Associations and Cathedral Thinking

The following article was first published in the June 2018 issue of the IFORS newsletter (

In my reads, I always try to pick up and write about interesting acronyms, buzzwords and ideas that I feel will resonate with and apply to associations, including this one, which I am sharing with you.

Author Rick Antonson considers himself as a “cathedral thinker.” He says cathedral thinking is about adopting the long-term view, doing things today that are important for generations, and knowing that you will be involved in an unfinished work. It sounds like this concept can be relevant to associations, too.

The concept of cathedral thinking, he elaborates, stretches back to medieval times when architects, stonemasons, and artisans laid plans and began the construction of soaring and cavernous structures that would one day serve as places of worship, community gathering spaces, and safe havens. Those who began such work knew they’d never live to see their task completed. Yet, their actions kept the living generation tethered to the future.

The concept of thinking that these “cathedral builders” did, in Antonson’s mind, is synonymous with long-term planning.

Cathedral thinking has since been applied to space exploration, city planning, corporate mandates, and other long-range goals that require decades of foresight and preparation so future generations can enjoy their full realization. Though there are many instances in which cathedral thinking can be applied, they all require the same foundation: a far-reaching vision, a well-thought-out blueprint, and a shared commitment to long-term implementation.

I think association leaders (boards and managers) should, likewise, be cathedral thinkers. Associations are there for the long haul because of their strategic purpose, cause and advocacy. As defined, associations are organizations or groups of individuals affiliated with one another, who share a common purpose, interest or mission, and exist for the mutual enrichment and advancement of their membership. Members will come and go, but the association’s reason for being will live on for a long time. Here are my cathedral thoughts for associations:

  • Association’s purpose—Ensure that the association’s “why” (e.g., why it does what it does, why it exists, and why it serves a higher purpose) is crystal clear and timeless.
  • Associations as communities—Build the association around the concept and strategy of a community where members know each other, help one another, and celebrate together.
  • Associations’ additionality role in society—Create offerings and activities that enrich lives (e.g., volunteerism), nurture competitiveness (continuing education, industry standards, research) and impact the economy (enterprise development, product innovation).

So, what is your cathedral thought for your organization?