Can Associations Become High Performing Organizations?


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It depends on how a high performance association is defined and whether or not an association board and staff are willing to make the investment and deliver to their members. Based on research and writings on high performance organizations, and adjusting for the association perspective, a high performance association would possess the following key characteristics:

  • Vision and mission are shared and owned by all stakeholders
  • Strategy is performance-based, clear and mapped to ensure individuals and members of teams turn vision and mission into action and results
  • Goals are challenging and make a difference to the way in which work is completed
  • Teamwork is effective and empowered
  • Better business practices are used to secure efficient organizational practices which are driven by focusing on:
    • Leadership
    • Member and employee satisfaction,
    • Fiscal and operational accountability
    • Quality and Risk
  • Strong emphasis is placed on performance measurement using key performance indicators

High performance associations have a culture of continuous improvement and strong leadership that believes the association should be a learning organization and should develop and provide the necessary competencies to get things done. With the right competencies, individuals and teams develop a commitment and apply the right tools to achieve desired quality and satisfaction levels.

The above characteristics can often be measured by specific performance indicators such as these examples:

  • Fiscal targets met, i.e., accumulated surplus policy
  • Member retention and growth targets met
  • Strong and diverse volunteer targets met
  • Reduction in cycle time in dealing with significant and routine issues
  • Low staff turnover rate
  • Number of new innovative measures
  • Number of complaints or member service problems
  • Number of successful team efforts
  • New best practices implemented
  • Planning policy and process is complied with
  • Member input and satisfaction with strategic direction

Making it Happen

  • A powerful and strong commitment to the vision, mission, values, goals and strategy of the association by all
  • Effective and clear communication lines within the association from the Board down and from the member up
  • A culture of performance in which all want to meet the challenges set and they are regarded as outstanding
  • Leadership growing and developing with change
  • Use of strategic management, benchmarking for best practices and other key tools
  • Acquiring and engaging the necessary competencies to make it all happen

How Does Your Association Rate Out of Ten?

Association managers in the Certified Association Education (CAE) Program course - Association Leadership, Change, Strategy, and Structure - were asked on a scale of 1-10 (with 10 being high), "What score would you assign to your association in terms of being a high performance association?" Students were also asked to identify an association that would have a high score and explain why. A review of 22 recent responses reveals that the scores range from 4 to 8 with an average score of 6.3. This score may suggest that associations have considerable room for improvement. I have previously reviewed close to 400 responses and it was rare to find scores higher than 7. It was interesting to note that associations with higher scores had recently improved communications and strategic management activities such as strategy formulation (strategic planning) and strategy evaluation (performance measurement).

One manager raised good questions, "Should a high performance association rate a 10? Would it rate itself a 10?" The manager concluded it would not be likely as a high performance association knows there is always room to improve.

Common improvements identified and planned by association managers are:

  • Improve strategic management activity such as strategy implementation and performance measurement activity
  • Increase member opportunities for involvement
  • Improve communications between members, members to Board and Staff and staff, and Board to members
  • Reduce the number of one time attempts to get strategic direction in place and develop a policy and supportive process that will ensure increased frequency of activity

If some of these problems exist in your association, they need to be addressed in order to get on the track to becoming a high performance association.

  • Budget driven decisions
  • Crises driven management
  • Membership restlessness
  • Board is not chosen for competencies and ability to perform
  • Communication challenges exist and everyone admits there is a need for improvement
  • This is the way things have always been
  • Implementation plans are not clear or focused with appropriate accountability
  • Products and services are not relevant
  • Resources spread too thin
  • Not enough focus on measurement and impact
  • One part of the organization does not know what the other is doing
  • Errors in providing service to members
  • Not enough time and knowledge to get things done

Who are the high performance associations?

From the outside looking in, managers in the course identified associations they perceive to be as high performing and provided reasons for their choice. A short list of associations mentioned on more than one occasion and based on the reasons provided are:

  • Alberta Medical Association
  • Calgary Real Estate Board
  • Canadian Bar Association
  • Canadian Dental Association
  • Canadian Nursery Landscape Association
  • Retail Council of Canada
  • Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada

Even though others perceive these organizations as high performance associations, it is likely that directors and staff from these organizations may see themselves as a high performance association with lots of room for improvement. If this is the case, it is normal, and part of the quest to become a high performance association.

The content on high performance organizations continues to expand on the Internet. Check it out, you may find something to help you and your association move closer to becoming a high performance organization

This column features innovation and practical solutions applied to challenges, trends, issue and opportunities for the association community. Column editor Jim Pealow, MBA, CPA, CMA, CAE, CMC is a consultant and has served as the Lead Author/Instructor/Coach for the Canadian Society of Association Executives Certified Association Executive (CAE) Program for seventeen years. He can be reached at

This article originally appeared in the June - July 2001 issue of Association magazine  and  was updated in December, 2015.

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