Association membership professionals, particularly in the last several years, talk about engagement A LOT.
We want our members to be more engaged.
We want to measure engagement.
We want to score engagement.
We want to reward engagement.
We want to inspire our members’ competitive spirit to increase their engagement to be higher than the next member.
We want to be able to show our boards an ever rising curve of engagement in our quarterly (or annual) graphic dashboard of KPIs (Key Performance Indicators).
But what are we actually talking about when we deploy this (over?) used term?
Ultimately, associations exist because a group of people with shared interests banded together to accomplish something they either couldn’t do at all individually, or at least couldn’t do as efficiently or effectively.
That requires relationship-building, both between the association and each member and between the members themselves.
We have a lot of new technologies at our fingertips these days, and that’s a good thing. Many of our member interactions are now mediated by technology, which allows us to do more tracking and more automation, and that’s a good thing too.
The temptation, though, is to get wound around the axel of technology and being able to track and score and assign points and automate workflows and make pretty pie charts and bar graphs and LOSE SIGHT OF THE PEOPLE.
Your members are REAL PEOPLE.
Your staff members are REAL PEOPLE.
Your volunteers are REAL PEOPLE.
I’m not saying that you need to invite them to your bachelorette party or show up at their Labor Day cookout, but it’s OK to be a real person in your interactions with them and to encourage them to be real with each other.
Part of that involves understanding your – and your association’s – place in their lives. You’re not their spouse, or their kids, or their best friend, or their job, or their faith community, or their totally absorbing avocation hobby.
Therein lies the danger in constantly pushing for more engagement so that graphic for your board looks good. Your members probably don’t want to be your best friend. You’re probably more like the friend they meet for coffee a few times a year when they need something specific or have something specific to share. And that needs to be OK with you.
I’m not saying don’t ever offer options for a deeper relationship. People’s lives and careers go through stages. At some points, they need more from you – like when they’re new to the profession or changing jobs. At some points, other things in their lives are more important – like when they’ve just had a kid or decided to earn a graduate degree. At some points, they’re eager to contribute – like when they’re looking for a mentor or protege, or ready to write for your blog or speak at your conference. Your association needs to be sensitive to those cycles and ready to meet your members where they are with what – and only what – they need from you at that time and place.
Still not convinced that that ever rising engagement curve isn’t necessarily always good? Let me put it this way: what if every single one of your members wanted to do absolutely every single thing your association offers to them? They all wanted to write for your blog and speak at your events and participate in your mentoring program and earn your certification and serve on your board and, and, and. There’s no way your association could accommodate every single member being maximally engaged.
Rather than constantly pushing for more, more, more and counting your organization as a failure if all the lines aren’t constantly going up, up, up, focus on discovering what your members’ most pressing problems and most important goals are, creating solutions for the ones that are reasonably within your capacity to provide at a price they’re willing to pay (remembering that “cost” isn’t just money), and becoming a (not THE ONLY) vital partner in their success.
Today marks five years since I launched Spark Consulting. As I look back on the past five years, I have much to be grateful for. Leading that list is all the people who’ve contributed to the success of this Big Hairy Audacious Goal.
First, I have to thank all my wonderful clients. Spark would not exist without each and every one of you. I particularly want to thank the American Chemical Society, my very first client, for being willing to take a risk on hiring the new kid in town, and Ross Simons for making the connection between a brand-new consultant and her first lead. Over the years, many of my clients have referred me to their colleagues and/or hired me again for additional projects. I can’t express how grateful I am for their confidence in me and my work.
Back in late 2011, I was working for the Children’s Hospitals Association. I’d been there for a few years and was starting to think about my next move. At the time, I was thinking it would be my first CEO position, leading a small association. I’d been in the biz for 14 years at that point, had my CAE and an MA, had worked in a wide variety of functional areas in association management leading a variety of different types and sizes of teams, and had even served as an acting CEO for a small association. I started applying for those types of positions, despite the fact that when I mentioned I was looking for my next gig, the nearly universal response was, “So you’re launching your own consulting business, right?” I want to thank Shira Harrington (Purposeful Hire) for being the one who helped me understand that being a consultant would be a better path for me.
