Reinventing Associations on Purpose

Published on 11 September 2019

At some point in life, all of us search for meaning and that includes the leaders, members and funders of associations. We see through the illusion of the materialistic world and yearn for something greater. We know there is something more than the job, the house, the car, and the family. We want to make a difference. But in what direction? How do we align our lives and our association with it? And how do we bring it to life?

By Alexander Inchbald

An association’s purpose is its vision for the world it wants to see. Its purpose is to realise it. Aligning everything an association does with a greater purpose creates more meaning and value. According to Deloitte, 73% of people who work at a purpose-centred organisation are engaged (on average, it’s just 15%). And according to Gallup, employee engagement increases earnings per share by 147%. This is exactly what we did with The European Association for the study of the Liver – EASL.

When I started working with EASL five years ago, the brief I received was to help improve relations and association management. The first step was to develop a purpose, which united all parties. Then we developed a value proposition, business model, and roadmap to realise it. What came out the other end were five experiments. These experiments included The International Liver Foundation, in-depth research with the community, a Charter to improve EASL’s operations, a new website with social community functionality and The Best of EASL - a global tour of the best of its annual meetings.

Since then, EASL has hit record numbers: the most members (almost 5,000), the most delegates at its annual event (over 11,000), the highest Impact Factor (12.5) and it has put $7m more in the bank in profit. Taking a similar approach at The European Society for Dermatological Research – ESDR - is leading to an entirely different way to engage young skin scientists and the creation of a new Foundation which will secure commitments of over 5M Euros at its launch.

It’s not just associations who can benefit. Their members can too. Unilever estimates the market for consumer goods brands whose sole purpose is to ‘do good’ – is worth more than $2.5TN. And that’s just one industry. Purpose-centred companies will grow exponentially, particularly as one of the world’s most influential investors just mandated it. At Davos this year, Larry Fink, CEO of the world’s largest asset management company, BlackRock, announced the companies he invests in must focus on a social purpose or risk losing his support.

Individuals can benefit too. Purpose helps leaders to be more effective. Bob Anderson and Bill Adam’s research with 50,000 leaders around the world, found leaders who connect to their essence are up to 1,000 times more effective than those who don’t. And purpose is one way to articulate essence. And yet, if you spent all your time reading life sciences journals or immersed in the world of big data, you could be forgiven for thinking meaning and purpose are dead. The new religion is data and information. Humans are simply machines that can be enhanced by other machines – the internet, wearable devices, Artificial Intelligence (AI), neurotechnology, and nanotechnology. We can simply strap on a device, embed a chip, take a pill, or outsource the problem to AI to help us perform better. Isn’t neurotechnology the solution to association leadership? Won’t AI enable us to handle our members more effectively? And won’t biotech help us to attain a super-human state in which we can transcend the world’s problems?

However, none of these will resolve conflict and tension between Executive Heads and their boards. Nor will they find new sources of funding or make associations relevant to millennials. On the contrary, without purpose, technology will accelerate the other trends we see today: the devaluation of entire industries, the devastation of entire ecosystems, and the acceleration in global debt. We will suppress what makes us human, our creativity, our art, our essence. AI may soon surpass human intelligence and replace hundreds of millions of jobs, but will the world be more balanced and more beautiful? Will we feel wealthier and healthier? Will we be fulfilled? Purpose is the antidote to this dystopian vision. The root cause of these symptoms is disconnection to ourselves. The solution to overwhelming amounts of information isn’t delegating the problem to AI, it’s creating a vision that focuses AI on a greater purpose.

Associations have a pivotal role to play. Every association was originally created by a group of pioneers who wanted to unite the community they represented around a greater cause, and, in most cases, leave a legacy for good. The vast majority of these associations were created in a different paradigm though. As a result, how these associations realized that purpose was different then than today. Back then, it was more likely to be a small board representing the community than an office enabling it. The former required a few industry leaders, who outsourced the management of the annual event. The latter requires many subject matter experts who have a deep understanding of what the industry needs. This transition has ruthlessly exposed the gulf in mindset between representing and enabling - revealing schisms between Governing Boards and their CEOs or between associations and millennials. As a result, many associations have lost their way. And yet, today, humanity needs these associations to fulfil the purpose they were created for more than ever. Associations have a critical role to play to champion, catalyse, encourage and cajole their communities to achieve this purpose and help their board members to leave a greater legacy.

What is Purpose? The French term ‘fil rouge’ has no real equivalent in English. Literally it means red thread. In French, it describes a pattern that runs through everything. A film has a fil rouge, a life has a fil rouge, and so does your association. Your association purpose is the fil rouge of your association. It is how to channel your creativity effectively. Knowing your fil rouge will help association leaders make both the big decisions and little decisions. Should you invest effort here or there? Should you start this project or that project? Think of it as a rudder. It provides direction. Purpose frames how the association creates sustainable value for its members and funders, and is at the heart of its value proposition and business model. Every speech, action and the culture of the association should align with this purpose.

Too often this doesn’t happen though. And in extreme cases, conflict leads to the CEO’s dismissal. Placing Purpose at the heart of everything These elements constitute what I call The Legacy Diamond™, a framework that places purpose at the heart of everything we do. The framework consists of three journeys: the Outward Journey to create the balance within which creativity emerges - either within yourself or within a team. Based on my research, painting in extreme locations all over the world, studying the world’s leading entrepreneurs and facilitating workshops with the world’s leading companies, I came to the conclusion creativity emerges in the stillness amidst opposing forces. Successful CEOs hold these forces (in the form of their board, members and office) in balance so creativity and innovation can emerge. The second journey is The Upward Journey to amplify the impact of what the association creates, by expanding its scope and reach. Most of us focus most of our attention on these first two journeys, because we have separated ourselves from ourselves. We are disconnected. And it is this disconnection that causes the tension and conflict.

There is a third journey - the Inward Journey into the self. Think of this journey like the roots of a tree. The deeper the roots, the higher the tree can grow, and the more stable it is when the wind blows or a storm picks up. Storms are inevitable. You can’t avoid them. All you can do is ensure you’re prepared. Roots not only provide stability and a platform for growth, they also provide nourishment to accelerate the Outward and Upward Journeys. This journey follows our personal purpose to remove our greatest barriers. A board cannot impose purpose on its CEO or employees. Everyone needs to own it. And the best way to do this is to help them articulate their own purpose and understand how it connects to the association’s purpose. ‘You are the culture you are trying to change’ Bob Anderson and Bill Adams

This framework is at the heart of my book, #Balance: how leaders, teams and organizations can transition from problem to purpose to leave the legacy they were born to create

The Association of Association Executives has a limited number of copies. If you would like one, email with why you are interested.


Alexander Inchbald
Alexander Inchbald

Founding Partner, Creative Leadership Partners

Strategist and extreme artist painting in extreme places all over the world to explore what is required to be creative everywhere. He shares the insights to help leaders and leading organisations tackle the biggest challenges they face. He has worked with some of the world’s leading organisations including The WHO, Red Cross, UNICEF, Global Fund, HP, P&G & Unilever. He has helped leading medical associations ESDR, ESRA, EASL, ESOT and IOF develop strategies. Alex is the founding partner of Creative Leadership Partners