When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, the company was in disarray. In fact, it was on the brink of failure.

So, how did Steve Jobs save Apple? Was it the iPod? The iPhone? The iPad?


Long before Apple invented “i” anything, Jobs rescued the company by giving it focus. After his return, the company cut more than 70% of its product line, choosing instead to focus on its core products. Cutting its product line cost Apple in the short run, but in the long run it turned a near bankrupt company into one of the world’s most innovative, admired, and wealthy businesses.

Focusing on a few core products is a lesson most associations could learn from.

Many trade associations and professional societies have an extensive suite of member benefits. There are lots of reasons for this, many of them good. The continual churn of board membership means a constant infusion of new ideas. Association boards and staff leadership are always looking to increase the return on investment of membership. Sponsors regularly contact associations to propose new benefits, many of them value-added, and many of them free (at least to the association).

The result can be an extensive suite of member benefits that includes something for nearly everyone, which sounds like a good thing.

Until it isn’t.

All associations, even the largest, are resource-limited. There is simply a shortage of man and woman power available to effectively manage, market, and communicate the value of a large suite of benefits. Further, the sheer number of member benefits can muddle your association’s message about the value of membership.

That said, having motivated board members, dedicated staff, and aggressive sponsors or vendors means that your association will constantly be presented with opportunities to implement new benefits or sponsor partnerships.

That’s a good thing. If your association is not being presented with new opportunities and partnerships, it probably means that your association is in decline.

So, how should your association evaluate new benefits and sponsor-partnership opportunities?

Here are a few things to consider:

  1. Do you have the bandwidth?
    If you expect members to use them, new benefits and sponsor partnerships can’t simply be listed on your website and then placed on a metaphorical shelf. They need to be actively managed and marketed. Members need to be informed of the benefit or partnership and the value it adds on a consistent basis. A press release, a Facebook post, or a mention in your newsletter right after the new benefit or partnership goes live won’t cut it. If you don’t have the bandwidth to manage and market a new benefit, you should think twice before implementing it.
  2. Does the new benefit or partnership align with your mission?
    Why would a dentist join an association of dentists to get discounts on tires? Granted, we all like to save money on tires, but is a dentist likely to think of his dentists’ association when he goes to buy tires? Probably not, and there is a strong possibility that he could buy the tires on Amazon for far less than he could at the tire shop, even with the association discount. All benefits and sponsor partnerships should align with your mission. A nonexistent member benefit does less damage to the perception of membership value than one that is irrelevant to the mission and as a result goes forgotten and unused.
  3. Does the new benefit or partnership align with your strategic plan?
    Again, all associations have limited resources relevant to their enormous and important mission. Those resources should be focused on achieving the goals identified in your strategic plan, not responding to every shiny new thing that comes along (and in associations, there tend to be lots of shiny new things). Of course, if the shiny new thing aligns with or helps you achieve strategic goals, then there is a good chance you should move forward and implement it. However, if the new benefit or sponsor partnership would distract from the strategic plan, you should move on.

Saying no can be hard, especially if a board member or key volunteer is championing the new benefit. However, saying no can be exactly what your organization needs.

After all, it worked for Steve Jobs.

And it could work for your trade association or professional society.

Read more Sentergroup blog posts on association membership