Race for Relevance

Summary Prepared by
Charles Cohon
CEO and President
Manufacturers’ Agents National Association

Executive Summary

MANA board members who have read “Race for Relevance” tell me that this American Society of Association Executives book charts exactly the path associations must follow to ensure continued viability and growth.

For those who have read the book, this summary was written to reinforce the major points. For those who have not read the book, this summary is not a substitute for reading it, but is intended to communicate the reasons why this book is a “must read” for association executives and board members.

Extended Summary

The call for change in “Race for Relevance” is broken down into five topics:

  • Overhauling the governance model and committee operations.
  • Empowering the CEO and enhancing staff competence.
  • Rigorously defining the member market.
  • Rationalizing programs and services.
  • Building a robust technology framework.

The authors note that associations uniformly resist change, and any changes that occur tend to be too little and too late, so they call for associations to recognize that catching up with long-overdue changes cannot be accomplished with small changes. Catching up with those long overdue changes requires radical change.

Overhauling the Governance Model

They are emphatic that the single most important change is under the heading “Overhauling the Governance Model.” In terms of quantity of board members, this means once existing board members’ terms are completed, merging their districts into adjacent districts so that, by attrition, we gradually reduce the number of board members to five. “The first and most important of the five radical changes is to overhaul the size and composition of the board of directors.” (32)

Say the authors: “The change to a five-member competency based board comes first. Tackling the remaining changes will be far less formidable and the prospects of success go up by a factor of 100 with a small, carefully selected board…Your best argument for the five-member board is that it exists today, de facto. Almost all associations, regardless of board size, really operate at the direction of an executive committee or group of officers.” (emphasis added) (144)

In addition to reducing the number of board members to five, they also cite the need for board members to be recruited for needed talents rather than based on their geography alone, what they call a “competency based board.” Board members must be carefully and actively recruited based skills needed by the board rather than solely based on geographic districts, as the authors explain: “If you pick a baseball team by zip code, you may end up with nine catchers.” (43)

The recruiting process for new members of this smaller board is as follows: “The association now has a Leadership Identification Committee (LIC) assigned to identify, interview, and nominate potential board members. The LIC chooses whomever they want from the entire membership without regard to geography, prior experience on regional teams, or previous committee participation. Candidates submit curriculum vitae with an application, letter of intent, and written answers submitted by the LIC.” (45)

And the authors also recommend allowing for the possibility of outside directors (public members) , citing the example of the Indiana CPA Society: “We have had outside directors since 1999. We actually have two in order to provide some continuity for that role of “public member.” We created these public member positions on our board to enhance diversity of throught, to bring us an outside perspective….Over the years our public member has been an attorney, a banker, the CEO of a ‘think tank,’ a former legislator, the senior vice president of a nonprofit and most recently, a consultant in marketing and sales for professional service firms.” (36)

Empower the CEO and Enhance Staff

Key excerpts from this section follow: “The first dividend of the five-member, competency-based board will be the empowerment of a heretofore vastly underutilized chief executive and staff. The CEO now has a board that is an asset…five carefully selected leaders from the profession or industry, each with governance experience, and each with a competency strategically matched with the association’s priorities and direction.” (57)

“In general, the board is responsible for governing the association by setting broad policies and objectives; retaining the CEO; ensuring that the association has adequate resources; and guiding the association in the best interest of its members. The CEO is responsible for running the association in a way that meets the objectives established by the board. The executive is responsible for decisions about what is to be done, how it is to be done, and who is to do it.” (63)

Rigorously Define the Member Market

When we try to spread association services among too many constituencies, we risk losing our members to competitors who serve carefully focus their services to serve particular markets.

“While the broad based association spreads its resources in serving multiple constituencies, many of its competitors are focused solely on providing a single product or service to the broader market. In the worst case scenario for a broad based association, the competitor sharply focused on providing a single product to a very tightly defined market. In this case, the traditional association has little, of any, chance of delivering a meaningful rival product or service that can compete with the single-service provider concentrated on a niche market.” (80)

Rationalize Programs, Services and Activities

The authors quote association executive Mark Levin, who “lamented the trend of associations and professional societies (which were) aggressively adding new products and discounts to build the ‘value’ of membership. A list of actual association offerings he cited included bumper stickers, fax machine discounts, and amusement park rides. He (Levin) commented, ‘I don’t understand how spending time and money to create a laundry list of “stuff” to put in a brochure does one thing to advance the goals of an association or society…Our job is to identify and meet the actual, factual, real-life, they-do-this-for-a-living needs of our members. How does an amusement part discount program do that?’” (96)

Rather than piling on marginal benefits, the authors recommend “…a tightly focused menu of services and initiatives” to avoid exposing “the association to increasing competition that is likely to be focused on a single product or service.” (99)

Quoting New York Times best-selling business author Oren Harari: “An organization that offers a wide, diversified menu of mediocre or commodity products and services is not in value mode.” (99)

“The expansion of services and the increase in nondues offerings had a major negative consequence. It cluttered association communications.  The menu of benefits became an unmanageable communications mess. Members now have to hunt through long lists to try to find the value. And most don’t even bother to try. Why? Because they are busy.” (11)

With only core services and program to communicate to members, communications from the association become more valuable: “A significant percentage of an association’s communication problems are eradicated with the elimination of marginal programs and services.” (108)

Bridge the Technology Gap and Build a Framework for the Future

“The current association model is based on members coming to the association: coming to conferences and seminars, coming to committee or task force meetings, coming to fundraising events, and coming to trade shows. The technology-based association will turn this around and take the association to the member.” (120)

Embracing technology will leave behind some of our most technologically challenged members, but we can’t let a small number of technophobes prevent association from serving the mainstream, technologically average member. “The lowest common denominator mentality (a.k.a. ‘Leave no member behind’) crippled associations’ attempts to move forward.” (21)


The points made by the authors are very well supported by case studies and 40 years of combined experience with more than 1,000 associations. This synopsis is intended to reinforce the book’s major points but is not a substitute for reading the book cover to cover.

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