Report on the Forum’s Benchmarking Study 2001\r\n

Executive Summary


The Trade Association Forum undertook the current Benchmarking Study in the autumn of 2001 to build on and update the previous exercises conducted in 1997 and in 1999. The purpose of all the studies has been to contribute to continuing improvement in the performance of trade associations by identifying elements of good practice which trade associations may wish to adopt and by illustrating how these are being applied in practice.

With this third study in the series there is also the opportunity to review the progress made by trade associations over a period of nearly five years. For continuity, each study has followed closely the format of the 1997 report, incorporating the analytical framework developed by Compass Partnership at that time and the good practice points identified within that framework. These have been restated and extended in the current report so that reference back to the earlier report should not be required.

The context in which trade associations operate is not static. There have been significant changes in government policies over the last 5 years and in the structures of government. The “two-speed” economy has affected different sectors in different ways. The context for trade associations and the targets to which they aspire are constantly moving and this is reflected in changes to the questionnaire.


With 101 participants, the sample for the 2001 Study is slightly smaller than for the 1997 and 1999 studies. However, there is a high degree of continuity with a majority having taken part in the previous studies and with broadly similar size distribution within the samples.

Key findings

Mergers – One of the key findings of the 1999 benchmarking study was the high level of merger activity expected. In 1999, 25% of respondents expected to merge in the next two years and 55% in the next five years. In practice this has not happened. In 2001, 8% of those who took part in the 1999 Study had merged in the last two years – less than half of those who had expected to. This may be due in part to the very real difficulties that can arise when trying to merge organisations. But it is also due to the emergence of a more complex pattern of collaborative activity. (§3.3.14)

Alliances – A key finding of the 2001 Study is the significant proportion of associations that have formed entered into formal alliances with other associations over the last two years. Some 23% of respondents have formed such alliances and these include many that had been contemplating mergers. When combined with those that have merged, a total of 31% of respondents are working more closely with other associations. There is also less formal co-operation on a range of issues. (§3.3.19, §3.3.20)

Subscription Income – It is clear that there is continuing pressure on subscription income for trade associations. A crude indicator is progress up through the subscription based size bands for the benchmarking studies, which have not been indexed over the last five years. Very few associations have progressed to a higher size band. For associations that took part in 1997 and in 2001, subscription income had risen overall by 10.5% in five years, a figure that conceals losses as well as gains. (§3.2.5, §3.3.3)

Membership – A comparison of membership numbers by association shows a slight decline between 1997 and 2001, due in part to mergers. There is also some evidence of a reduction in market penetration in certain cases, although recruitment figures overall indicate a broad balance between membership gains and losses. (§3.4.8, §3.4.20)

Staffing – Against this background staffing levels in associations have remained broadly static or declined slightly. There has however been a levelling up of salaries, both for Directors General and for second tier staff, particularly among small associations. At the same time there is some evidence of increasing attention to the quality and development of staff. Three-quarters of associations have staff appraisal systems in place (87% of large associations) while 80% also have strategic plans. The proportion of associations with Investors in People status, or with plans to work towards it, has increased from 40% in 1997 to 63% in 2001. (§3.3.7, §3.6.9, §3.6.15 –3.6.23)

Information Technology – The penetration of IT systems into most aspects of association work is now almost universal, with most association staff fully “connected”. This supports an increased level of electronic communication at reduced cost. There are also indications of other economies – e.g. on-line sales systems – and the beginnings of viable e-commerce applications. Fears that trade associations could be usurped by web-based commercial information providers do not seem to have materialised. (§3.6.25, §3.6.30)

Member involvement – Many associations have experienced difficulties in attracting suitable candidates to serve on the governing body (40%) or to serve as Chairman (32%), particularly among smaller associations. There is, however, an established trend away from permanent committees towards more flexible time limited working groups. (§3.5.24, §3.5.28)

1.1.1 Sector Skills – More than 50% of respondents indicated that they were linked to or worked with one or more NTOs. 32% of associations determined the skills requirements for the sector and 58% said that they promoted training standards for their sector. (§3.15.1)

Commercial income – Total turnover of associations has increased significantly since 1997, driven almost entirely by commercial activities. However, the net surplus from commercial activities is altogether more modest with an apparent reduction overall in the surplus generated – median surplus in 1997 of £46,000 reduced to £40,000 in 2001. Detailed comparisons over time show that some associations are doing better and others worse, for example where major activities such as exhibitions have had to be cancelled. The true profitability of commercial activities is an area that needs to be watched carefully. (§3.4.8, §3.4.20)


It is clear that running a trade association has not become any easier in the last five years. The operating environment has become more complex and the demands greater, with no increase in resources. Trade associations have had to adapt by working “smarter” as well as harder. This has included not only greater attention to staff development but also collaboration with other associations to increase effectiveness.

The full report can be downloaded in pdf format from the link below.

Richard Fairclough

Project Director

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