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Build Your Business: Associations and Non-Profits Are a Growing e-Learning Market

by Ellen Behrens

November 16, 2009


by Ellen Behrens

November 16, 2009

Associations and non-profit organizations offer an excellent opportunity for providers of e-Learning products and services – if the providers approach them with understanding of the unique characteristics and challenges they present. Here are the key points to keep in mind if you are looking to expand your business in this area!

Looking for the next big e-Learning market?

ASAE and The Center for Association Leadership is “the association of associations” – an organization of 20,000 or so members committed to bringing “the most comprehensive collection of services and resources to association professionals.” Data from research they conducted in 2006 show associations planned to shift resources from face-to-face events to online learning and to grow the e-Learning sector as much as 27%. A separate survey on e-Learning in non-profits conducted in 2006 by Isoph/LearnSomething resulted in even higher numbers: 61% of respondents projected increases in e-Learning.

What’s more, the largest segment of potential growth is in associations least likely to have a fully dedicated education or professional development staff member. Of the nearly 7,000 associations reporting data in the ASAE report, the two demographic clusters reporting the highest expected increases in online learning were those with three-to-five and six-to-ten full-time employees. Of associations in the first category, only 13% have a fully dedicated education specialist on staff; of the larger-staffed organizations, 36% report having a fully dedicated education specialist. These studies also reveal that associations will staff finance, office management, membership/recruitment, and meeting planning positions before bringing aboard an education professional. In many cases, the meeting planner – whose specialty is handling logistics such as hotel contracts, food and beverage arrangements, and other details – is also responsible for overseeing the association’s educational content. When educational professionals are on staff, they generally have more experience in classroom training and facilitation than online learning, though this is slowly changing.

Here’s a final statistic: within a total of about 360,000 non-profits across the country, 7,500 trade associations are affected by a shift in training priorities to e-Learning. Education and cutting-edge training are usually essential to the mission of trade associations and professional associations.  

The opportunities for companies providing e-Learning products and services are vast, but before you jump blindly into the non-profit market, there are some things about these organizations you should know.

Associations and non-profits are not companies

 Associations and non-profits (terms often used interchangeably, which will happen in this article as well, though some associations are actually for-profit) are structured very differently than corporations, operate in unique ways, and have decision-making chains that are critical for you to understand if you wish to do business in this sector.

Referring to the client’s organization as a “company” is a habit you’ll need to break if you pursue non-profit business. Unless you’re approaching an association management company – in which case “company” is the correct reference – vet every telephone call script, RFP response, e-mail, and other contact with a potential non-profit client to ensure you don’t refer to it as something it’s not. Some organizations will toss out an otherwise excellent RFP response because the vendor referred to the association as a “company.” It sounds boilerplate and – quite honestly – demonstrates a level of ignorance about our sector that makes us wonder what else you might not “get” when doing business with us. The pen is mightier than the sword, words can start wars, and your off-hand reference can speak volumes about your lack of understanding about an organization and the broader world in which it thrives.

Associations and non-profits are not all the same

Associations and non-profit organizations have many striations. Trade and professional associations differ in their membership structure; charitable foundations differ from advocacy and other non-profit groups. While these distinctions might seem minor, they drive essential differences in their approach to education in general, and e-Learning in particular.

For example, because trade association members are institutions, with benefits extended to all individuals within those institutions, and professional association members join as individuals, different tactics are likely to be employed for promoting, registering, and recording learners, who will be accessing e-Learning in potentially very different ways. These differences in membership structure will also affect budgets, decision-making criteria, timelines, and other aspects of online learning.

The goals driving e-Learning will differ between associations and non-profits. While associations generally offer educational events as part of a mission to provide professional development to their members, large non-profits tend to use e-Learning for staff and volunteer training. Because most small non-profits operate on shoestring budgets, justifying investments in outsourced online learning is difficult and rare.

An organization’s Web site usually identifies the type of organization it is: guild, society, trade association, foundation, etc. Sometimes they’ll include their tax status (501(c)3 in the U.S., for example), which indicates whether an association can participate in lobbying, among other things. Companies that have long-term relationships with associations understand these distinctions and what they mean for the business they conduct.