Maddie Grant, Lindy Dreyer, and Jamie Notter came over to my house on a cold winter afternoon and helped me figure out what I wanted to call this new consulting business, how I wanted to frame the work I wanted to do, how brand Spark and myself, and brainstormed my clever URL (in which a discussion about “GetMeJamieNotter” led to “GetMeSpark”).
When I was starting out, I was fortunate to be invited to join a Mastermind Group that served as my kitchen cabinet, pushed me to define my goals, and helped me think through how to overcome the barriers to achieving them. Leslie White, Peggy Hoffman, Shira Harrington, KiKi L’Italien, and Sohini Baliga kept me on the right path during those critical first two years.
One of the most useful things I learned studying for the CAE 14 years ago was to know what you are – and aren’t – good at, and make sure to surround yourself with great people who know and can do what you can’t. I’ve been fortunate to work with four outstanding vendors on the tasks I can’t do for myself: Bean Creative for my website, ImagePrep for all my graphic design needs, Andrew Mirsky (Mirsky Law Group) for all my contracts and other legal needs, and Moran & Company for bookkeeping, accounting, and tax advice and planning.
My original career goal, back in college, was to be a university professor. I’ve always loved research and writing, particularly long-form essays. One of the most personally and professionally fulfilling things I’ve been able to do since launching Spark is the Spark collaborative white paper series. I now have the freedom to research and write, diving into topics that interest me and that I think are important for our industry.
I’ve been fortunate to work with a host of fantastic contributors for the nine existing monographs: Jeff De Cagna, George Breeden, Tom Lehman, Jamie Notter, Leslie White, Peggy Hoffman, Peter Houstle, Anna Caraveli, Guillermo Ortiz de Zarate, Shelly Alcorn, Polly Siobhan Karpowicz, Tracy Petrillo, Sherry Marts, Joe Gerstandt, Jess Pettitt, and Joan Eisenstodt.
I also want to thank the many association executives who were willing to share the stories of their organizations’ work, struggles, and triumphs in the case studies that illustrate many of the concepts the white papers discuss.
Thanks also go to Alison Dixon (Image Prep), who’s done all the beautiful layout and graphic work on the white papers, and to copy editors Ed Lamb and Joe Rominiecki, who’ve done their level best to save me from my typos and grammatical errors.
The association consulting community more broadly has also served as a tremendous source of inspiration, help, and advice over the years. Many association consultants have generously given of their time and expertise to answer my questions, point me in the direction of resources I need, or just generally help me to buck up when things aren’t going as I’d like them to with the business. We may be competitors, at least on occasion, but we are a community and we help each other out, and that’s priceless.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I have to thank my spouse, Jim. When I came home from that fateful lunch with Shira nearly six years ago, I was nervous. As far as he knew, the plan was to land a CEO position, with the attendant salary, benefits, and security. I knew I was about to announce that I might want to throw all that over in favor of the risk, excitement, and uncertainty of launching my own business. This change in direction would have a dramatic effect on him and his life as well, and I didn’t know how he’d respond.
When I told him what had happened over lunch and what I was thinking, he responded: “I think that’s a great idea. I think you’d be a terrific solo consultant. You should definitely do that.”
“Well damn,” I thought. “If he’s that confident, what in the hell am I so worried about?”
Five years later, here we are. It’s been a thrilling, challenging, amazing, terrifying journey so far. I can’t wait to see what the next five years bring.
Did you miss the July 12 webinar my Include Is a Verb co-author Sherry Marts and I presented for the Wild Apricot Experts series on living your talk on D+I? Never fear! The recording is now available:
Sherry and I got to as many questions as we could in the sidebar chat during the webinar, but as usual, we missed a few, so we’re answering them below:
Question: When holding a free public event, do you post a code of conduct? We have kid friendly “Core Values,” and I wonder if posting that would promote a safer environment.
