According to Harrison Coerver, the response to Race for Relevance: 5 Radical Changes for Associations—which he co-wrote with Mary Byers, CAE—has been “overwhelm- ing.” (See p. 52 for an excerpt.) It’s been a best-seller for publisher ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership, hav- ing sold more than 10,000 copies in its first 10 months on the market. But even more than that, Coerver said, “We are just getting a tremendous amount of feedback that really indicates that we hit a nerve.” Recently, Convene spoke to Coerver about what motivated him and Byers to write Race for Relevance, as well as their recommendations regarding volunteer committees.
What was the impetus behind writing Race for Relevance? Basically, it came down to our observations of the environ- ment for associations having changed significantly; and yet, the response from associations to those changes in the environment being inadequate. Our contention is that when you’ve got major irreversible changes in the environment, you cannot make modest and minor marginal adjustments to your operation model. That is why we came back and said we need to make radical changes to align ourselves with this environment.
In terms of volunteer-committee management, is this one of the larg- erorsmaller things that has changed in the association world? It is a factor. I think the functioning and the performance of our boards has more significance,…but [committee function- ing] is still an important aspect. And [it] has been affected by the environmental changes that we have seen—the most pronounced being the time pressures. The time pressures in our society today are unprecedented; and yet, we continue to operate like everybody’s got time on their hands and are just looking for a committee meeting to go to.
You recommend in the book that professional staff need to have more familiarity with the industry or profession that they serve than they did in the past. What is the best way for professional staff to get that experience or insider knowledge? There are two ways you can do it. One, you can hire to it. But if you are an association professional, I think there are ways that you can learn and become knowledgeable in
the profession or the industry through education, through shadowing, through internships, through a variety of differ- ent approaches to ramp up your level of expertise and knowledge in the profession or industry. I think you have seen a lot of this happen. I mean, you’ve got execs and sen- ior staff people who are very, very knowledgeable in their profession or the industry, more so than they ever have been in the past.
You also wrote that professional staff will need to be a little like search consultants. Did it used to be that just whoever volunteered was acceptable, and now there has to be a little bit more exactness brought to bear? You said it. In the past it has been a “y’all come” [mentality]: whoever shows up—the qualified, unqualified, knowledge- able, clueless. Whoever showed up, that is who we put on committees. I think in today’s [competitive] environment,… we need staff that can understand, “Here is the expertise and the knowledge that we need, and here is how we can go out into our member market and access and find that talent.” And I think they are doing that to an extent, but I think that down the road we are going to have to be a lot more proactive in terms of our outreach and recruitment and identifica- tion of volunteer talent—and how we use it.
How will you be following up on all the feedback you’ve received on Race for Relevance? There is a sequel [to the book] in the works. I think that you are going to see
— there is some discussion of it in the book, but — a much higher emphasis and understanding of good strategy con- cepts for associations, particularly in the realm of how we use our resources. I think associations are going to have to be much more sophisticated in their resource allocations. I think they are going to have to be leaner in the way they operate. That is an outcome of what we learned in the last year as we have talked and discussed these concepts.