Recession-Proof Your Association: Strategies for Sustainable eLearning Revenue

September 18, 2023
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With storm clouds of economic uncertainty on the horizon, associations must future-proof for the inevitable rainy days ahead. Building resiliency against market volatility begins with adopting an “evergreen” approach to your education offerings and delivery. This involves transitioning from one-off courses and events to sustainable learning pathways and credentials that provide recurring value.

By diversifying into certifications, micro-credentials, and innovative content packaging, you can generate streams of resilient eLearning revenue. An evergreen model focuses on scalable automated systems, flexible incremental learning, and promoting loyalty—key to weathering any downturn.

In this blog, we’ll explore strategies for making your education offerings recession-proof by transforming them into always-on, self-sustaining products. You’ll learn how to shelter your association from declining dues and keep the lights on through recurring non-dues eLearning income.

The Evergreen Business Model

If you’ve worked in the business world, you’ve likely already heard of an evergreen business model. An evergreen business model is built to sustain itself and continue generating revenue year after year, without large amounts of ongoing efforts. This allows the business to be profitable and productive sustainably over the long-term.

The key tenets of an evergreen business model are that it:

  • Addresses an enduring need or demand in the market that is unlikely to go away. For example, a business selling basic consumable products like food.
  • Has products or services that customers want to purchase repeatedly over time, creating predictable recurring revenue. Software with monthly or annual subscriptions is a good example.
  • Leverages systems and processes that are automated and scalable, reducing the need for excessive manual labor to keep the business running. Think online courses or information products.
  • Requires minimal maintenance and upkeep costs to maintain profitability. A digital SaaS company has far lower overhead than a traditional brick and mortar store.
  • Be resilient to external events and market fluctuations.
  • Has diverse revenue streams and multiple customer segments to mitigate risk if one area sees lower sales.
  • Focuses on retention of existing customers rather than constantly needing to acquire new customers.

During uncertain economic times, building out an evergreen business model to generate non-dues revenue is essential. Associations can easily apply the principles of an evergreen business model to their learning and education programs to generate sustainable non-dues revenue streams—and we’ll share how!

Staying Evergreen: Creating Non-Dues Revenue with Learning Content

The first step is developing learning content and courses that focus on building essential, in-demand skills for their membership base. Evergreen subject matter that will remain relevant over an extended period. For example, foundational skills like leadership, communication, and team management tend to have enduring utility across roles and industries.

You likely already have some of this content already created or accessible, and if not, Blue Sky eLearn has the resources to help you create engaging, evergreen content specific to your industry (click here to learn more!)—but creating content? That’s just the beginning.

Where many associations struggle is packaging the learning content they create in a sustainable, scalable, revenue-generating way. It goes without saying that having a learning management system (LMS) as the home base for all your learning content is a must.

To support an evergreen business model your LMS must:

  • Be able to scale with your organization;
  • Offer built-in eCommerce functionality and reporting;
  • Integrate with your core business tools, like your association management system (AMS);
  • Make it easy for your audience to find and purchase learning products

Once your content and content delivery system (your LMS) are in place, it’s time to package your content and create learning products.

Packaging Learning Content: The Good-Better-Best Model

The good, better, best model is traditionally a tiered pricing strategy that offers customers multiple levels of a product or service at different price points. The main components of this model are:

Good: This is the basic or entry-level offering. It provides core functionality or value at an affordable price point.
Better: This is a mid-tier offering with extra features, capabilities or quality compared to the good option. It carries a medium price point.
Best: This premium offering packs the most robust features set, highest quality or maximum value. It is priced the highest among the tiers.

