We asked Neil Roskilly, Chief Executive Officer of the Independent Schools Association and one of the judges for the Association Excellence Awards his opinion on a few vital issues to do with association growth, engagment and matters of scale:


  • What are the most important issues currently facing associations?

Membership engagement in a time of change and uncertainty will be high on anyone’s list of important issues, and this will be particularly key for associations affected by issues of scale. Associations don’t grow smoothly, but reach tipping points where structures have to change if they are to engage effectively with all members. Such re-engineering isn’t just a technological challenge, but one of mindset and getting the right people on board. Key staff (and it’s ultimately about people) that got you to where you are now aren’t necessarily going to be the right ones for the years ahead, when different skillsets and approaches may be vital. But among the key questions that associations face is how do you know what’s needed, and do you have the courage to make the necessary changes?


  • What advice would you offer associations on how to overcome these issues?

It’s vital to have two things in your armoury. Firstly, a clear vision for the next five years, along with some strategic objectives that, if successful, will deliver on that vision. But this isn’t set in stone of course, as you need to constantly scan the horizon for new opportunities and remain agile enough to take advantage. Secondly you need to have a clear set of values that underpin what you do. My own organisation, the Independent Schools Association,  is a charity and membership association that’s existed for 150+ years. But we’ve doubled our membership in the last ten years by holding fast to our values of fellowship and support, and judging everything against those values. Associations are people organisations and innovation doesn’t always come naturally, but if you have a clear bellwether as you move forward, an inviolate set of principles for what you do and how you do it, you’ll grow and also resist the siren voices that might draw you to the rocks.

  • How have you successfully maintained and grown your associations membership?

In addition to a clear vision and an even clearer set of values, we’ve reached out to other organisations to see what we can learn. But this hasn’t been a case of just borrowing ideas and seeing if they will stick for us, but learning and adapting for our own environment, and innovating through joint project working. Few ideas are fully tranferable and adaption is key, just as trying and failing and learning from that failure is also important, with no ramifications or finger-pointing from others around. Reaching out to organisations that are very different from your own takes this a stage further, as often the most innovative sectors aren’t similar associations to yourselves. Developing your own champions in those organisations also helps to promote growth, as they’ll recommend you and promote you, often without you even knowing.

  • What commercial projects have really assisted in this?

Our online community is an example of scale. We operate a telephone and email help line for our members and our growth threatened to overwhelm that. But now members can post issues online and get instant replies of best practice from across the membership community. Our role then changed to one of technical moderation rather than direct support, ensuring that responses are accurate, appropriate and legal.

  • How has digitalisation impacted your association, both the work you do and how you engage with members?

The ISA Online Community is a good example of where technology has helped us to better serve members. But we take technology a stage futher by monitoring engagement, through the events we run and through training courses and conferences. If we find that a member isn’t as fully engaged as others, we carry out a pastoral visit to check that all’s well. We want members to use our services and not just display a badge of membership, so we have seven part-time workers who visit all members at least once a year. Their role is to make sure that members are happy, and are taking full advantage of the services we offer. Monitoring engagement and multiple levels allows us to do that, but we fall back on to face-to-face if engagement slackens for any reason.

  • As a judge for the 2019 Association Excellence Awards, why do you feel awards schemes such as the awards are valuable for associations?

Associations die if they don’t learn. There’s probably not a better way to spread best practice than to enter for an award and show the world what you do. Such recognition forms vital external verification for the organisation, but it also adds to the collective knowledge-bank of all associations. By working together in this way, we all become just a little better.