The Internationalization of Associations

Article
Published on 11 September 2019

 

The internationalization of associations needs a strategic process to align and integrate policies, programs and initiatives, to position your association as globally oriented with international reach and influence.

As a result, there are many challenges and potential pitfalls on the pathway to successful internationalization: Every association’s goals and their memberships’ needs are unique. Consequently, there is no single, applicable, one-size-fits-all roadmap to success.

Nevertheless, there are recurring themes which, if addressed in your strategic development, will help you discover the best path for your association to follow; decide whether you are ready to internationalize and, what you need to do to be ready. In addition, you will also be able to set the conditions for the successful delivery of a well-defined action plan.

My entire career has been spent working for international or global associations, with experience in leading both individual membership and organisation membership associations. I have had the pleasure of successes, like starting a world disease day, bringing together very disparate organisations in a call to action, launching an education programme to establish a global standard of practice, finding ways to increase engagement of delegates with exhibitors, and once, saving an annual meeting by holding up a marquee during a storm.

I have also learnt a lot about different cultures, different ways of doing business, different expectations from memberships in different parts of the world and, how the value proposition changes significantly from country-to-country.

Global Reach

There are a number of benefits to an association in becoming more international: You can reach new audiences with your mission and engage a larger knowledge base, providing better and more diverse networking opportunities for current members.

Becoming more international can in itself have the effect of increasing the prestige associated with membership and can expand the impact that your association delivers through its activities. This can then create a united voice of the wider community representing your field. It can also be a catalyst for building new alliances and collaborative relationships.

Strategic international growth can also create opportunities for recruiting new members and customers. Your association could also open new funding streams for education, certification, training, grant funding and expanding the reach of products and services you already offer. It can encourage the sharing and adoption of best practice, bring new ideas to the association, and promote peer-to-peer exchange. 

Discover

The discovery phase of building your internationalization strategy is not just the foundation for success, it is the cornerstone. Whilst the output from discovery might initially seem intangible, if you invest heavily anywhere, it should be in this phase.

Firstly, you have to identify the opportunities available to you for internationalization, considering what you already know about your sector. Concurrently, you will need to identify and map, all the key stakeholders to inform your engagement plan. This will almost certainly include your board, membership, industry professionals and potential consultants.

Once you have mapped the stakeholders and identified opportunities for internationalization, you must thoroughly scan the environment. It is essential to understand the environment into which you are seeking to grow and, you must gather market intelligence on any local associations or groups in your sector.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • What are the demographics?
  • Is there an up and coming phalanx of under 40’s looking to boost their visibility or identify their next employer? • What is the market climate?
  • Is the region growing and is it outward looking?
  • What is the nature of the market’s infrastructure?
  • If individuals live in low resource settings, can they access your repurposed education materials?
  • What is the potential competition?
  • Is there already a well-attended local or regional annual event in your sector?
  • Are education resources free to obtain through competitors?

Finally, once you fully understand the environment you will be able to screen the risks to discover what risks could have the greatest impact on your developing plan of action.

Using this approach, at the end of the discovery phase, you will have mapped all of the key stakeholders and developed an engagement plan. You will have a clear understanding of the opportunities in potential new markets and will have identified the major risks to your emerging internationalization strategy.

Decide

The decision phase of building your internationalization strategy is the vital linkage between discovery and delivery. It focuses on you, your association, your objectives, your approach and your risk tolerances to help you onboard the right help and build a robust plan of action and milestones. Having completed the discovery phase, you will be as well informed to make effective decisions as you have ever been.

The most important question you have to ask yourself at this stage is: is my association ready for internationalization? If not, what do I need to do to be ready? All growth strategies, including internationalization are inherently risky. Always be aware there is no guarantee of success.

 

Strategic international growth can also create opportunities for recruiting new members and customers. Your association could also open new funding streams for education, certification, training, grant funding and expanding the reach of products and services you already offer. It can encourage the sharing and adoption of best practice, bring new ideas to the association, and promote peer-to-peer exchange.

So, it is important to understand what your and your Board’s appetite to risk is. This will help guide you in developing a sensible and sustainable budget and a deliverable timeline. Acknowledging that growth isn’t free, and that this growth will probably take longer than you or your board might like.

Also, having decided a budget and set a realistic timeframe for internationalization, you will need to draw out an achievable plan of action with key milestones. These milestones include the key decision points where you and your Board might need to revitalize a particular line of effort. Provide guidance, steer activity or potentially, make some harder decisions. 

One key area not to forget when internationalizing your association is your communications plan. You need to bring your Board, members, team and other stakeholders with you on the journey. They need to be committed and understand the strategic benefit of implementing an international
growth strategy.

Association boards are likely to be sceptical of change and due to the nature of the role they play in governance, they tend to be risk averse. Boards are usually locally focussed with an emphasis on being responsive to member needs and the proper use of resources. In addition, many board members have a short-term vision for the association which correlates with their time on the board.

You also need to decide how you will manage any changes in governance that might arise from moving forward with an international growth strategy. You need to think about representation from the new countries on your committees and the board. 

Also, you may need to look at your governance alongside your internal processes with a view to becoming more agile. Associations are known for making decisions by consensus. This often means that they are unable to make decisions quickly.

Deliver

After building a plan of action with key milestones you need to roll it out. An early milestone should include testing the market before leaping in with all guns blazing. Don’t forget to engage your members, your board and to bring key organisations into the process. It needs to be transparent and inclusive.

How effectively positioned are you to take advantage of global trends? And how do you decide if implementing a global expansion strategy is right for your association? You are ready to adopt an international growth strategy if:

  • You have identified a need for what your association has to offer.
  • You have identified what services can your association provide and how can your association best provide them.
  • Your Board are in support of testing the market.

One key area not to forget when internationalizing your association is your communications plan.
You need to bring your Board, members, team and other stakeholders with you on the journey. They need to be committed and understand the strategic benefit of implementing an international growth strategy.

As globalisation becomes all-encompassing in our daily lives, members have an increasing appetite for their knowledge, networking and training to be set in a global context. There is interest in learning from the experiences of people outside of their daily environment and, recognition of the value of different perspectives on hared problems.

Increasingly, members are demonstrating a desire to share ideas and information on a global basis; a need for the development of common standards with global participation and, recognizing the growing need for capacity building in low resource countries.

Your Checklist

When considering the international aspects of your association, bear these points in mind:

  • How will you gain an understanding around culture and local customs?
  • Disenfranchise existing members - how will you take your current members with you on this journey?
  • How will you gain an understanding of what different regions want from membership - different value propositions?
  • Ensuring you dedicate the time and resource to effectively implement any expansion strategies.
  • Think about budgeting, planning and timelines - an expansion strategy will take time to deliver results.
  • Don’t expect a model that works in your home country to replicate successfully around the world.
  • Is your Board committed to be in it for the long haul? ✔ How will your technology operate for people in different countries?

Author

Chris Trimmer

Managing Director, Association Evolution