Many businesses across a wide range of industries adopt the Good-Better-Best model to appeal to a wide range of customer needs and budgets. The Good-Better-Best model can:

  • Encourage upgrades or upselling from lower to higher tiers over time
  • Maximize revenue by capturing different price sensitivities
  • Lower barriers to entry with the "good" option to attract new customers
  • Simplify the purchasing decision by limiting choices to three clear options

Associations can leverage it effectively for packaging educational offerings to their members or non-members. For example:

The Good-Better-Best Learning Content Model
  • Learning Content
  • Learning Content or Product Bundle of Learning Content; AND
  • Assessment and Certificate
  • Learning Content or Product Bundle of Learning Content;
  • Assessment and Certificate;
  • Virtual Coaching Session; AND
  • Networking Opportunities

Another possibility is using the Good-Better-Best model to package educational offerings from a conference or event:

The Good-Better-Best Learning Event Model
  • In-Person Conference
  • In-Person Conference; AND
  • Access to Recorded On-Demand Content
  • In-Person Conference;
  • Access to Recorded On-Demand Content; AND
  • Site Subscription

Productizing Your Content: Creating Evergreen Education Products

As we mentioned earlier, the evergreen business model includes products or services that customers want to purchase repeatedly over time, creating predictable recurring revenue. They continually address essential needs of their target market, and sales remain resilient in the face of economic challenges.

When it comes to education, certifications and industry-recognized certificates are two great examples of valuable evergreen products that associations can offer. Here’s the difference between the two:


Certifications typically signify that you successfully passed an exam, and a certificate was issued upon demonstrating mastery or competency. Standards for certification may be set through a defensible industry-wide practice which can result in a designation and may require ongoing continuing education or maintenance.

Industry-Recognized Certificates

Industry recognized certificates typically represent that someone completed training or education or obtained new knowledge or a skill. They may not comply with any sort of standard at all. Industry-recognized certificates may be listed on a resume but is not a designation and there are no ongoing requirements.

Here are some strategies associations can use to turn certifications and industry-recognized certificates into profitable learning products:

  • Analyze skills gaps and workforce needs to identify high-demand topics for certifications and certificates to ensure relevance and appeal.
  • Break curriculum down into modules, shorter courses, or micro-credentials. This allows learners to complete targeted skills training and receive digital badges for each module mastered. The badges can stack up towards a full certificate over time.
  • Offer programs through a learning management system for wider access. Include options like self-paced courses, virtual instructor-led sessions, on-demand videos, and quizzes.
  • Structure programs with stackable credentials, allowing learners to progress through multiple certificate levels (beginner, intermediate, advanced), creating an ongoing learning path.
  • Develop supplemental exam prep study guides, practice tests, and assessments to support certificate attainment. These can be additional revenue sources.
  • Provide certificate bundles or discounted packages combining learning courses, materials, exams and credentials for turnkey solutions.
  • Partner with technology providers to issue verifiable digital credentials and badges upon certificate completion.
  • Offer continuing education opportunities related to certificates to maintain credentials over time.
  • Promote professional benefits of achieving certifications like career advancement, skills development, and peer networking.
Take It a Step Further with the Three x Three Model

The Three x Three Model refers to an approach for creating a series of short learning courses bundled together into credential packages. It involves:

  • Selecting 3 key topic areas or learning domains that are important for a role or industry. For example, communication skills, analytics, and management.
  • Developing 3 courses for each domain, resulting in 9 total courses. The courses should be short-form, such as 3 one-hour webinars.
  • Grouping the 3 courses within each domain into bundles that culminate in a micro-credential or certificate for that domain.
  • Offering the full package of all 9 courses across the 3 domains as a broader certification program.

The Three x Three Model creates learning pathways within each domain, leading to domain-specific credentials, as well as an overarching credential for completing all domains. The model allows associations to quickly develop stacks of aligned educational content. Learners can take customized paths focused on domains of interest and receive incremental credentials along the way. It's an agile approach for rapidly creating credentials of value that serve both learners looking for flexibility and those seeking an end-to-end program. The model provides associations a template for ongoing revenue from credential packages.

As we navigate uncertain seas ahead, future-proofing your association through an evergreen business model is key to stability and sustainability. With the strategies outlined today—diverse revenue streams, retention focus, flexible packaging and pricing, leveraging certifications and credentials—you can transform your educational offerings into products and services that provide recurring value.

The economic tides will always shift, sometimes unpredictably. But by looking to the horizon and laying the right foundations today, your association can flourish sustainably no matter what tomorrow brings.

Want even more recession-proofing strategies? Watch the on-demand recording of our virtual event, The Secrets to Recession-Proofing Your Association.

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