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3 ways associations can accelerate innovation and stay relevant

Jun 20, 2023

The trend is clear: Many associations are reevaluating their value proposition to members and their aligned professions and industries.

As a disruptive solution, associations are turning to innovation to show that they understand their constituents and can address the evolving challenges their membership faces. Yet doing so often requires the sort of organization-wide change that’s difficult to enact with an association structure.

For a successful transformation, association executives are operationalizing innovation and developing the right people, vision and mindset.

A successful innovation plan

The Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA) is one association that was able to successfully adapt their offerings.

Traditionally, the ICBA was focused on two main pillars: a legislative one to help lobby for their memberships’ interest and an educational one to provide them support. However, community banks began facing the same increased technology needs that continue to cause struggles across industries.

The ICBA knew that if they wanted their members to thrive, they were going to have to figure out new ways to help them transform.

Table of the ICBA's Innovation journey

By filling the venture capitalism vacuum in fintech companies, the ICBA was able to enable growth for both their association and their membership.

Their members gained a trusted partner to help them keep pace with the latest technology and disruptions in the banking sphere. And the ICBA gained a way to increase member engagement and maintain relevance.

How your association can start innovating

The ICBA’s journey demonstrates successful strategies that can be applied to innovation efforts in any industry. If your association is looking to implement your own transformation, here are three things you may need to develop:

1. The right people

Before you begin, take a step back and considering whether your association has the people needed to make innovations happen.

The ICBA chose Charles Potts because they knew he was an innovator who closely monitored the needs of the industry and the latest technology. They understood that not everyone is a visionary or capable of maintaining a forward-thinking momentum, and that there was a gap present in their staff.

By putting the right people in the right seats, your association can help encourage transformation both internally and within membership.

2. The right vision

Major decisions for associations require feedback and approval from a wide range of stakeholders, making it difficult to advocate for or enact change. To help your efforts, you need to create a strong, unifying vision of where you want changes to take your association. And the key to creating that vision lies in the value you’re bringing to your membership.

Associations operate in an ecosystem that includes multiple layers of support. You support your members, who in turn support their clients or customers. At the association level, providing substantive value to membership means considering what end-users at all layers really need.

One of the reasons the ICBA’s ThinkTECH Accelerator program remains effective is that they keep a narrow focus on solutions that address real-world problems. There were over 300 applicants to their most recent program, but the organization ultimately chose only 10. Those 10 represented companies that were addressing top-of-mind issues for banks, such as managing liquidity and securing deposits.

In the same way, your vision needs to speak to the heart of your members’ concerns. If innovations don’t solve the challenges faced by your members or the people they serve, your association may lose relevance regardless of how it evolves.

3. The right mindset

With the right vision comes creating the right mindset in your association.

Innovation involves looking at things with a new perspective, whether that’s combining things in a new way or being open to different approaches. Unfortunately, that often leads to resistance from internal and external sources who are comfortable with their current routines and expectations.

The right vision can help you ease people out of that hesitancy by providing them with a story about the change you’re making. A clear vision or mission helps them understand how you expect changes to impact the association and how they can add value to everyone’s experience.

Once people understand the reason for change, it’s easier to shift their mindset from seeing innovation as upsetting their sense of stability, to innovation as a positive step forward.

In many cases, change is an evolutionary process that requires careful monitoring and direction. Be willing to expose members and stakeholders to fresh ideas slowly, so that they’re not overwhelmed. And continue to gather feedback and communicate about the process regularly.

When needed, you can engage change management services to help increase adoption and ensure a smoother transition.

You can also help encourage a mindset shift in your association by:

  • Creating recognition for innovation and creativity: Associations can build a culture of innovation through establishing awards to showcase the innovative work of their members.
  • Thinking like a startup or entrepreneur: Association teams at all levels in the organization can benefit from futuristic thinking and continually gaining insights around emerging trends, disruptive technologies and innovative business models.
  • Embracing technology: By leveraging emerging tech, such as artificial intelligence and augmented reality, associations can streamline their operations and spark innovation.

How Wipfli can help

Wipfli’s knowledgeable and experienced team is here to help your organization overcome your training, strategic and financial challenges so that you can prioritize your mission. Our organizational performance services work with you to realign your culture and apply strategies suited to your unique needs and goals.

Contact us to learn more about how we can help your organization find new ways to provide better services and support.

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Marcie Bomberg-Montoya, OCI, OEI
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