Three Keys to Inspire New Ideas from Staff

What does it take for associations to succeed at innovation?

I’ve been doing some research on innovation initiatives in associations for a client and had written a bit about it for the Spark blog a few weeks ago. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Mark Athitakis from ASAE about what I’d learned in a little more length, and he wrote the following piece for Associations Now. They’ve graciously given me permission to share it.

The best ideas for your association may come from your employees, but how do you get those ideas launched? Money matters, but so does trust and support.

Your staff has ideas about new services your association can provide for members. Some of those ideas may be very good ones. Problem is, how do you help get those ideas organized and tested?

Elizabeth Weaver Engel, CAE, CEO and chief strategist for Spark Consulting, has recently been interviewing leaders at associations that have launched internal innovation and new business development programs. “We talk about innovation in the association world a lot,” Engel says. “I wondered what was happening. Is anybody doing this well?”

The answer is yes, though not without some serious effort. Engel’s research uncovered three common elements of successful programs.

1. It needs its own funding. Success here, Engel says, requires “paying attention to opportunity and then being able to do something about it now, not in 24 months when you can finally make room in the budget.” The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, for instance, maintains a $500,000 fund that’s used annually to invest in new ideas from staff. That includes hiring people dedicated to working on it, as opposed to burdening current staff with new duties.

2. It needs a clearly defined process. A marketing staffer may have a brilliant idea, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she has the financial know-how to put together a business plan to show how it might work. The three associations Engel studied each had a clearly defined process for staff to propose an idea, institutional support for making the proposal, and a clear set of benchmarks for it. “They’re asking, ‘What criteria do you need to meet in order for this thing to continue passing the test?’” Engel says. “It can be a revenue criteria, but it doesn’t have to be. It has to be clear what standards you’re going to need to keep going.”

3. It needs institutional support. This can be trickier than it seems. Chuck Cochran, CAE, ASHA’s chief staff officer for operations, says the association launched its own program in 1997, during a reorganization. ASHA was in silo-smashing mode, looking to flatten hierarchies, make board activities more transparent, and involve staff in more of the decision making. “The culture change in the organization was huge,” he says.

That kind of hard-won trust and transparency encourages staffers to come forward with their ideas. “I can’t imagine what [the program] would be like if there was distrust,” Cochran says. “People would be afraid they’re going to be zapped.” Cochran estimates that today about 80 percent of the ideas proposed via the fund are successful—that is, proved themselves financially viable after three years and became part of the regular operating budget.

You don’t get to that point, Engel says, without leadership endorsing the concept. “The CEO or executive director has to be supportive of the decision,” she says. “Senior leadership has to say, ‘Yes, this is a good thing.’”

But practically speaking, you also don’t get there without money, and not every association has half a million dollars available to road-test a new idea. Cochran encourages associations to look at the status of their reserves; if they’re in excess of 50 percent of annual unrestricted operating expenses (the typical target for reserves), those excess dollars may provide the start-up costs for a fund.

Because new ideas may require dedicated staff, the amount of money matters. But Engel suggests that even a smaller-scale effort is worthwhile. “It’s a lot easier to find a spare $500,000 set aside for your innovation budget if you’re ASHA than if you’re a $2 million association,” she says. “The raw amount of money doesn’t scale. But the concept—if all you can set aside if $5,000, even if you can get 5 percent time, that part of it is scalable.”

Does your association have a program to encourage staff to propose new ideas, and how do you make it work? Share your experiences in the comments.

Reprinted with permission. Copyright, ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership, July 2014, Washington, DC.