Making a sale comes last

 “It’s all about relationships, not making the sale.” You’ve heard that before, but it’s more than a cliché when doing business with an association. Associations and non-profits understand relationships. It’s at the heart of what a successful association provides: networking and connections. If you doubt the power of personal interactions between associations and their vendor partners, just scan the Washington, DC, business environment: there’s a reason so many vendors locate themselves in the area where the majority of national associations are headquartered. This isn’t to say you need to be physically located in the DC area to do business successfully with associations, but it does point out how vital it will be that you establish and maintain close communication. When possible, in-person contact is still preferable to electronic interactions.

Associations are socially oriented. They are organizations that – if they do little else – usually offer at least one annual conference or convention. They understand the power of in-person engagement, of breaking bread together, of getting to know someone outside the office. When the economy took a dive in late 2008, many association leaders bit their nails to the quick wondering what that would mean for their annual conferences. They watched as members opted out of the smaller events while still attending the larger annual event.

If you ask members why they renew, they’ll tell you it’s because of the networking and relationships they’ve forged over time. The educational programs aren’t their primary benefit, nor are the association’s magazine or the possibility of winning an award. And although widely available, free social networking via the Web has put a serious scare into many associations; most members are finding it’s still easier and faster to connect to others through the usual association channels than to try to build a contact list that’s as robust as the one the association already offers.

The culture of associations is relationship-driven, and it’s important for you to accept and fit into that culture. If your company is sales-driven, if your CEO needs to see tangible, dollar-based results from your outreach, associations will be a source of frustration and disappointment. Prepare yourself for the long haul. Know you’ll need to invest countless hours and significant dollars before your efforts result in sales or signed contracts.

Associations are interconnected

Some of the tightest association connections exist among those that share members, and therefore actually compete with each other. An anomaly in the corporate world, it’s further evidence of the relationship-oriented nature of associations. For example, CHEMA (the Council of Higher Education Management Associations) is comprised of several associations whose members are all institutions of higher learning. Many of their members overlap, so they compete for membership and program registration dollars, calendar time, and volunteer resources. Yet they find great value in connecting with each other to share best practices and undertake joint projects that will benefit all of them at lower cost.

Many other associations are in contact through less formal means. ASAE and The Center for Association Leardership, The Center for Non-Profit Advancement, and other organizations provide listservs, conferences, events, and directories of members that keep association leaders in touch with each other and able to reach out for advice, recommendations, and referrals.

While many associations rely on processes similar to those used by corporations for selecting vendors, others operate almost entirely on word of mouth: if their close contacts at other associations find a vendor satisfactory, then that’s enough evidence to call them up. Listserv posts for various ASAE groups often start with the words, “Can anybody recommend …?” Referrals and recommendations are common, but the opposite is true as well – offline suggestions to avoid particular vendors, products, or systems also burn through the Internet and light up phone lines.

Starting with one successful project and leveraging that relationship over time will help you gain credibility, benefit from word-of-mouth referral, secure an association reference, and make the connections you’ll need to attract the interest of other associations.

E-Learning is relatively new

The e-Learning stars have finally aligned for associations and non-profits: affordable, accessible technology means organizations that could not afford online learning in the past can now pursue it. Though many larger associations and non-profits, whose structure is most similar to corporations, have been offering e-Learning for some time, smaller organizations are now making their first tentative steps along the path.

More associations have been adding education or e-Learning specialists to their staffs over the last few years, so it’s important for you to find out who on staff is in charge of learning in general and e-Learning in particular. They might be different people, even in smaller organizations; this will depend on how e-Learning fits into their organization’s strategy and priorities.

You’ll discover a broad range of knowledge and experience related to online learning among education leaders. Some have deep e-Learning experience and knowledge; others think they are on the cutting edge but, in fact, don’t have the full picture of what’s possible. As mentioned earlier, many staff members in charge of e-Learning know only what other associations are doing, and generally speaking, most associations are familiar with the academic model (instructor-led, time-specific, blended delivery) and Webinars. They are less familiar with the asynchronous, instructor-embedded, stand-alone model used within corporations.

You’ll need to find out how much they know about e-Learning, and gracefully help them when you spot gaps in their understanding or information. Acronyms, such as “LMS,” that you think are commonly understood might be unfamiliar. Or you could be talking with an association that has an LMS and offers a range of sophisticated e-Learning programs, complete with pre- and post-testing, and embedded simulations. Resist the urge to make assumptions: you won’t know what’s in place until you ask.

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There is a big market for e-learning at associations, but keep in mind that associations like all businesses are cutting down on expenses. If they are to bring in consultants for e-learning, a very good business case needs to be developed to show that this investment will result in significant revenue.
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