5 Important Business Survival Skills

by: Doug Michaelides

Stratford Managers and Blueprint Public Relations recently hosted an event for not-for-profit association executives to share their experiences in achieving financial sustainability and growth.  Our impressive panelists were:

  • Rob Henderson – CEO, BioTalent Canada
  • Ray Racette – President and CEO, Canadian College of Health Leaders
  • Anne Sutherland Boal – CEO, Canadian Nurses Association
  • Christine Tausig Ford – VP and COO, Association of Universities and Colleges Canada

The ensuing discussion highlighted five important survival skills for not-for-profit associations that many private sector organizations might also be wise to consider:

  1. Diversify revenue.  Relying on governments for core funding can be fatal. Even an over dependence on member dues can be risky. There are often excellent opportunities to monetize intellectual property, relationships and expertise (like training or certification programs) in partnership with the private sector or in international markets.  It’s a big effort and you can’t dabble – the entire organization must be committed to business development.  But proceed with care – too much focus on pursuing alternate sources of revenue can distract from the organization’s core mission and alienate members.
  2. Close the relevancy gap between members and the organization.  Relevance comes in many forms ranging from direct value (such as insurance benefits or purchase discounts) to advocacy.  At its core however, relevance comes from involving members in the life of the organization.  Being part of a cause, “under a big tent”, can be compelling.  This engagement leads to greater shared understanding of member needs and organizational value which enables the association to better align its activities to the interests of members.  For federated associations, sometimes this means reaching through regional affiliates to engage individual members directly.
  3. Listen and communicate. Member communications is key to closing the relevancy gap. Create a narrative based on what members say they value—stories that explain the organization by putting a human face on it.  Showcasing champions and the human impact of their successes can inspire members in ways that dry facts and figures often don’t.
  4. Address diverse member demographics.  Not-for-profit organizations must consider the lifecycle of their members.  Professional development is of interest to younger members while thought leadership is more relevant to senior members.  Younger members rely on social media while older members often prefer printed traditional media like journals and magazines.  Create opportunities for experienced members to mentor those new to the organization.
  5. Engage the board of directors as advocates and champions for the organization not just stewards.  This starts with the basics like more frequent but shorter board meetings and clarifying the role of board members vs. staff.  It may even mean replacing board members.

There are few bad causes or trivial missions among today’s not-for-profit associations. Through a consistent focus on value and effective communications, members and stakeholders can become more deeply involved in the important business of the organization.  As one of our panelists said, “the closer a member gets, the better we look”.  That’s not vanity.  It’s a statement of fact that highlights the importance of member engagement.


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