As this strange, unsettling year draws to an end, news reports show some AARP members burning their membership cards to protest the association's support for a controversial Medicare reform bill, which was narrowly passed by Congress as we went to press. AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons, says the bill is the best shot at getting better prescription benefits for seniors. Some of those who disagree say the association is backing the bill because of provisions that support private insurance for seniors as an alternative to Medicare — provisions that will benefit AARP financially. AARP receives more than $150 million each year in commissions on insurance, mutual funds, and prescription drugs sold to its members, according to Paul Krugman, a columnist for The New York Times.
“Once an advocacy group becomes as much a business as a service organization, its executives are likely to start identifying more with industry interests than with the groups they are supposed to serve,” Krugman wrote in the Times on November 21.
Whether Krugman's take on AARP's motives are accurate or not, his comment that member service — not revenue generation — should be the mission of advocacy groups, struck me as cogent and timely.
Over the past decade, there has been a lot of talk about how associations need to emulate businesses in streamlining operations and decision making, and, in general, being more efficient with resources and financial management. The amazing procession of corporate fiscal scandals that have surfaced recently certainly calls into question the idea of using corporations as role models for not-for-profit entities — which have had their share of scandals as well. Nonetheless, successful corporations know how to be nimble when it comes to responding to changing customer needs and marketplace conditions, and many associations, bogged down as they often are in governance issues, can learn a lot from businesses about being fleet and responsive. But at the end of the day, the primary mission of associations must be serving members, not making a buck.
Member needs should drive the revenue opportunities for associations and their meetings and trade shows. Easy to say but often hard to do. Planners know that executive leadership is often sadly out of touch with member dynamics. How many times, for example, has a meeting location been driven simply by a board decision? And how many times have a meeting's revenue opportunities trumped member interest? Too often, judging from the association events I attend.
Let's hope AARP is making the right decision for the right reasons. If not, AARP will become tomorrow's object lesson in how the primary mission of associations — to serve member needs — must never be trumped by lucrative economic interests.