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Association Learning: An Untapped Opportunity

  • 7 Min Read

Our research suggests that there’s a gap in learning options for working professionals. That presents an opportunity for associations, but could also come with future benefits when it comes to membership and retention.

Associations are looking for ways to distinguish themselves, attract new members and grow and diversify their non-dues revenue streams. Online delivery models for events and educational programs present a tremendous untapped opportunity to help associations achieve these three objectives. Research from our recent white paper, “Enabling Learning for Life: New Realities for Work and Education,” supports this move.

Most U.S. working-age adults are generally interested in upskilling, but uptake is low; there’s significant curiosity around pursuing professional development, but there’s a gap between those who have actually taken some. That presents an opportunity for associations.  

There’s also a growing gap in where people look for these opportunities. Our research found that 20% of U.S. adults would consider either online courses or certificates from a company, a professional association or from their employers. That’s compared to just 14% who said they would consider taking a course at a college or university.

And the U.S. Federal Reserve backs up this gap. According to its “Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2022” report, most U.S. adults think that the cost of college outweighs the benefits. “More than two-thirds of adults with a bachelor’s degree or more said the financial benefits of their education exceeded the cost,” the report reads. 

So why aren’t associations capitalising already? 

The Case for Associations to Lean Into Learning

First, let’s talk about the reasons why it makes sense for your association to lean into learning. 

1. Learning Adds Value for Members

You’re in an environment in which you need to provide as much value to your members as possible so they feel their dues are worth paying. By adding the right learning options, curated to your members’ needs and career goals, you’re adding value to your membership for your members. 

Having learning options that members want can increase member engagement by giving them a reason to be active in your association and engage with fellow members who are embarking on the same learning journey. 

The engagement, combined with the value of learning, provides members with as much value as possible, which can help boost member retention rates. The more valuable their membership becomes, the more likely they are to continue paying for it. 

Consider the path that (ISC)² has taken. The nonprofit association focuses on training and certification for information security professionals. One of its main offerings is the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) accreditation, widely recognised as the world’s premier cybersecurity certification. (ISC)² took their offerings a step further, launching the Professional Development Institute (PDI), a massively scalable training program capable of supporting hundreds of thousands of learners in 175 countries.

“Twenty-seven percent of our membership has enrolled in at least one PDI course, which is double what we saw last year. And we have learners from many countries around the globe,” said Mirtha Collin, the organisation’s director of education, after the institute’s first year.

“Our learners absolutely love the courses. Overall feedback is very, very good, with satisfaction scores ranging between 92% and 99%. Moreover, of members who have enrolled, 33% have completed their courses.”

“That completion rate is nearly four times higher than it was last year.”

Mirtha Collin, director of education, (ISC)²

This uptake rate underlines the value of offering high-quality online courses that members want. As a bonus, (ISC)² has a small staff but can deliver training to thousands of people thanks to their scalable approach. 

2. Learning Boosts Non-Dues Revenue

Education can also provide your association with non-dues revenue. While you can make the best courses and programs free or discounted to those who pay for a membership, you can also sell them publicly. 

As an expert in your industry, your association likely garners a lot of respect for its knowledge. Capitalise on that by offering courses to people in the industry who aren’t in your association or to those who are considering moving to your industry from another.  

Take the example of Good Roads, a municipal association devoted to improving infrastructure. Their decision to provide online learning opportunities has enabled them to reach an entire new audience: the private sector. 

“We’ve been able to market our online courses in a way that’s reaching new audiences,” says Scott Butler, executive director. “For example, private-sector companies are taking our online courses at a rate that’s completely unprecedented in our 229 years of history.” 

This educational stream has enabled them to bring in revenue from outside the organisation’s association members and to diversify their revenue streams. 

3. Learning Neutralises a Differentiator

Your association may find itself competing with other organisations that offer professional development offerings. There is a wide variety of options available to prospective learners besides associations—universities and colleges, a private provider or even their current employer. 

In “Enabling Learning for Life: New Realities for Work and Education,” we found that 14% of working-age adults in the U.S. would consider taking a course from a college or university, while a fifth of them would consider taking an online course or certificate from one of the other suppliers listed.  

With no learning provider a clear frontrunner in people’s preferences, there is an opportunity for your association to become that: a frontrunner in learning. 

With the benefits laid out clearly, let’s dig into some of the challenges that may be preventing your organisation from taking the leap. 

Associations Face Some Barriers

Many associations do offer some learning, either to their members, the public or a combination of the two. Associations often offer this learning in person, but as highlighted, there’s more on the table. What are some of the barriers in the way? 

1. Maybe You Didn’t Know How Much Demand There Is

Your association may already have learning in its purview, but there’s a major opportunity afoot to expand how and when you deliver it. 

While a small portion of people said they’d turn to a college or university for learning, our research found that the vast majority—80%—expressed some interest in pursuing additional skills in the next year. Another one of our studies, done in 2021, found that 78% of U.S. adults were interested in external training. Yet uptake lagged way behind at just 17%.  

Two of the biggest barriers to training are time and money. Your association could offer bite-sized, affordable content to reach that subset of prospective learners who otherwise feel that learning is inaccessible. There’s a huge demand for skills development, but that demand is going unmet by all kinds of providers—for now. 

2. Maybe You’re Not Outfitted for Learning—Yet

Monetising learning isn’t easy; if it were, everyone would already be doing it. 

There’s a lot that goes into it that your association may not be equipped to deal with yet: 

  • market research to determine what members and non-members want 
  • knowledge assessment to determine what your association can deliver 
  • course design to make it valuable to learners and andragogically sound 
  • technology stack assessment to determine the right way to deliver the content 

These are just a few examples of the puzzle pieces required to put together a successful learning program. And while complicated, the investment is worth it because of the potential return on investment

One organisation that knows all about quickly getting outfitted is the International Municipal Signal Association (IMSA). Before 2020, they brought in between 65% and 70% of their international revenue through in-person exams. They were forced to quickly pivot to an online model. 

“We’re a 124-year-old organisation, and many of our members like to stick with a tried-and-tested approach,” executive director Toby Cummings explained. “Nevertheless, we’re excited to see that 90% of our sections are already planning to use the platform and we’re keen to hear their feedback.”

The COVID-19 pandemic served as a catalyst for this change, but now that the IMSA has undertaken it, they have exciting ambitions for the future. 

“We’re using 10% of what the platform can do to provide online classes for certification, but we want to evolve and help our volunteers teach the next generation of people who are coming into this trade,” Cummings said. “A full-scale apprenticeship or education program could be the next step on our road map.” 

3. Maybe You Don’t Know Where to Start

The reality is that there’s no playbook for your association to roll out professional development opportunities. 

There are best practices that you can lean into, but there’s not necessarily a lather-rinse-repeat formula for success. At the end of the day, each learning program needs to be tailored to meet each association’s needs. Do your members need you to provide full accreditation? Are they more interested in optional upskilling opportunities? Is your industry facing pressure to adjust or re-tool? 

Each of those options will require a different approach. In each case, there’s an opportunity to create and deliver excellent content. But there’s also a significant challenge. 

Write Your Own Playbook

There may not be an existing playbook, but we’ve got some free resources to help you get started on your own. Who knows—maybe that could be a future revenue driver in and of itself. 

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Table of Contents

  1. The Case for Associations to Lean Into Learning
  2. Associations Face Some Barriers
  3. Write Your Own Playbook