Associations as Innovation Catalysts

ASAE Research Foundation examined the unique opportunity for associations to serve as a catalyst for innovation in the industries, professions, and disciplines they serve-termed external or industry focused, innovation



Association Impact


Sustaining Association Value

Research Report (Anticipated release Spring 2022)

Becoming an Effective Innovation Catalyst: How Associations Can Foster and Support Innovation in the Industries, Professions, and Disciplines They

Research Objectives

Association leaders understand the importance of external innovation, but many struggle to capitalize on external innovation opportunities and to differentiate industry-focused innovation from their own internal innovation work.

In 2021, ASAE Research Foundation examined the unique opportunity for associations to serve as a catalyst for innovation in the industries, professions, and disciplines they serve—termed external, or industry-focused, innovation. The research sought to understand how associations can play a meaningful role to help industries become resilient (i.e., anticipate, cope with, or adapt to drivers of change), and the culture, capabilities, and association-proven practices to become an effective Innovation Catalyst.


The research objectives were pursued using a multiphase, multimethod research design. The research objectives were pursued using a multiphase, multimethod research design. 

  • Phase 1: An initial phase of the study encompassed individual interviews with select senior-level association executives representing industries, professions, or disciplines most affected by recent drivers of change to explore how and with what success associations are currently catalyzing innovation in their member-base and identify the broader challenges that associations face in doing so. 
  • Phase 2: A subsequent phase included a questionnaire-based survey of trade and professional association leaders to characterize the varied roles played in supporting or catalyzing external innovation; the nature of disruptive forces, or drivers of change, addressed; and the requisite culture, capabilities, and practices applied. 
  • Phase 3: The final phase comprised focus groups with select senior-level association executives to lead to the creation of a preliminary set of guidelines and recommendations for the association community for pursuing external innovation. This was accomplished through discussions about associations’ external innovation roles, culture, and capabilities, as well as the role of association board and executive leadership in providing strategic direction and promoting appropriate practices to ensure success.

Key Findings

Eight Roles of an Effective Innovation Catalyst

The research revealed eight possible roles for associations to help industry innovate:

  1. Futurist: Identify and interpret emergent external/internal disruptive forces/drivers of change and associated trends to industry
  2. Truth Teller: Study, articulate & communicate the changing (new) narrative of industry driven by a driver of change
  3. Big-Tent Convener: Adopt a "big tent" approach to drive structured dialogue on the new narrative of an industry driven by a driver of change
  4. Innovation Incubator: Serve as the R&D engine for an industry and incubate potential solutions
  5. Implementation Partner: Remove barriers to implementation of a solution in an industry through advocacy and other collaborative initiatives
  6. Rapid Action Force: Quickly assemble/deploy resources to help an industry cope with an ongoing crisis/challenge
  7. Best Practices Conduit: Employ existing initiatives to disseminate best practices in an industry to deal with a disruptive force or driver of change
  8. Learning Ecosystem Orchestrator: Build and lead an ecosystem for an industry to engage in shared, continuous learning

Association-Proven Strategies and Practices of an Effective Innovation Catalyst

Research findings show a proven set of strategies and practices associations can adopt to become an effective innovation catalyst. These strategies and practices address an association’s intention, actions, and organizational culture and capabilities. Some or all of the following may be useful to association leaders who are trying to help their industry innovate and adapt to drivers of change.

  • Be Intentional About External Innovation: Incorporate external innovation as part of your organization’s value proposition and set a strategic direction to promote it.
  • Be Proactive and Strategically Play an External Innovation Role: Choose among the Eight Roles of an Innovation Catalyst and focus on the three different stages of resilience—from anticipation to coping to adaptation.
  • Become Culturally Competent and Capable for External Innovation: Emphasize gathering and analyzing data, openness to new ideas and perspectives, and continuous and shared learning; build the capability to inform, organize, and support an industry.
  • Measure External Innovation Success Comprehensively and Holistically: Acquire a big picture understanding of how well your association’s efforts are helping an industry navigate change—to not just survive but thrive in the presence of drivers of change