Six Disruptive Forces Poised to Revolutionize Nonprofit Associations
by Jeff Hurt
Sunday, December 04, 2011

It takes courage to move out of the comfort zone!

So many nonprofit associations and their boards have adopted a risk averse environment. They see little incentive to change or experiment.

In the coming three to ten years, those organizations that stay the course will not succeed. Those that refuse to think differently, quickly and innovate will not survive.

The traditional nonprofit approach to risk must be recalibrated to assume a level of risk tolerance.

Defining A Disruptive Force

What is a disruptive force?

  • A monumental, unexpected change that does not fit previous patterns. “Managing The Future-The Short Version,” Stephen M. Millett, PhD, 2011
  • A circumstance that creates such dramatic change that it transforms existing industries or creates new ones. “Tools For Discontinuous Innovation Research and Development,” Michael Ali, 2004.
  • A revolutionary force, not an evolutionary progression. “Disruptive Forces,” Alliance for Children and Families, 2011.


Disruptive Forces As Opportunities

Usually disruptive forces create negative images in our minds. The mere word disruptive implies something troublesome, unsettling or disturbing. The word force also can scare us as it means power beyond our control. Together the words disruptive forces don’t exactly cause us to shout with enthusiasm.

However, inherent in a disruptive force is the opportunity to dramatically enhance responsiveness and the efficacy of the delivery model of the future. High performing strategic-thinking organizations recognize and capture the opportunities that rest within disruptive forces.

Unfortunately, organizations that choose to ignore these forces are unlikely to survive.

I am optimistic. I believe that there will be associations that are willing to adapt to the changing landscape as well as their changing needs of their communities. I believe some will have well-honed radar to position their organization to recognize, act upon and adapt to disruptive forces.

Six Disruptive Forces

The Alliance for Children and Families and Baker Tilly released the 2011 report Disruptive Forces: Driving a Human Services Revolution that identified six forces for human services. These six forces also have implications for traditional nonprofit associations. Here is my spin on these forces for nonprofit associations.

1. Purposeful Experimentation

Much broader levels of experimentation are needed in the nonprofit association sector. Multiple forces from

  •     for-profit competitors’ risk taking activities
  •     members own thought leadership initiatives that become competitive
  •     low-cost information technologies
  •     social media growth
  •     increased desperation as membership and funding declines


will force organizations to experiment or close their doors.

Savvy leaders will push their organizations to take calculated risks. Organizations will succeed if they have boards that adapt courage-based vision execution.


2. Information Liberation

A new generation of consumers has emerged. People share information with friends, family and communities both online and face to face.

Associations are used to private, exclusive information behind the membership wall. They have used this exclusivity as an excuse to avoid developments that promote information sharing. Yet information sharing can improve the industry and give industry professionals the ability to progress.

Associations will have to figure out how to move from privacy and exclusivity to communities of shared information.

3. Integrating Science

Advances in science, engineering, and neuroscience will be adopted rapidly by courage-based organizations. Imagine the association leadership adopting brain science and measuring brain activity at the annual meeting like individuals measure blood pressure and cholesterol today. Consider if conference organizers partnered with scientific researchers to improve the effectiveness of education and networking.

4. Uncompromising Demand For Impact

Association constituents are placing higher demands on leaders for proof that their dollars given to the organization provide personal ROI. The ability to demonstrate that particular innovations have efficacy will result in constituents paying fees. More members and non-members are looking for low-cost programs that prove impact.

5. Branding Causes, Not Organizations

Most nonprofit associations have marketed themselves and their services based on their offerings. In the future, it will be more effective to leverage causes based on issues than on brands and programming. Brands by themselves seem fake, institutional and sterile. Movements create a vision and goal for change.

6. Attracting Investors, Not Just Sponsors And Members

Investment is the purchase of a financial product or other item of value with an expectation of favorable future returns. For years associations have embraced an entitlement syndrome that their members will always pay for membership or conference registration and expect nothing in return. Members and sponsors are demanding a shift to an investment paradigm with performance-seeking portfolios aimed at a return that seeks to solve personal problems, contribute to a movement or eliminate an issue.

Potential For Success

Too many nonprofit associations have been in survival mode for the last several years. The bunker mentality of focusing on points of differentiation and segmentation in the marketplace are not enough.

It’s time for innovation, collaboration and new partnerships.

There must be a shift from institutional organizational-centric focus to an acknowledgement of networks and collaboration. This means becoming less defensive about “my personal association baby that I’ve raised” and “home turf.”

It’s time to view disruptive forces as opportunities and offer innovative strategies.


Note, the above piece is syndicated content. The original blog post: Six Disruptive Forces Poised to Revolutionize Nonprofit Associations (and much much more!) can be found on Velvet Chainsaw's Midcourse Corrections blog.

back to articles ↩