Association Stewardship

Association Stewardship
Association Stewardship
Serving Current & Future Members Through Sustainable Strategy

To be successful in today’s volatile, globalised environment, associations need to find ways of keeping up with the changing world. This requires a new, more proactive approach to association planning and a more inclusive concept of leadership.

Three seminal publications have been addressing this very need for more inclusive, sustainable strategies and leadership: Porter & Kramer’s HBR article ‘Creating Shared Value’, Nassim N. Tailb’s book ‘Antifragile’ and Donaldson& Davis’ ‘Stewardship Theory’. This article explores if and how their insights can be applied to the field of association management.

The need for a sustainable strategy

The rapid pace of globalisation has changed the way people live, work and interact. It has lead to new, dual career paths, hybrid professions and an increasing digital inter-connecteness across physical borders. These changes have an impact on the role of associations.

Traditional models of membership based on qualification, profession and geographical location may no longer satisfy the needs of today’s young hyperconnected, globalised generation.Benita Lipps, DaVinci Institute

It’s impossible to become immune to unexpected events argues Talib (1), but we can stop worshipping at the altar of efficiency and build anti-fragile systems that can react and interact with their environment. This requires a strategic approach that puts long-term sustainability before short-term gains. “Just about every association is dealing with a more complex environment,” said Jean Frankel, in a recent article (2) on the role of association leaders, “more and more, it’s not just the mission of the organization that defines success, it’s the strategy.”

3 Key Elements of Association Stewardship

While there are many aspects to sustainable association strategy, we’ll only focus on three elements: sustainable strategic planning, sustainable strategy implementation and sustainable leadership through association stewardship.

1) From Members to Communities: Sustainable Strategic Planning

A sustainable strategy has to “address the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (3). Keeping future generations in mind therefore means a broader view of association stakeholders, shifting from ‘members only’ to an an ever fluid ‘community of interest’. In the times of Web 2.0, associations, can only remain relevant if they act as facilitators to their communities, rather than as a ‘walled garden’ to a limited group of paying members.

From Members to CommunitiesSustainable approaches go beyond just serving their communities of interest. According to Frankel, you have to invest in “two-way interaction with your members [..] to make sure that you’re guiding decisions rather than making decisions.” Jeff de Cagna goes even further, challenging associations to delegate – at least some of the – strategic planning to ‘the crowds’. Crowdsourcing allows associations to “tap into the insights and imagination of stakeholder networks that extend beyond the boundaries of membership,” thus increasing anti-fragility. (4)

2) From Benefits to Value – Sustainable Strategy Implementations

When it comes to the actual implementation of strategy, associations may want to rethink the way they create value. In their article ‘Creating Shared Value’ (5), Michael E. Porter and Mark R. Kramer illustrate that both associations and companies focus on short-term performance while ignoring the broader influences that determine their longer-term success. Too many have lost sight of the most basic of questions: Is what we offer good for our members? Or for our communities? For society?

According to Porter and Kramer, there are three distinct ways to create shared value: (1) by reconceiving sustainable products and markets, (2) by redefining productivity, and (3) by building supportive clusters:

Conceiving sustainable products or services does not necessarily raise costs. On the contrary, it can invite fresh thinking and innovative improvements through the use of new technologies, operating methods, and management approaches. We have all witnessed how ‘green meetings’, can lead to better products and more interesting services, when taking seriously. Another example would be service delivery, where virtual channels complement, diversify or replace physical ones.

When it comes to productivity, an anti-fragile association will look beyond costs and assess the full value, including possible trade-offs.Benita Lipps, DaVinci Institute

For instance, outsourcing association events or communication may save expenses, but could cost dearly if the direct dialogue with members is lost. Qualified staff may be an investment, but it ensures that knowledge and relationships are maintained at the very heart of the organisation, creating sustainability, identity and reliability.

3) Working in Knowledge Clusters

The third lesson we may extract from Porter and Kramer is that a sustainable strategy requires cooperation. To paraphrase John Donne: ‘no association is an island’. Success is affected strongly by our socio-economical environment. Working in “knowledge clusters” with related networks, suppliers, NGO’s, government structures and universities will deepen our work and provide additional value to members.

Condition for Success: A New Approach to Association Leadership

As always, successful implementation starts and ends with the people. Sustainable strategy cannot be dictated; we need stewards, not rulers to lead the path. Boards and CEOs will require fewer ‘decision-making’ and more ‘facilitation’ skills – allowing the voices of both current and future generations to be heard.

Stewards are leaders who understand that the reigns have been entrusted to them temporarily, that their task is to serve, not to control. Their emphasis lies on delivering results with others – on bringing networks and resources together in pursuit of a common aim.

Stewards as Association CEOs

What does this mean for associations in terms of recruiting? According to Kai Peters (6), it is important to “broaden their talent pools” and think more creatively about the kind of people most likely to lead them to a sustainable future. This could mean consciously recruiting staff with new, complementary experiences. Diverse management teams tend to outperform lonely leaders when it comes to sustainability, innovation and anti-fragility.

Empowering Sustainability

Empowering SustainabilityNo matter how well the recruitment process works, managers are not born as stewards, but made to stewards by their objectives and their environment. The research of Donaldson & Davis (7) shows that managers are more likely to become stewards when they (1) identify with the association mission, (2) operate within a collaborative culture, (3) serve with boards with longer tenure and (4) have an unambiguous and unchallenged role within the organisation. Consequently, if association boards want stewards as leaders, they need to give their managers the responsibility, freedom and trust that enables them to act as such.

Towards Association Stewardship

The image of the steward – as a facilitator that is temporarily entrusted with the steering of the ‘vessel’ association – reflects the paradigm of sustainable strategy like no other. We may not all be willing or able to open the gates of our associations to the world, to re-design our value proposition, to recruit new talent or reshuffle our boards. However, if we’re serious about sustainability, we may start by asking ourselves a little more often ‘how do we want to serve?’

About the Author
Benita Lipps

Benita Lipps

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Non-profit manager with a passion for co-creation, engagement and collaboration across sectors and fields


(1) Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2012): Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. Penguin.
(2) Rob Stott (3/2014) Are Association CEOs more important today than ever? Associations Now.
(3) United Nations Brundtland Commission definition of ‘sustainable development’ (Mach 1987)
(4) Jeff de Cagna (3/2013) 5 ‘Next Practices’ for Board Business Model Stewardship. Associations Now.
(5) Michael E. Porter and Mark R. Kramer (1/2011) Creating Shared Value. Harvard Business Review.
(6) Kai Peters (2013) Developing next generation leaders for a sustainable future – the stewardship model. HR Zone.
(7) Donaldson, L., & Davis, J. H. (1991) Stewardship Theory or Agency Theory: CEO governance and shareholder returns. Australian Journal of Management.