by Lisa Grimaldi | August 01, 2010

Like most segments of American business, that niche of nonprofit entities known as associations continues to suffer the effects of a sluggish economy. According to a survey of association executives conducted earlier this year by ASAE (formerly known as ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership), more than a third of respondents anticipated their organizations' total revenues would decrease in 2010; more than half thought the economy would lead to a decrease in membership revenues, and 44 percent expected a drop in attendance at their largest meeting.

In lieu of such dire projections, what's an association to do?

"The real area for growth for mature U.S.-based associations is overseas," says Terrance Barkan, CAE, founder & CEO of GlobalStrat, an Alexandria, Va.-based firm that develops international strategic plans for groups. "Some economies, like those of Brazil and India, continued to grow throughout the recession in North America and can offer a huge amount of opportunity."
While the benefits are tantalizing, extending a group's reach over long distances and multiple time zones is a complex process involving a thoughtful strategy, a lot of patience and challenging logistics. Following, industry pros offer tips and insights on going global.

Plotting a strategy Expanding internationally is "an intricate process that will be different for every organization," notes Kevin Baliozian, a director at Chicago-based association management firm Smith Bucklin. But proceeding carefully and making sure growth will fit the association's mission and strategic plan are musts for any group.

There are many compelling reasons for organizations to consider reaching beyond U.S. borders, the most obvious being financial: By increasing members, associations can collect more dues. But global expansion can provide other ways to boost the bottom line. "It's about seeing value, not just in members, but in other nondues revenue sources that may be tapped out domestically -- ads, meeting registration and trade shows," says Carolyn Lugbill, CAE, president of Going Global Matters, a Fairfax, Va.-based consulting firm for international associations.

International expansion also can increase a professional society's prestige and brand, notes John Graham, CAE, president and CEO of ASAE. Associations, typically in the fields of medicine, science and engineering, publish scholarly journals and seek input from top professionals from around the globe. For example, fully 70 percent of the members of the Chicago-based International Bone and Mineral Society are from outside the United States.

Another lure for expansion: Many organizations offer industry-specific training and certification programs that demonstrate proficiency in a field and are recognized internationally. These credentials have a natural market overseas, particularly in developing countries, says Graham. The Newtown Square, Pa.-based Project Management Institute, for example, offers five certifications, including the PMP (Project Management Professional), which have been earned by PMI members from 185 countries. Similarly, Site, the Chicago-based association for incentive travel professionals, offers the CITE (Certified Incentive Travel Executive), which has been achieved by members as widespread as Kenya, Portugal, Germany and Guatemala.