The Associations’ Aenigma

22nd Jun, 2020

How can associations ensure their longevity? In this article, we examine the three key principles for sustained association success: relevance, diversification, and governance.

Views from Professor Rajiv Hanspal, past president of the International Society for Prosthetics and Orthotics (ISPO) that celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2020, and Enrique Velázquez, director general of the Association of Consumer Credit Information Suppliers (ACCIS) that is reaching 30 years of activity.


Whether catering to the needs of your members, or providing services to your industry, delivering value to a community is the raison d’être of all associations. To sustain the relevance of your association, you must continually assess community engagement. Associations should regularly survey their membership and external stakeholders to understand which of their activities serve their mission. Nowadays, the services offered by associations go far beyond membership, as ‘customers’ can select specific services rather than subscribing to a comprehensive membership package. Therefore, as underscored by Prof. Hanspal, associations must identify gaps in the market to design attractive products and services that meet the needs of their communities. While associations frequently prioritise increasing the size of their membership, factors such as reputation, influence, and impact must equally be considered in the long-term strategic development and sustainability. Velazquez also underlined the importance of providing a return on members’ investment in terms of the resources that they commit to their association. To accurately identify this ‘return-on-membership’, it must be understood that members’ interests change over time. Velazquez also stressed that associations should evolve with their membership so that they can refocus their contribution to the industries and communities they represent and serve. By swiftly adapting their products and services to topical developments, changes and concerns affecting their communities, associations will serve them more effectively and improve their relevance.


Whether through geographical expansion, new services, or partnerships with allied organisations, associations should always expand and diversify their activities. For international associations such as ACCIS and ISPO, providing platforms for regional and continental co-operation has proven to be a recognised success factor for their longevity. During its first decades, ISPO focused on traditional educational capacity-building initiatives. While these activities increased its global membership and geographical impact, the association’s global approach now focuses on fostering regional collaboration between national societies. In addition, through its Global Partnership Exchange, ISPO has provided a platform to its community that encourages networking between NGOs in the field of physical rehabilitation to conduct joint activities. Similarly, ACCIS has faced a recent period of intense regulatory and technological transformation. To address this challenge, the management board has strategically realigned its role in the sector and is now redesigning its value proposition and considering an expansion of its membership criteria. These are all follow-up steps arising from the association’s Vision for the Future Strategy, a three year plan adopted in June 2018. Associations that embrace diversity and inclusiveness will be better equipped to increase their impact and ensure their longevity.


Effective governance, strong leadership and efficient staff are all indisputable factors to the enduring success of associations. As encouraged by Prof. Hanspal of ISPO, to account for the challenges faced during ‘elected’ leadership transitions, continuity structures should be put in place to allow for stability and consistent management of the association. ISPO adopted a successful practice of having the past, present and future presidents working closely together as a trio to manage the association. Prof. Hanspal equally accentuated the need to have a framework of rules, guidelines and procedures in place so that associations are governed and managed transparently and equitably. Finally, to sustain effective governance and maintain their impact, associations require a well-managed secretariat. For those that have experienced rapid growth and an ensuing increase in their activities, it might be beneficial to restructure the way their secretariat is managed. Associations today are mostly led by volunteers who cannot partake in day-to-day management due to their outstanding professional commitments. Working with an association management company will help increase member value, facilitate the scaling up of activities and increase the association’s administrative efficiencies. Reducing the administrative burden that association leaders face will allow them to focus on what matters most: creating impact and value for their communities.

Sustaining the impact of associations over time can be a challenge for even the most experienced leaders and managers. By ensuring that your association’s strategic priorities are centred around the key principles of relevance, diversification, and governance, and by preparing your association to quickly and creatively adapt and respond to changes, it will be strongly positioned  to keep creating value and impact for the decades to come.

Does your association need support or strategic guidance?
Get in touch at: 



Article included in our May issue of Headquarters Magazine (#94).

Other Articles

About Us

Supported by the Union of International Associations (UIA), the International Association of Professional Congress Organisers (IAPCO) and the Interel Group, the global public affairs and association management consultancy, Headquarters Magazines serve the needs of international associations organising worldwide congresses.