EWE (addressed during the chat):It might not cover every situation you might want to try to address, but it certainly can’t hurt.
SM (more complete answer):Yes, definitely. Something short and simple, along the lines of:
[Organization] is committed to ensuring a safe and welcoming environment for all participants at [event]. We expect all participants at [event] to abide by this Code of Conduct in all venues at [event], including ancillary events and official and unofficial social gatherings.
Exercise consideration and respect in your speech and actions.
Refrain from demeaning, discriminatory, or harassing behavior and speech.
Be mindful of your surroundings and of your fellow participants.
Alert community leaders if you notice a dangerous situation, someone in distress, or violations of this Code of Conduct, even if they seem inconsequential.
IF YOU ARE BEING HARASSED, NOTICE THAT SOMEONE ELSE IS BEING HARASSED, OR HAVE ANY OTHER CONCERNS, CONTACT [NAME] AT [CONTACT INFORMATION]. [Alternatively: PLEASE CONTACT A MEMBER OF THE [organization] STAFF IMMEDIATELY. Staff can be identified by [clothing, name badges, or other way to ID staff]. All reports are confidential.
Question: One thing to consider – while harassment is most frequently men harassing women, using language that presumes that may make men or nonbinary people uncomfortable coming forward. Also, gender isn’t binary – language like ‘men and women’ can make nonbinary people feel invisible / excluded.
SM: Yes, all of that is true. However, it becomes really awkward and clumsy to try to address all possible combinations of target/harasser each time one is talking about a harassment situation. And harassment is about 85-90% men harassing women, so that ends up being the simplest way to present it. When I do longer (i.e. two-four hours) workshops, I do talk about other harassment scenarios, gender identity, etc.
And, frankly, when it comes to talking about this stuff, I really am not concerned about making sure the men present are comfortable. I’d prefer it if they were just a wee bit uncomfortable.
EWE: While using gender-neutral language is overall a good practice, as Sherry points out, meeting harassment is largely a gendered problem. In my view, it’s a case where obscuring the role of gender is not only not helpful to solving the problem, it actively works against our ability to address it.
Question: Is it considered patronizing to seek diversity by offering to pay that board member’s financial obligation? Or do you change the obligation to “give or get” a specific amount?
(Seeing as we’re writing for an association crowd here, a bit of explanation might be in order. In fundraising organizations, it’s common for board service to come with a financial obligation. Each board member is required to contribute a certain (usually significant) amount of money to the organization each year of her board service. This obviously restricts your pool of candidates, which can make diversifying your board difficult. Blue Avocado has a good piece that explains this conundrum in more detail.)
EWE: Yes, finding alternate ways for your board members to meet their financial obligation is important to board diversity. The “give or get” method is one way of doing that (in which your board member either needs to GIVE the amount specified herself or GET other donor/s to give that amount). You can also think about non-financial ways a board member could make significant contributions to the health of the organization, for instance, by putting in significant time nurturing relationships with major donors, by providing services or goods the organization needs, etc.
SM: Yes, it is worth considering whether it is a barrier to diversifying your Board membership. Ask:
Why do we have this obligation?
What strategic goal does this serve?
What else could serve this goal without putting a financial burden on Board members?
I know some organizations expect Board members to pay their own travel to meetings. One organization I worked with changed that to offer to reimburse Board members for travel, and those who could afford to pay it could submit their reimbursement form and indicate that they did not want to be paid back, and that this was an “in-kind” donation to the organization. It worked well, no one (other than the admin and accounting staff) knew who paid and who was paid for.
