Increasing the value of civil society membership organizations

By Kris Putnam-Walkerly, Global Philanthropy Advisor

Civil society membership associations were made for times like these. Shining bright these past six months, they’ve heroically grabbed their members’ hands and illuminated pathways forward. They’ve helped members navigate the pandemic and prepare for recovery, offering real-time learning, sharing best practices, creating rapid-response funds, soliciting critical information through surveys, supporting collaboration across government and business, and encouraging funding for racial justice. 

Philanthropy infrastructure organizations quickly moved events and conferences online, increased the number of offerings, and broadened who can attend, often including all funders and not just members. Many also worked to shift the balance of power and make gatherings more inclusive and accessible. For their global conference, the Resource Alliance saw it as an opportunity to “challenge the idea of one magnetic north, which tends to be the global north, and instead create a magnetic field around the world where people can be drawn to excellence anywhere.” 

Philanthropy associations have coordinated resources like the Center for Disaster Philanthropy’s COVID-19 Response Fund, helping donors grant nearly $15 million to 95 organizations. They’ve also tapped the collective power by creating useful and timely surveys with vital information to inform member’s next steps, like the WINGS member survey issued in April of 2020. And they’ve offered spot-on analysis and commentary of existing information like this Candid blog post aggregating information from surveys around the world

But as the challenges continue, and as member organizations examine their budgets in the face of a global recession, associations have the additional worry of finding themselves on the budgetary chopping block. If 2009 is any indication, the danger is real. At that time, “more than two-thirds [of foundations surveyed] . . . reduced their operating expenses . . . by reducing staff travel budgets and/or limiting staff attendance at conferences,” and “one-third said they had also reduced staff training and professional development opportunities.” So, as organizations take stock and plan for the next six months, here are three thoughts to bear in mind that will continue to make these organizations essential to their members and the impact they seek for civil society.

  1. Lead with an abundance mindset. Too often, civil society operates with a scarcity mentality that keeps the sector from reaching its full potential. It’s an approach to giving that focuses on limited resources and squeezing the last drop of productivity out of people and dollars. Instead, the sector would do well to focus on abundance. An abundance mindset is a belief that investment in yourself is essential, and the more you put into your operation—and yourself—the higher the return. 

Philanthropy-serving membership organizations are uniquely positioned to lead by example in this area. The whole model is based around coming together, sharing ideas, research, and knowledge. They can only do this work well by investing in their own abundant growth and development. This might include leveraging relationships, listening to people with radically different beliefs, and investing in professional development and technology. For example, what is your organization doing to change from the inside out related to diversity, equity and inclusion? Only by evolving, can you be truly relevant to your members. 

  2. Be agile and adaptive. Being agile means you see and capitalize on new opportunities quickly. Being adaptive means you are consistently able to change yourself to accommodate and maximize the benefits of change. No strategies or theories of change that existed pre-crisis can remain intact post-crisis. Every organization needs to re-examine these now. Determine what stays the same, what must adapt, what to abandon, and what to change. This way, you have the most current framework to guide decision-making.

In her book The Agility Advantage, my colleague Amanda Setili explains how all kinds of organizations can become more agile by looking for innovation from any source, acting quickly on new ideas, and remaining flexible. By combining this agility with a more adaptive approach to strategic planning, you’ll position yourself to succeed today and be ready for whatever tomorrow brings. Unfortunately, those working to strengthen civil society often take close to a year or longer to create an extensive strategic plan. Rather than doing this every three to five years, take a few days each year to refresh your strategy. I explain in detail how to do this in my book, Delusional Altruism: Why Philanthropists Fail To Achieve Change and What They Can Do To Transform Giving.

    3. Be inclusive. Many associations create policies that allow only their members to speak at webinars and conferences. While it is important to promote the ideas and practices of members, doing this is like solely breathing your own exhaust. Every leading organization in every field should make it a practice to seek and heed independent, outside advice to stimulate their innovation and initiatives.

Infrastructure organizations need to cross-pollinate and inject provocative ideas, fresh thinking, and different cultural frames into your resources and events. To enrich your members, you must stretch. Going beyond your membership and even beyond civil society organizations to bring experts and opportunities that your members wouldn’t otherwise have access to will add incredible value to their work. There are plenty of people working to improve civil society with new ideas. From authors to scientists to analysts, there are countless experts in the field at the ready to do the same. This is a powerful way to give your members their money’s worth many times over. 

The superpower of membership associations are connecting and leveraging people, resources and ideas. Now is the time to shine. When people feel challenged and disconnected, you inject abundance. By being agile and adaptive, you remain relevant even when circumstances change. By being inclusive, you provide a full spectrum of voices that we all need to hear and heed now. Doing all these things well will ensure member retention and —recession or not—they’ll also recommend that those in their circles join too.


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Kris Putnam-Walkerly is a global philanthropy advisor, speaker and award-winning author who helps donors and foundations increase the clarity, impact, and joy of their giving. Kris frequently writes about philanthropy for Forbes.com, and her latest book is Delusional Altruism: Why Philanthropists Fail To Achieve Change and What They Can Do To Transform Giving (Wiley 2020). Learn more at https://putnam-consulting.com/.

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