Balancing the Best of Today and Tomorrow

The title of Angie Kim’s recent post articulates a vexing challenge for service and intermediary organizations very well: Nonprofit Membership Associations: Serving Members Today or Shaping the Field for Tomorrow? Kim, Director of Programs and Membership for Southern California Grantmakers,  contends that these two mandates are not inherently in conflict and membership organizations can say yes to both.

Kim elaborates:  An intermediary, membership-based association's primary function is to provide services to its members. But these institutions can do much more than just respond to where their members are now. These organizations, because they are so well connected and influential, are well poised to deliberately shape the future of their respective sectors.

But can they really do both really well?

Is what serves the individual member the same thing that serves the field as a whole?

If member-based organizations are primarily there to provide services  (think AAA coming out to fix your flat tire) can it also be effective at advocating for a network (think EFF fighting for a free and open internet)?

Being exceptional at the former requires a focus on knowing the immediate needs of individual members. The latter requires a long-term view of what actions today will advance members’ interests tomorrow. Both are clearly essential to a high-performing network or industry. But can one organization – and in this conversation – a non-profit intermediary association – really be expected to play both roles?

There are over 50 members of APASO (the association of performing arts service organizations)   and dozens more serving  visual, media and the literary arts (to say nothing of the broader nonprofit universe).  My own research into this corner of the non-profit arts sector leads me to conclude that getting the balance right is a matter of survival.

Kim argues that for an intermediary simply to respond to member needs is not enough.  They need to “take a stand on the importance of unpopular issues that benefit the sector as a whole,” she writes.

Kim criticizes many membership organizations for being reactive and ensuring “that dues-paying members are satisfied,” ahead of taking positions that might “disenfranchise members.”

It seems to me that this is not the whole story.

An intermediary can both be attentive to member-needs and invest in activities that bring the whole field forward if they can articulate very clearly to its members how they’ll benefit in both the short and the long term.

In politics elected officials get booted out of office when they lose touch with their constituents.  It may be that leaders can see trouble (and opportunities) that their followers can not, but being an effective mobilizer of support to tackle the challenges – and capitalize on the opportunities – requires making the story plain.

Interviews with leaders of arts-service organizations affirms Kim’s perspective that  membership organizations provide connection within a field, hold the sector’s institutional knowledge and are valued for the way they create community.  But as a practical matter, membership directors assert that the transactional benefits members get drive their commitment to the organization – and are the leading reasons why they pay their dues.

And for the typical arts-service organization those dues are the largest source of unrestricted revenue, and thus they’re incredibly valuable (even if they usually making up a small fraction of the organization’s total revenue).

Kim points out two inspiring examples of member-based organizations that took courageous stands about where they felt their fields needed to go.  I agree that as a field leader one can’t be held hostage to a recalcitrant minority, but one can’t turn one’s back on what one’s membership wants either. In the examples cited at Grantmakers in the Arts and the American Alliance of Museums, “bold communication” was critical to bringing their constituents along to support a change whose impact would be long-term.

Our world is too interconnected to be parochial in our work these days.  The butterfly effects of a policy change in one area or in one part of the country will ripple through the lived-reality of people operating in another. But, as membership based organizations strive to shape the future (rather than be shaped by it), they must acknowledge their core competencies, the resources they have to work with, and the high-priority needs of members who depend on them as they determine how far they can stretch to answer Kim’s question with an emphatic yes to serving member needs today  and shaping the field for tomorrow.