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What I’m Reading

  • Do you know the content marketing 4-1-1?
  • MGI’s 2014 Membership Marketing Benchmark report is out. One, you should download it ASAP. Two, Associations Now has been doing a series of posts on the results, and I love the point of this one: “you have to eat your vegetables.” Yep.
  • Advice from Aaron Wolowiec about getting your comms and events teams to work together to create a better event. Kim Howard also has some advice on this topic on her NEW BLOG. (Did you know she had a new blog?)
  • Attention Minutes” are a much better measure of online success than clicks or shares – and Upworthy wants you to have the code to do it for free.
  • Didn’t make MMCC two weeks ago? Fortunately, Kathi Rabil has a roundup post of some of the best content.
  • What makes an effective organization? It’s not what you think it is.
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Getting Your Donors (Members?) To Fall In Love

I often find that the cause-oriented/fundraising nonprofits do some awesome stuff associations could and should learn from. Case in point: this fantastic presentation by Big Duck‘s Farra Trompeter on getting your donors to fall in love with you.

Key points for associations:

  • It’s all about lifetime value, whether we’re talking donors or members, so retention is critical
  • Study engagement patterns so you can recognize when a member has fallen in love – that might involve things like investing money AND time, responding when you call, talking about you to other people, etc.
  • The way you get there is to target your communications (both message and medium), provide the largest variety of ways to engage you can, and track and learn from what happens
  • Make sure you’re making your case well (i.e., learn what your audiences’ value and then show them that)
  • Make it easy for your audiences to be involved with you – that means creating volunteer opportunities that meet their needs and capacity, removing barriers to involvement (how easy is it to navigate your website? to complete a transaction?)



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Always the Last to Know: Cognitive Computing

IBM is trying to teach computers to be more like brains. Called “cognitive computing,” the systems involved are trained to think, using artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms.  The goal is to allow humans and computers to work together better for “integrated intelligence.”

It’s basically taking Watson, made famous on Jeopardy!, to the next level.

Read more at MIT’s Technology Review.

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Rethinking What It Means to Be a Member


A few months ago, I had a chance to sit down (virtually) with Beth Brodovsky and talk about what’s changing in membership relationships. The podcast is out! Some of the key points include:

  • Not all members are created equal, and because of that, your limited resources should not necessarily be evenly distributed among them.
  • You need to start paying attention to your data and segmentation ASAP.
  • If you’re tracking what the association values and not what your audiences value, your data is likely to return false positives in looking for triggers for behavior.
  • Associations are “elective community,” not just a series of transactions. (which is a point Mark Golden has also made)

It’s a pretty interesting conversation, if I do say so myself, so if you’ve got 45 minutes – or will have on your commute home tonight – you may want to take a listen.

(You can also subscribe to Beth’s podcast series, Driving Participation, to hear more good conversations like this.)

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What I’m Reading

  • Is counting members the right measure of success? (My whitepaper co-author Peter Houstle talks about this a lot, too.)
  • Maddie Grant’s session at MMCC on tech tools for the socially savvy got a ton of good word of mouth last week. Did you know she created a post about it?
  • Also, Associations Now has a nice roundup post on the conference, and the MMCC website has a good summary, too.
  • Maddie McGary breaks down the reasons associations have trouble with content marketing.
  • Which of these 20 business mistakes is your association making?
  • Facebook keeps changing their rules for Pages. John Haydon helps you stay ahead of the game. (I know I post something virtually identical to this periodically. From that, you should definitely take that, if you’re in any way responsible for your association’s social platforms, you need to be following John Haydon. Need more proof? Here’s even more good info on using Facebook well from John.)
  • Great reminder from Reputation Capital that brand is a LOT more than your logo (I particularly like their emphasis on culture.)
  • Confused about how to use Facebook Graph Search to do anything really useful? Social Media Examiner can help you out.
  • Five reasons start ups fail. How many is your association guilty of? Short term thinking? Lack of a business model? Getting so excited about your great idea that you launch without even checking to see if anyone cares?
  • Jeff Hurt asks: what is your event’s “heart value“?
  • Researchers find the best way to determine who are the best connected people in any given network: ask the people in the network.
  • 30 ways to encourage divergent thinking. This is posed in a classroom setting, but there’s no reason you couldn’t apply it to your staff or Board.
  • Got more than seven people in the room? Your chances of accomplishing anything in that meeting just dropped dramatically.
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What Do YOU See?

