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January 01, 2013

Book Review: Race for Relevance: 5 Radical Changes for Associations

David M. Godfrey

Race for Relevance: 5 Radical Changes for Associations by Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers

This book is about improving the function and management of an organization. I found that it forced me to rethink the way the organizations I am involved with do business. The basic premise of the book is that the business climate has changed dramatically over the past 20 years and most associations and nonprofit organizations have not. The book was authored by experts at the ASAE (the Center for Association Leadership) on modernizing the business model for associations.

The book proposes five recommendations for radical change, starting with: overhaul the governance model and committee operations. The authors urge reducing the size of boards and committees to increase their functionality. The authors argue that with oversized boards, board functions are often delegated to smaller committees and task forces. They urge reducing the board to the size of a small group that can serve as a functional committee.

The book then urges that organizations empower the CEO and enhance staff expertise. To do this you recruit professional association managers and staff capable of leading critical organization functions and empower them to do the job. Few board members or volunteers have the time or expertise to operate the organization and day-to-day operations are best carried out by professional staff with direction and oversight from the Board.

The authors next urge organizations to rigorously define the member market. Organizations always have limited resources. The authors argue that by trying to meet the needs of every potential member, we serve no member well. They argue that by focusing on a smaller core market, you can improve your perceived member value.

The next move is to carefully rationalize programs and services. The authors point to research that shows that the average organization commits 80% of available staff and volunteer resources to programs and services that serve only 20% of members. They cite examples of organizations that devote months preparing for conferences that are attended by a tiny percentage of members. The text urges a careful examination of the commitment of resources for each project in relationship to the number of members served. Rational management leads to the majority of resources being focused on providing services to the greatest number of members.

Lastly, the authors urge organizations to build a robust technology framework. Associations and non-profits are frequently years behind in adapting to technology (how many organizations have a smart phone app?). A common excuse is that not all members use emerging technologies; a philosophy that results in what is described as a technology strategy driven by the “lowest common denominator.” They urge meaningful budget commitments to expansion of technology and ongoing experimentation and exploration of emerging technology. If we wait to see what works and what lasts, we will always be behind the curve and out of date in our technology use.

The book is well written, easy to read and most of the concepts can be applied to any type of association or non-profit organization. The authors offer some tips on how to approach some of the more radical ideas (downsizing a board). They acknowledge that some change may take time to implement, but urge you to think and talk about changes that will improve the effectiveness and efficiency or your organization.

The book is available in print edition ($27.95) and Kindle edition ($26.55). This is the most expensive Kindle book I have bought, and I have to say it was well worth the price. ■

David M. Godfrey

About the Author: David M. Godfrey is a Senior Attorney at the ABA Commission on Law and Aging.