The 8 Secrets of Longevity: How Organizations Last 100+ Years

Summary: Long-term survival for membership associations, non-profit groups, and other membership organizations is not a matter of luck. Over the years, successful organizations have discovered these eight secrets that contribute to their longevity and success.

About an 8-minute read. 

What does it take for an organization to last a century?

Some may scoff at that suggestion, saying they're more concerned about surviving the next fiscal year than about what will happen a hundred years from now.

But how well you manage your organization during tough times goes a long way in determining its longevity. It’s those small and seemingly mundane decisions that will determine your organization’s true character and endurance. Ultimately, what you do today will reveal the likelihood of your organization lasting long after you and your current team are pushing up daisies.

We’re all familiar with member-based organizations like the Rotary Club or the American Medical Association (AMA). These, and many other time-tested organizations have been around for over a hundred years. And they've successfully adapted and aligned themselves to the needs and goals of their members, proving that they have what it takes to survive and thrive in today's ever-changing world.

So, what are the secrets to longevity?

After a few decades of working with all types and flavors of membership groups, alumni organizations, and non-profits, I’ve seen it all. Well, maybe I haven’t seen it all, but I’ve seen more than most.

I’ve seen amazing leaders and leaders that were not-so-amazing. I’ve seen organizations that just seem to get it. And then I’ve seen others that struggle with basic functions like member management, fundraising, marketing, and communications.

Through it all, I’ve learned that successful organizations have somehow embraced all or most of the following eight secrets to longevity:

Secret #1: Successful Organizations are Adaptable

Artboard 21Organizations that tend to resist change will likely struggle to adapt to new things like technologies, important trends, and shifting market conditions. It all leads to a lack of relevance in the lives of your members. Most organizations aren’t always boasting about how adaptable they are, but they have somehow embraced adaptability and etched it into their cultures.

These organizations have the ability to know how to adjust their focus ever so slightly, so it stays relevant to their members. They seem to know how to identify and embrace the important trends, but they also know which trends are temporary distractions that may distance their organizations from their core mission.

Secret #2: Successful Organizations Have Leaders with Empathy and Humility

From senior leaders all the way down the chain to junior workers, these organizations have hired team members who already possess these important traits, or are otherwise willing to learn them. Organizations that embrace humility and empathy aren’t led by leaders who are milquetoast or mousy. Likewise, team members aren’t just blind followers, nor are they paralyzed by timidity and indecision. No, leaders and team members are accomplished, savvy, and intelligent, but they also possess enough humility to know they don’t need to have all the answers. They’ve learned to trust and lean on each other, and they’re not threatened by the success of others on their team.

In conjunction with humility, successful leaders are genuinely capable of understanding the feelings and experiences of others, and it translates to cultivating a healthy workplace. This Harvard study reveals the critical importance of empathy as a leadership skill. “Empathy is a skillset that begins with building a level of self-awareness” the study claims. It includes “possessing insight into one’s own thoughts and communication skills. When leaders manage their teams with empathy, they are able to address many of the common challenges employees feel, including burnout, complacency, distrust, and a lack of resilience.”

In the realm of successful membership organizations, leaders with a healthy dose of humility and empathy are also likely to hire other leaders and team members that share these important traits. Leaders are also better suited to seek out criticism and contradicting opinions, which can spark trust and banish many of the theatrics associated with less healthy organizations.

AdobeStock_321004065 - risk yin yangSecret #3: Successful Organizations Cultivate an Entrepreneurial Spirit

I’ve found that having a risk-taking, entrepreneurial spirit exists in nearly all successful organizations I've encountered. However, for reasons far too complicated to discuss here, I’ve also come across leaders who are so risk-averse that it hinders their organization's growth and success.

Yes, organizations must steward their revenues with great care. But wise risk-taking leads to innovation. Membership organizations that do not innovate may struggle to remain relevant and appealing to their members.

Lack of innovation often leads to the organization falling behind with new technologies, making it difficult for the organization to remain relevant and competitive in the digital age.

Secret #4: Successful Organizations Embrace Member Feedback

Successful organizations understand the importance of asking for and embracing member feedback. They recognize that their members are a valuable source of wisdom, insights, and ideas, and actively encourage them to participate in decision-making processes. By giving members a voice and making them feel heard, these organizations create a sense of ownership and investment in their success.

Unfortunately, not all membership organizations prioritize member feedback. Some simply go through the motions of soliciting feedback without truly listening or taking action on that feedback. When members feel neglected or ignored, they start to question the relevance of the organization in their lives. Gradually, their interest and engagement wane, leading to a decline in member retention rates.

Secret #5: Successful Organizations Cultivate a Powerful Sense of Community

Cultivating a robust sense of community takes time and effort, but the payoff is worth it. Take for example the American Medical Association. It has fostered an intimate sense of belonging among its physician members for over 170 years. Their members are encouraged to interact with each other, and even complain about the AMA publicly without the threat of being punished. Giving members a chance to connect and engage with one another has positioned the AMA as the most trustworthy source for peer-to-peer collaboration between physicians. By providing ample opportunities for members to connect and engage with each other, you can build a real, meaningful, and supportive sense of community.AdobeStock_358792937 - community building

However, building a sense of community cannot be fostered without having a shared purpose and mission that members can rally around. If your organization is engaged in programs that don’t directly reflect your mission, members will abandon your organization because of the dissonance. Focus on mission-critical programs, or else risk a revolt of your members who feel disenfranchised or disengaged by your shifting focus.

