Innovation, Leadership

How to Grow your Association when your Industry or Profession is Stagnant or Shrinking

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What do you do when your industry is shrinking or not growing? In an earlier blog, I talked about an interesting conversation I had with the CEO of a large, manufacturing association whose growth and retention rates had been phenomenal and consistently on the rise in the last decade. Yet his industry had been recently shrinking through consolidation and global competition. For the first time since he assumed his position as CEO, members who would rate very high on the conventional engagement scale were beginning to leave

So what do you do in such situations?  In my research and experience, the organizations that survive and grow are those that rethink the fundamentals of their models and apply radical innovation in the face of disruption, rather than applying incremental improvements along a vertical growth path—more members, more products, more marketing, etc.
The National Affordable Housing Management Association (NAHMA), an association for the affordable housing management industry, chose the former—a dramatic re-thinking of its business and stakeholders.

It looks like NAHMA has been doing everything right so far. Its members represent 75% of the affordable housing market and include the CEOs or senior executives of the industry’s most distinguished multifamily owners and management companies. Its retention rate of 88-90% is far above what many associations dream. Yet affordable housing is a mature industry. No significant growth is projected through new government programs.  What else can NAHMA do to grow and escape the fate of stagnation and eventual decline of most mature organizations in mature industries?

NAHMA could follow any number of go-to solutions, such as raising dues, aggressively going after the remaining 20-25% of its market to grow, create more certificate programs, etc. Instead, under Executive Director Kris Cook, NAHMA is in the process of reinventing itself, while still providing existing services and maintaining a focus on its core members. Rather than bury its head under the burden of daily operations, however, the association is taking the time to re-think its mission through a fresh perspective and expand it outside the strict boundaries of the industry, as they are currently defined today. Who knows! Maybe NAHMA will be the catalyst for remapping these boundaries in a new future.

NAHMA had already started on this path through its “Communities of Quality® (COQ) National Recognition” program. According to its website:

When your property meets NAHMA’s high standards in physical maintenance, financial management, programs and services, employee credentials and other criteria, it becomes a member of an elite group. COQ properties qualify for regional and national awards, a listing in an online registry of the country’s top affordable properties, and the use of COQ marketing materials
Far from being a mere rebranding effort, this program was created to highlight quality communities as a way to dispel the myths about and stigma associated with affordable housing by creating high standards for operational, social and strategic elements of their management.  In short, through the program, managing affordable housing was no longer a matter of mastering federal regulations and technical operations but one of building living, quality communities. This was a huge leap.
Additionally, beyond the achievement of recognition, a path to constant improvement is opened as properties are required to renew the certification to ensure they are still meeting the standards.

Cook is now further expanding the boundaries of the profession and the social significance of the affordable housing concept beyond the negative stereotypes associated with it.
Think about it. In an age of continuously escalating housing costs, affordability is everyone’s concern. Yesterday, while I was driving, I heard a news story over the radio about the difficulty of young professionals to move out of their parents’ houses in high cost areas.  And, didn’t prohibitive housing prices give rise to bad mortgage loans that made it possible for people to borrow beyond their means, causing the collapse of the housing market and the economy a few years ago?   Advocates for affordable housing are multiplying, crossing social classes and industries. They include corporations, concerned about their workforce; people in white collar but low paying jobs; the young professionals at the start of their careers; those involved with urban renewal, livable communities, urban architecture and many others.

NAHMA is in the process of preparing to launch yet another new initiative, further expanding the definition of affordable housing to include workforce housing, reflecting these more expansive needs and the broader, cross-industry ecosystem of stakeholders.  The goal is to increase affordable housing for professionals such as teachers, fire fighters, policemen, corporate workforce and many others with jobs that are critical to society, yet low paying.  One of its most important strategies is to engage and partner with a variety of these new and emerging stakeholders, creating communities of shared purpose, catalyzing innovation, initiating action and changes in policy.

Broadening the definition of affordable housing and expanding criteria, practices and the pool of stakeholders will no doubt re-define the role of affordable housing managers. It will also likely uncover new niches for NAHMA’s role and resources and possibly new types of members that can benefit from its new coalitions and roles.  And this is one way to grow by creating a new playbook, outside your program category, industry definitions and practices.