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What does it mean to build a purpose-driven organizational structure?

I don’t mean just aligning various departmental visions, or stamping down silos that might be blotting out communication in your existing organizational hierarchy. I mean actually creating a structure that is, from every angle, purpose-driven.

Answering this question has been an integral part of a radical, full-fledged business model transformation at my association. We are in the midst of a significant organizational re-structure, designed to bring the entire organization to a new place from which it can fully support our re-designed business model. This article is an attempt to provide the above question with a response, that covers both the structural considerations and their relationship with our business model redesign (with a heavy focus on digital transformation).

First, let's talk about structure.

Key to our purpose-driven structure are four teams that flow together, all working towards the same end. The teams are: strategy, content, acquisition and retention. The so-called "end in mind," these teams share staff and customer engagement.

With these teams, we are eliminating a number of silos (in fact, there will be fewer departments as they are traditionally understood, but I’ll get to that in a moment). Product and content development will be approached in a collaborative, well-prioritized, and holistic way. Associations traditionally build their organizational structures around products like: membership, events, education, certifications, publications, research, and more. Rather than building a structure around product lines and outputs we are building ours around delivering the best experience possible and meeting our members’ needs wherever they are in their professional journey. We believe this approach will concomitantly lead to improved staff and customer engagement.

While our structural concept may take some time to be completely integrated across our whole organization, we are taking deliberate steps in the direction of that destination. Ultimately, and getting to the core primary purpose of our new structure, we will align around doing one thing exceptionally well, and that is delivering much-improved member experiences and engagement – especially digitally. This translates to the core primary outcome for all of us on staff: member and customer retention.

So, what does this look like? In order to be highly aligned and coordinated across the organization, holistic in delivering a highly-engaging product of membership, and directed towards member engagement in all our efforts, we are replacing many (but not all) of the traditional association departmental distinctions with an efficient, agile team structure. We will still have several departments comprised of subject matter experts, talent management (HR), volunteer relations and accounting & finance, but a large portion of our association is being organized into four main teams, that operate with a continuous feedback loop between them:


This includes development and maintenance of the organizational strategy and the data, research and analysis used for decision-making. The team executes key services to the organization inasmuch as they relate to strategy, and it is the lead on helping us move toward agile product development. We will also build data and analytics capabilities that help us better understand what drives customer engagement and retention to support the aforementioned decision-making.


There are two layers of the content team, where ‘content’ completely combines publishing and education of all kinds. The first layer is an overall editorial council, composed of executives from across the entire organization, whose job it is to identify through research and feedback channels the major content themes we should be working on for the professional disciplines we represent. This council contributes high level guidance regarding the focus areas of the organization. The second layer is the content development team. Coalescing traditional departments like publications, events/meetings, certifications, and more, this team looks at the themes and guidance provided by the editorial council to ascertain how best to develop the thematic content for consumption, dissemination, and education. Together, this two-tiered approach is centered holistically on the ‘how’ of content decisions. The conversation becomes centralized and is about the best way to create and deliver content, rather than a compartmentalized, multi-pronged division of labor in which each department’s product-line interests are potentially competing.


This team operates as a marketing and sales engine, bringing members and business partners into our funnel, converting them into paying members and customers of the organization. This team covers both B2B and B2C relations, and focuses entirely on conversion.


The retention team works to continuously improve the experiences of our members and business partners in large part by offering customer-centric feedback to our strategy and content teams from both organic and purposefully-designed listening posts. We believe these customer feedback loops are critical to the four teams focusing on engagement. What’s more, we are taking as inspiration for our retention goals the first-year retention rate of tailored service companies like Amazon Prime and Netflix, which is in the 90s. This comparison, in fact, transitions us nicely into how the business model features in this digitally-focused transformation…


The Netflix business model is an all-inclusive one: customers subscribe to gain access to all Netflix content and services. Our organizational re-structuring has been designed so that we can provide, essentially, a Netflix-like digital experience as an association.

First, this means our members will not have to pay additional fees for online education, certification, communities, newsletters, or other digital products that – more often than not – are pay-to-play ‘extras’ in most association business models. To be frank and perhaps a bit critical of the traditional association model, we believe that trying to sell members “more products” from multiple product lines is inefficient, overly-expensive, a heavy burden on marketing and product development, and often results in a confusing and under-utilized array of products that are labeled as “member benefits” simply because members get a price discount compared to non-members. Simply put, we are of the mindset that multiple discounted products do not enrich the member experience. This approach will allow our product development to focus solely on those things that contribute to excellent experiences….not what will drive sales from multiple, independent product lines.

Further, Netflix offers a platform that is both easy and enjoyable to use. Easy, because it is highly personalized and responsive, and therefore extremely helpful for the consumer. Enjoyable, because the system is constantly being fed and nourished with new, interesting, personalized content. This is where we’re heading, too.

Finally, in building out this Netflix-like business model for our association, we are also changing how we think about value. If customers are not consuming a piece or type of content (remember: content in the broadest sense can be an article, newsletter, podcast series, certification, online learning, and more), under the terms of this customer-centric model we would stop producing it. The membership actions and usage/consumption/engagement metrics will drive our centralized content creation. This supports our move toward being completely purpose-driven and more entrepreneurial: if the member is not engaged, we will adapt to make their experience as valuable as possible.

As we evolve, our project teams will be designed to align with the strategy, content, acquisition and retention foundational structure. Any staff person can find themselves on a variety of teams, contributing their particular expertise; they will be able to connect the dots to map out the pathway of a project along the whole organization, and how the project contributes to our core purpose.

As I have said before, our organizational and digital transformation is primarily about member experience, where experience is defined by getting what you need in a way that is enjoyable and easy-to-use. While our new business model is focused on minimizing friction to help members get what they need with ease and enjoyment (like Netflix reduces friction for access to entertainment), our accompanying structural overhaul is built for heightened sensitivity to member experience – and driven efficiently by this purpose.

Sidecar Staff
Post by Sidecar Staff
March 12, 2019
At Sidecar, we create the professional development tools a leader needs to grow their career and their purpose-driven membership organization, like associations and nonprofits. The skills you’ll learn within our growing community, interactive workshops and from our step-by-step courses will drive innovation, empower strategic thinking and institute cultural changes wherever your career takes you.