Associations know they need to sunset obsolete offerings, but it can be a complex and difficult process.

Making the choice to retire a program or product is seldom a straightforward task, often met with apprehension and opposition. Key stakeholders who played a significant role in its inception may be hesitant to relinquish it, while staff members may worry about the stability of their positions. Furthermore, determining the true efficacy of a program or product requires careful evaluation, adding another layer of complexity to the decision-making process.

One thing is clear: Moving forward with sunsetting programs or products can be a challenge and, if you’re experiencing it at your association, you’re not alone.

According to an early-June text poll conducted by Avenue M, an overwhelming majority of associations–78 percent–said they offer a program or product that should be phased out but there’s resistance to end it, only 17 percent said they don’t, and 4 percent were unsure or didn’t know.

When asked what kinds of roadblocks they encountered when trying to phase out programs and products, one executive in the majority, said, “Too many board members have a conflict of interest and are–or have been–involved in the project. These members have influence and cannot separate their passion about the projects and what’s best for the future of the association.”

One CEO, who answered yes, said their association is “currently conducting a comprehensive analysis of all programs with costs, usage data, etc.” They will then “evaluate this against a set of criteria and benchmarks.” Another CEO, who also said yes, pointed to the “board of trustees’ resistance to change, especially presidents who don’t want to make changes during their term because they don’t want to be seen as the bad person.”

However, not everyone is experiencing difficulties. President & CEO of the Club Management Association of America Jeff Morgan, FASAE, CAE, said CMAA does not need to phase out programs and products. “Our strategic plan pushes us to continually evaluate what we are doing for our members through our member involvement on committees beyond just the board. To make room for new things we need to clean out the old. It is part of our culture,” Morgan explained.

While it can be challenging to get buy-in on making these critical organizational changes, there are solutions. When associations face pushback on phasing out programs or products, they should take a strategic approach to address the concerns and navigate the situation effectively.

 Questions to Ask Before Cutting, Expanding, or Creating New Products, Programs, or Services

  • Does it align with the association’s mission, vision, and strategic priorities?
  • Who/what is our competition?
  • How much does it cost? (e.g., staff time, direct costs, volunteer time)
  • Does it generate revenue, cover its costs, and/or bring in surplus?
  • Does it add value for our members, our larger community, and/or meet the needs of our customers?
  • Have we already explored and realized all efficiencies?
  • Have we reduced complexity and looked at alternative ways to deliver?

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Suggestions for evaluating and possibly sunsetting a product or program:

  1. Identify a common purpose that everyone can agree upon.
  2. Engage, listen, and empower experts on a topic. This may include subject matter experts (SMEs), consultants, or staff.
  3. Collect usage data and conduct research. Convene key stakeholders for a brainstorming session on leveraging additional resources. Highlight the importance of not missing an opportunity because of resources being allocated to an outdated product or program that no longer provides value to a significant audience segment.
  4. Be transparent in your communications. Clearly explain what you are doing and why.
  5. Show empathy and understanding. When a program or product is sunsetted, there will be some members or volunteers who might take it personally if they championed the project in the past.

For more insights on effectively phasing out programs and products, read Avenue M’s quick summaries of the following resources and click the links below.
Too Many Projects: How to Deal With Initiative Overload
Being effective strategically requires organizations to stop doing things that don’t align with their goals. However, many struggle to let go, leading to lower productivity and engagement.

Initiative overload happens because of various reasons like not realizing the impact, multiplying effects, politics, unfunded demands, focusing only on costs, and resistance to change.

To tackle this, leaders should evaluate current initiatives, set priorities, introduce sunset clauses, review resource allocation annually, and assure everyone that phasing out initiatives is not a failure. By making smart cuts, organizations can achieve more in the areas that truly matter.

When Is It Time to Sunset a Product?
Associations struggle to discontinue outdated offerings despite excelling at launching new ones. That’s why managing the portfolio with a focus on member needs and goals is crucial.

Differentiating between growing, maturing, and declining products is challenging, especially with a diverse portfolio and multiple stakeholders. That’s why many associations borrow business practices—including sunsetting—to evaluate and phase out unprofitable or irrelevant offerings, and embrace change that will lead to organizational success.

The article offers tips on trimming down, using a start-up mentality, and effectively communicating the change to all stakeholders.

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Contributors: Sheri Jacobs, FASAE, CAE & Lisa Boylan
Image: Sheri Jacobs, FASAE, CAE