without retention taking a hit. The tiered structure is a trap I’d stay clear of. You’re stuck using revenue growth as the primary measure of success when you could focus on impact.”

Measure the Right Outcomes

“In our case,” Garth noted, “we can measure statistics like do people have more confidence that their pets will be well cared for at the vet. Are more pets seeing veterinarians? Are veterinary teams healthy and performing well together? Those are value-based outcomes that may result in growth.

Make waves outside your circle.

“I would urge people to think about your just cause. Is it purpose-oriented? Is it inclusive? Does it bring others along? Is it a cause you can’t argue with? Consider the power of having 20,000 members who join, first and foremost, to advance that cause.

“I couldn’t agree more,” Sharon responded. The right message is ‘If you believe what we believe, let’s do this together, and move forward.’ Especially when you consider how high the stakes are from a societal perspective. Although the transition from the bronze, silver, and gold membership model is hard to make. It’s the right direction to take.”

Succeed By Doing Good

There were so many ideas to explore in this conversation. I encourage you to listen to the podcast on March 30 to hear the nuance I wasn’t able to capture. This is an important dialogue for our community. Lately, I’ve been writing about the intersection of technology with human values like compassion, empathy, and inclusivity. This is a call toward altruism. Make waves of well-being outside your circle and have confidence that you will find success in doing that good work.

Position Your Organization For Success

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