How “Failing Fast” Can Lead Your Association to Innovation

We speak with association strategist Nikki Golden about the best way to approach failure, and how accepting the risk of failure leads to innovation.

By Jorge Luis Rivera, CAE, IOM

illustration of man about to fail

“All of us fail. Successful people fail often, and, worth noting, learn more from that failure than everyone else.” Seth Godin

When the excitement of launching a new program turns into a reality that it is not meeting expectations, the next best step may be a board recommendation for sunsetting. After endless planning, budgeting, and marketing, it can be difficult to throw in the towel.  Do you refrain from trying to recoup losses? How should you approach your membership with the news? And what are some lessons that can be learned when things go wrong? I asked Nikki Golden, Strategist with Association Laboratories, for some tips on how association professionals can best approach this topic. 

What mistakes should association professionals avoid when they have a program or planned event that has become a financial or general liability to the organization?  

Nikki Golden: I want to take a step back here and first say that one of the mistakes we make with association boards is we don’t give them room to fail, so that’s partially what keeps both innovation at a minimum as well as programs that are not successful from being sunset. 

That being said, lack of transparency is the No. 1 mistake associations make when sunsetting a program. First, the stakeholders using the program need to be informed it’s being sunset. Second, the association can use this as a moment to inform members of its decision-making process to foster a culture of innovation: “We created this program to respond to a member need of XYZ; this is how we created and promoted the program; this is however many people participated. Taking member reach and budgetary considerations into account, it was decided it’s best to free up these resources to allow for us to do XYZ for you.” This shows that there are concrete steps taken to make decisions about sunsetting programs and shows your members that there is consideration for how their dollars are spent. 

How should an AE approach their board members when canceling a program or event becomes an option? 

Nikki Golden: With data. Hopefully, the decision is made based on some level of data–which should include how many people have participated; the budgetary impact–profits and losses; how and where it’s been marketed; what tweaks have been made to the program or service along the way. And I would make sure the budget data includes not only hard costs, but also the soft cost of staff time and hours spent on the program. Because that’s often the tipping point–that a program being used by only a handful of members is taking up hours of staff time. 

It would also be valuable to share what your organization is planning to do with that time and money you free up so that the board has the full picture when making the decision.  

What approach do you recommend when communicating with the general membership? 

Nikki Golden: Personally reach out to stakeholders who are using the program if it’s ongoing. Otherwise, use it as a way to talk about how the association fosters innovative while responsibly managing resources. Use this opportunity as a way to instill that culture of innovation. Share data, not as much detail as you gave the board, but high level, and show how the association is going to use resources to do something else instead.  

Do you have any other advice for association execs when faced with a decision on whether to continue a program? 

Nikki Golden: There is one other consideration outside of data. If the program or service furthers the association mission even if it’s losing revenue, make sure that is part of the conversation. Sometimes associations do make a conscious decision to continue to fund a program at a loss because it’s putting them in front of a different audience, or because they’re partnered with an allied organization, or it’s furthering the organization’s mission in a way that other programs are not.    


Golden also noted that, during the pandemic, many associations were forced to adopt a fail-quick culture out of necessity. Doing so allowed the discovery of previously unrealized flexibility and efficiencies that enabled many organizations to listen and respond to member needs as never before.  It seems that in 2020, many companies were being innovative, but innovation doesn’t need to stop because the crisis has passed. While it is understandable to want to turn the page of that chapter in history, we needn’t wait for the next crisis to find innovation, even if it means we might fail. 


About the Author

Jorge is the director of membership development for the National Roofing Contractors Association and a member of Association Forum's Content Working Group.

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