CEO insights: how will the next 20 years differ from the last?

Arguably the most prestigious award for an individual within the membership sector, memcom’s Louis Armstrong CEO Leadership Award is unique and recognises true leadership of professional bodies, trade associations, membership charities and other not-for-profit membership organisations.


The 2019 trophy will be awarded this Thursday at the memcom membership excellence awards. Ahead of the ceremony, and in celebration of memcom’s 20th anniversary this year, we caught up with our six CEO finalists about the state of the membership sector – looking back over the last twenty years as well as future gazing into the next two decades on the potential opportunities and challenges that lay in wait… 


At the cusp of the new millennium, 1999 was a year full on optimism but underpinned with a little trepidation. In 2019 it feels like the balance has switched, especially on a topic that’s closest to my heart – the environment.

In 1999 we knew that climate change was a serious concern. Despite this it would be hard to argue that the last twenty years has been time well spent. We cannot afford to repeat this mistake in the next twenty. However, I draw a lot of hope from the focus on the new generation, many of whom were either not alive or too young to remember the optimism that the 21st century was meant to symbolise.

In twenty years many of our young people will be in positions of influence – much as we are now. As CEO, my role is to both lead and foster leadership so that we give this future generation a better environment, and keep empowering them to move forward. By working together 2039 should be the year where optimism dominates once more.

Alan Vallance, Chief Executive, Royal Institute of British Architects



The past decade or two has seen the association sector catch up with practice and philosophy demonstrated in other sectors: particularly around developing more business focussed or commercially driven strategies. While this has been challenging to some of our members, more used to an entirely ‘member’ focussed approach, it has reaped benefits in associations being able to grow and expand influence. Many associations have changed direction, collaborated with each other or made bold decisions. Some, however, may still struggle with seizing such opportunities. The future, however, looks full of opportunity as our benefit in a ‘post-truth’ world is to bring professionalism and a sense of rationality to an otherwise noisy landscape. The value of professions, led by the sector, could see a golden age of respect and recognition in an age of disparate voices and opinions. Sharing best practice and innovation has always been a strength in the sector and this alone, demonstrates how positive the future is.

Andrew Burman, Chief Executive, British Dietetic Association



So, what is the biggest change in the professional body sector in the last twenty years? I’d like to say that we are no longer scared to use the word profit, that the need to have a commercial ethos, to generate revenue and to pay for the free stuff is taken for granted. That those of us who have joined this amazing sector, who love working alongside volunteers understand the need for a wide diversity of skills, knowledge and experience in our staff and in our governance network. That we no longer take our right to exist for granted, that we work each day to add value to our practitioners and ensure that when the invoice lands each year they want to pay. And, largely, all of this is true. But we cannot be complacent. Who know what comes next? We can never stand still and must be ready to evolve again as the world changes around us.

Anne Godfrey, Chief Executive, Chartered Institute Of Environmental Health



Looking back 20 years ago, the Royal Statistical Society had significantly fewer staff, and much more of the work was done by volunteer members. It is extraordinary to see what they achieved: they ran large conferences, organised our journals and events, and intervened in public life. The role of the staff back then was a small administrative secretariat. Life today is different. Our members – whether in academia, government or the private sector – seem busier in their professional lives than ever before, and so the time to give to the professional association has reduced, even if their dedication has not. At the same time across the sector we have seen the growth of a professional staff. Employees are no longer just administrators: they bring specialist skills in media, policy, event organisation or publications, and so today’s professional bodies are driven by a collaboration between the knowledge and skills of their members and their staff. Looking ahead 20 years, the key point is that none of our associations, no matter how venerable, have a right to exist. We have to show our relevance. Furthermore, for those bodies like the Royal Statistical Society that are charities, our primary purpose is public benefit, not member benefit. We will all need to continue to show how we work in service of society. This implies moving away from a transactional relationship with our members (you pay us a subscription and we give you stuff) to building a wider movement – you join us because you believe in our cause. For the Royal Statistical Society this means harnessing the power of data for social good. All of this needs to be done whilst re-developing our business models, to replenish old sources of income such as journals which may reduce with new kinds of funding, both commercial and charitable.

Hetan Shah, Executive Director, Royal Statistical Society



Looking back, membership has been the underpinning philosophy for associations. It is tried, tested and comfortable, like an old pair of slippers. The trouble with old slippers is that they fray, become threadbare and eventually fail. Could the same be true for associations built around the principle of membership? It seems almost sacrilegious to ask the question, but we must. In a world of increasing commoditisation, will people expect to be able to pick-and-mix the benefits and services they want rather than accept that one size fits all? As disruptive technologies change the world of work and alter traditional concepts of professional identity, it seems to me that associations cannot escape the inevitable deconstruction of membership. This should not be seen as a threat, more an opportunity to reimagine the purpose of belonging to an association in the 21st Century. After all, no one ever improved the world by allowing it to remain exactly the same.

Lee Davies, Chief Executive, Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys



Twenty years ago, we were told that the internet meant trade associations were doomed. With Government departments putting more and more on their new websites, why would anyone pay the trade bodies for their traditional role of collating and disseminating information when everyone could go direct to the source? We had to adapt, and show how the association added value beyond simple access, through expertise, interpretation, explanation and representation. As the generation of digital migrants is replaced by digital natives, who have never known life without the Web, we need to resist the temptation to give a greater priority to how we use technology than what we are using it for. I’m convinced that the fundamentals of what we do and how we can serve and benefit our members don’t change. The important thing is to understand how the delivery methods evolve and adapt to make it easy and relevant for members to engage.

Richard Lambert, Chief Executive Officer, National Landlords Association


Created to empower the leaders of today and the aspiring leaders of tomorrow, the annual memcom membership excellence awards are firmly established as a celebration of all that’s great in professional bodies, trade associations, membership charities and other not-for-profit membership organisations. The awards recognise the innovation, creativity and hard work which drives up standards in the membership sector and delivers increased value for its professions and society at large.

Tickets to this year’s award ceremony are now sold out. Tickets to this year’s memcom conference, taking place during the day on June 20th, can be purchased here.