Plight of the Industry Association

Jeff English

AAgriculture is settling in for a tough road ahead. Fluctuating commodity prices, rising land values and input costs, logistical challenges, growing global hostility free trade, and now the onset of COVID-19 are all rightfully weighing on the entire value chain. The weight of these challenges is borne by the entire value chain, but farmers, who cannot pass on added costs, arguably take on an unfair share.

No set of organizations better understand this than ag associations. Producers pay (mandatory) levies into these associations and rightfully deserve to have a say into each group’s priorities. As producers look to cut costs, they are demanding more value and transparency into their mandated check-off organizations. As such, there is unprecedented pressure on these groups to demonstrate value to their members.

It is natural for groups to fall into certain traps that go along with the challenges of serving a diverse group of stakeholders. There is a commonality among challenges facing industry associations today that, once made aware, can be easily avoided with the right plan in place.

First off, every association juggles a similar set of stakeholders including growers/producers, industry members/corporations, various levels of governments, international customers and consumers in general. While changing stakeholders isn’t really on the table, prioritization of stakeholders can be key to determining how each association proves its value. Many associations fall into the trap of trying to serve each stakeholder group equally. This is not a sustainable approach to member relations, as the reality is that there are certain stakeholders who should demand more attention from the association at any given time. It is also possible for associations to prioritize based on what group is asking for the most attention. This “squeaky wheel” model can be useful during certain instances but leads associations to act in a reactive manner, constantly focusing on putting out fires, rather than pursuing a proactive agenda that leads to a higher value to stakeholders overall.

At Think Shift, we believe that associations must be more intentional about defining their “focus of constituency” in a manner that matches private companies. By prioritizing constituencies and being clear on “who we’re for”, organizations bring clarity to staff, board members and members overall about how the organization will engage (or not engage) on different issues and with different stakeholders.

Secondly, the role of the industry group can easily become blurred from one of stewardship to one of service. An association whose focus is on service suggests that they are ultimately a servant to stakeholder desires. This can present challenges as time is spent focusing on niche issues that may not be serving a high purpose. Industry groups have been created to move their respective commodities forward, growing awareness and demand. They have been entrusted to guide their respective industries toward a better tomorrow. Ultimately, this can create scenarios where an industry association is at odds with certain members on any given issue.

The solution to avoiding a purely service-based relationship is to create one of stewardship. Our Stewardship model at Think Shift focuses on three separate responsibilities: protection, preservation, and enhancement.

Associations are ultimately responsible for the protection of its stakeholders and industry, ensuring that no harm is done or that harm is mitigated as quickly and as effectively as possible. Though uncomfortable, this sometimes means protecting them from themselves.

The preservation of stakeholders and the industry overall seeks to ensure that they are provided the proper care and support to maintain their current wellbeing. Enhancement of stakeholders and the industry speaks to the broader vision, ensuring that the appropriate leadership and guidance is provided to grow and progress beyond their current state.

Yes, ag is in for a tough road ahead. But among the fray, associations that are not only aware of these challenges but follow a plan to mitigate them will be well served to advance their industry.

Learn more about the top seven trends in agrimarketing to help your organization grow. Learn More

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