Secret #6: Successful Organizations are Profit Minded

I’ve encountered far too many leaders that have a lack of business acumen or are otherwise averse to running their organization like a profitable business. Strangely, I’ve encountered some leaders who consider “profit” to be a dirty word… or at least a dirty concept. They don't seem too concerned about increasing the percentage of income as compared to their expenses. Some are uncomfortable discussing their organization’s finances, even with their staff.

Profitability, in the corporate world, is being mindful of revenues and expenses. I know I know… a 501 (c )(3), or most types of charitable, member-based associations or not-for-profit organizations can’t technically make a profit. But that doesn’t mean leaders can ignore or neglect income streams, expenses, competition, waste, productivity, labor costs, etc.

For the successful organizations I’ve encountered, there is no shame in being profit-minded. While they may not use the word “profit,” and opt for more traditional terms like “revenue” or even “ROI,”  what they all have in common is they have a very business-like approach when it comes to managing their finances. They eagerly seek to diversify their income streams. They aren’t sloppy with financial audits, and they maintain a solid, realistic budget and financial plan. They plan well for contingencies. They’re adept at forecasting and monitoring the organization's finances. Organizations that have survived over time have also invested in hiring highly skilled people who truly understand the unique demands of non-profit finances.

Secret #7: Successful Organizations are Committed to Delivering Added Value

Artboard 2@2xWhy do we hear so much about organizations needing to always add value for their members? It comes down to building trust. Trust leads to engagement and retention. The journey towards establishing unwavering trust with your members in many ways hinges on the value you deliver. This extends beyond the customary products and services aligned with your mission – those are a given. I’m talking about adding value in ways that your audience believes they are getting something of value without any strings attached. They should feel as though they are getting the most from their relationship with your organization.

But you can’t just throw out a bunch of hyped-up benefits that don’t offer much value and aren’t personally relevant to your members. For a member benefits program to be truly motivating, it must be personally relevant to your audience. And that means delivering on each of these four components:

  1. The benefit solves a common challenge or problem.
  2. The benefit’s value is compelling and memorable.
  3. The benefit is nearby, or at least easily accessible online.
  4. The benefit is unique to your organization and unavailable to the general public.

These elements of personal relevance are critical when it comes to choosing any type of association member benefit. But don’t take my word for it. Numerous studies emphasize the pivotal role of personal relevance in advertising, communication, and persuasion. (While I won't bother you with all the intricate details, you can check out this study which offers peer-reviewed research showing why personal relevance is so potent in driving engagement.)

Although I admit that I have a slight bias towards a particular membership discount program that fulfills all the above criteria, the bottom line is this: organizations that prioritize providing valuable and personally relevant benefits to their members tend to have a much longer lifespan compared to those that overlook their value proposition. 

Member Engagement Strategy: White Label Travel Portal

Secret #8: Successful Organizations Have Unwavering Integrity

Regrettably, we usually just roll our eyes when people or organizations behave in ways that lack integrity. We see it in government, the private sector, and in media, where leaders and organizations act in ways that are self-serving, deciding the ends justify the means.

Defining integrity can be a bit challenging, but here's a definition that I find helpful: integrity means being honest and keeping your promises, while also ensuring that your words and actions are clear and straightforward. It's about making sure there's no confusion between what you say and what you mean.

Acting with integrity can be a constant challenge for many organizations. It can often require careful reflection and perseverance, especially when legal implications come into play. Successful organizations demonstrate a strong commitment to tackling complex ethical issues and tend to be proactive in their approach. They not only put in the necessary effort to navigate these challenges, but they also embrace them openly and intentionally.

Robert Chestnut, General Counsel of Airbnb, and author of “Intentional Integrity: How Smart Companies Can Lead an Ethical Revolution” writes about why organizations must be purposeful and open about their ethical standards, “Silence about integrity creates ambiguities about right and wrong that make everyone uncertain, opening the door for the minority of people to rationalize selfish behavior. (Organizations that) do not think seriously about the critical element (of) integrity―are destined to fail.

Wrapping it up

Associations and nonprofit organizations must always be true to their core mission. However, the current business landscape is vastly different from even the past five years, requiring nonprofit leaders to lead and think differently than their predecessors.

While traditional benchmarks like financial stability, value proposition, and member/donor communication, remain important, the very definition of success has and will continue, to evolve. This shift in mindset isn't limited to the nonprofit sector alone; it extends to for-profit ventures and the public sector as well.

Likewise, the metrics used to evaluate your organization’s achievements, effectiveness, and uniqueness will continue to change. The points I've mentioned here aren’t an exhaustive list of attributes that make for a successful organization. But it’s a good start. My hope is that these insights will help spur important discussions among your team about how to extend your organization’s longevity.

I’d love to hear your feedback.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Topics: Member Benefits, member retention, member acquisition, member engagement, membership benefits packages, membership-organization, Membership Organizations, member loyalty, VALUE ADDED BENEFITS, membership benefits programs, member engagement ideas

Written by: Gary Toyn

For 25+ years Gary Toyn has helped organizations large and small improve their constituent/member acquisition, retention and engagement. He's a multi-published author, writer, and researcher.

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