As we prepare to celebrate the 238th birthday of our nation, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the role associations play in this ongoing experiment of democracy we call America, as they are very much intertwined within the fabric of our society and our collective history.
To interpret the future of associations, it is important to understand their past. The root of associations can be traced back to organizations and institutions like the church, medieval craft guilds, merchant trade groups and Greek symposiums.
The closest cousins of what we know as the modern association can be found in the guilds of 16th century England. These guilds were formed to provide protection to merchant interests and individual artisans. In addition, these organizations provided training in specific skills and established rules for fair wages and working conditions, which continues today in the form of professional development and advocacy.
As our country was founded, American citizens began to expand and formalize the guilds into what we identify as an association today. Citizens of the United States began exercising their first amendment freedoms of speech, assembly and the press. New laws were developed to support and define these new groups and the role they would come to play in our educational and political system.
The earliest association on record in the U.S. was the Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York, which was formed in 1768 by 20 merchants. Nearly 246 years later, it survives today as the Partnership for New York City. That’s older than our country’s declaration of independence!
While there is much discussion around the changes associations face today with a highly competitive and global economy, associations have faced similar challenges throughout our nation’s history. When factories and mass production were introduced during the Industrial Revolution, associations were dramatically changed. The focus on work quality and wages soon gave way to new priorities around quantities and production, causing associations to lose power and forcing them to adapt to survive that change.
Prior to the Civil War most associations were essentially local; but as the Civil War broke out, regional and national organizations were formed to capitalize on our divided country’s industrial capabilities. The railroads fueled expansion and new markets for manufacturers resulted in the birth of more trade associations to ensure fair competition. By the beginning of 1900, more than 100 associations were organized to influence federal and state government, especially around issues affecting business.
As with the Civil War, both World War I and World War II helped drive growth in the number of associations forming. Trade associations played key roles in the war effort by supplying the government with information on available equipment, available labor and productivity. They were a valuable link between the companies and industries they represented and the U.S. government. They also helped influence the war effort at home by encouraging conservation and providing technical specialists to public service.
Professional societies have also made significant contributions throughout our history as consultants to governments and academia, helping to broaden the scope of the existing body of scientific knowledge. They have facilitated an ongoing exchange of ideas and technical information while providing a forum for dissenting viewpoints on professional research. As a result, higher standards of professionalism are constantly being established and met.
The number of associations has swelled to over 100,000 organizations today. As a result of that long history, we can have confidence they will continue to form and exist in today’s society. Almost every facet of life is represented in some form or fashion by an association or cause-oriented membership organization. The challenges they face have never been greater and the new opportunities they have are just as great.
Today we talk about social networking and online communities, big data, information overload, jobs, generational issues, member retention, and non-dues revenue. While associations are looking for ways to remain relevant, their members and future members need help managing the turbulent environment they work and live in. The roles haven’t changed, just the tools needed to survive.
That’s why we are here and why we love what we do. Associations are being asked to do more with less in ways unimaginable just 15 years ago. YourMembership.com exists to provide associations with technology-based solutions that will allow them to compete and prosper in today’s world. It is a big responsibility and privilege we don’t take lightly.
And so to our association customers, and the millions of members they serve, we pause this July 4th to say thank you for all that you have contributed and continue to do for our great nation.
Special thanks to Shelly Alcorn, CAE for her assistance with this post.