About a year ago, the Harvard Business Review did an interview with Maya Angelou. I definitely recommend checking out the entire thing, but there was one thing in particular she said that stuck with me:

Maya Angelou leadership quoteOne of the great dangers of leadership, I think, is the tendency to believe your own hype. If you achieved this great, high, responsible position, it must be because you’re that much better than everyone else, right? You earned it, all by your awesome self!

The thing is, no one exists in a vacuum. You are the sum certainly of the abilities you drew in the natural lottery and how you’ve been able to develop them but also of all the people who’ve helped you and influenced you and taught you and mentored you and led you and followed you and worked with you to achieve bigger goals than any one person could accomplish alone along the way.

And I think that’s what Dr. Angelou’s quote is about. True greatness isn’t running around singing “I AM SO GREAT! I AM SO GREAT!” It’s saying “YOU are so great.” It’s highlighting how others’ ideas helped you. It’s sharing credit. It’s talking about everyone’s contributions at least as much, if not more than, your own. It’s knowing that what you’ve achieved has been the result of many, many people’s efforts and making sure OTHER people know you know that, too.

How many of us, as leaders, are strong and confident enough to do this? How would our world be different if we did?

Image credit: Daily Good

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Always the Last to Know: Essential Tools for Social Media Marketers

Razor Social has prepared a terrific infographic that lays out their top 29 tool recommendations for social media marketers. They graciously allow people to embed it, so here you go:


Courtesy of: RazorSocial

You really need to visit the post, though, because they play it out as a “day in the life” that not only helps explain how the various tools work and how you can use them, but also helps you think about how to structure your time, which is something we all struggle with.

(P.S., I personally couldn’t live without Evernote, this website and blog are run on WordPress, and I LOVE LOVE LOVE Buffer.)

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2014 Internet Report

It’s the annual awesomeness from Mary Meeker. This is a DENSE and long slide deck, but it’s worth checking out the whole thing:

My top takeaways include:

  • Although growth is slowing in other areas, mobile and tablets continue to grow at an exponential pace. What is your association doing to respond? (Oh – and much as I love my iPhone, Android devices are KILLING IT.)
  • 95% of networks are compromised in some way. WHOA.
  • The education market is ripe for disruption. Shelly Alcorn might have something to say about that, and your association should be thinking about what your role could be.
  • Social media may be trending more personal/intimate. Which means your association needs to stop treating it like another platform for shouting at your audiences.
  • Same day local delivery looks like the next thing to retail, particularly around time-sensitive stuff like your groceries.
  • Content+Community+Commerce is the trifecta of Internet success. Where are we, associations? This is a space we *could* own.
  • Bad user interfaces are the kiss of death. What does your association’s website look like? How well does it work? What about on mobile devices? It’s 2014, people.
  • Video continues to explode. Please don’t tell me all the videos on your association’s YouTube channel are talking heads.
  • Great organizations increase revenue, turn a profit, and invest. Is your association doing all three? Don’t hit me with the “non-profit” thing either. Even if it doesn’t go back to owners or shareholders, you need to be turning a profit.


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What I’m Reading

  • Committees can still provide valuable volunteer opportunities for your members, as long as the work they’re doing is meaningful.
  • Annoyed about Facebook’s ever-increasing page rank changes? Eight tips to fight back (one of which is “quit relying on Facebook for your social media interaction” to which I say TRUTH).
  • Life logging: the tech isn’t there yet, and that may actually be a good thing, as there’s value in forgetting.
  • Associations Now highlights some great recent events and studies that all point out: social media should not be used as just another broadcast mechanism where you (or your association) can shout about how great you are.
  • We all start each day with the same 24 hours? Not so fast, says Jeffrey Cufaude.
  • Do we really need CEOs?
  • Maggie McGary muses about the impact the sharing economy could have on associations.
  • Jamie Notter shares one of the keys to great culture: no fear.
  • Myths that lead to a busy but unfulfilling life (how many do you fall victim to?)

Been a while, I know. Are you following me on Twitter? I do post a lot of links to interesting stuff that may not be specifically association/tech-related there, just in case you’re bored and looking for something to read.

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