I have heard of the “give or get” policy that requires Board members to either donate or solicit donations. Again, if there is an amount specified that could be a barrier to participation. If it is as “give or get, within your means” with the actual amount determined by each Board member, that could go a long way to lowering the barrier. The Board could also establishe a policy for waiving the “give or get” requirement, and ask staff to implement it, so that individual Board members don’t know who gives, how much is given, and who gets a waiver. I know some funders look for “100% participation” by Board members (i.e. everyone has donated or solicited a donation), but they don’t ask amounts, so if a Board member gives $1.00 that counts.
The bottom line is that IF the organization is truly committed to D&I, THEN they may have to alter their expectations/requirements of Board members, outside of the legal and fiduciary duties (i.e. yes, they have to show up for and contribute to discussions at meetings, pay attention to financials, and serve on committees and do all the other functions of a Board member). They may have to do some budget re-arranging to reach their D&I goals.
Finally, there is one question that has come up frequently with regards to this whole process: Is it appropriate for two white women to even be talking about diversity and inclusion, much less profiting off doing so?
First, let me address the “profiting” bit. No profit. In fact, cost. All the Spark whitepapers are freely offered to the nonprofit community (I don’t even ask for contact information to put people on a mailing list to download them). No one pays me and my various contributors for our contributions (no sponsors or anything). In fact, most of my co-authors have been, like me, sole practitioner (or small business) consultants, so the time that we put into creating these resources is an opportunity cost, consuming what could otherwise be billable time invested in clients. Additionally, we pay out of pocket for copy editing and layout. And we give our time freely to do things to promote the whitepapers like guest blogging, article writing, and webinars.
Secondly, yes, we are both white. But as Sherry has pointed out, when you’re part of the in-group you stand a better chance of getting other in-groupers to listen to you, e.g. when men call out other men on their harassment, or white people call out other white people on their racism. (Joe Gerstandt, one of our contributors, makes this point in his work as well.)
Also, of course, the two co-authors aren’t the only people who worked on this project. We had a total of 12 contributors. Of those:
Five are people of color
Five are LGBT people
Three are adherents of minority religions
Two are people with disabilities
One is a veteran
And, not to miss the thing staring us in the face, eight are women
It’s important to be aware of the places where we’re each privileged, and to work to use that privilege to be and create the change we want to see in the world. Or, as Sherry put it: “We did this as a way to contribute to co-creating the kind of world we want to live in.”
When last we left the Membership 101 series, you had just gotten a new member and were busy finding out why she joined so you could focus your marketing and communications efforts around those 2-3 things that matter most to her.
Now that she’s here, you need to welcome her. She knew enough to join, but she doesn’t know what it means to be a member of your association. It’s your job to orient her, help her navigate what the association offers and how it can help her with achieving those important goals and solving those pressing problems, and continue the process of building that ladder of engagement relationship with her.
By “welcome her,” I don’t mean “drop a huge folder of sheets of paper on her desk.” That’s just going to get tossed – well, hopefully, recycled. But if you dump everything on her all at once, it’s overwhelming and she won’t know where to start.
There is a better way:
Make it personal. Someone who’s not on staff (i.e. another member, aka one of her peers) needs to call her or drop her an email welcoming her and sharing some insight from a member perspective on what membership means and offers. (This, by the way, presents a GREAT opportunity to engage ad hoc/micro-volunteers.)
Get her started right. What’s the first most important thing she needs to know right away? That should be the SOLE focus of the first communication from staff (well, other than the confirmation of her membership, of course). Related to that…
Don’t drop everything on her all at once. What does your “welcome to Association XYZ” communication look like? Is it a long list of “member benefits” (too often presented as features and from the association’s perspective) that she’s supposed to plow through? Try introducing one thing at a time with concrete examples of how other members use it, explaining why they like it in their words (testimonials, examples, case studies).
Benefits not features. “Association XYZ produces the leading annual conference in our field…”? No. “Earn free continuing education credits when you come to our annual conference. We’re excited to feature speakers and topics like:…” Yes!
Don’t ask her for more money – at least not right away. She just joined – the first thing she hears from you shouldn’t be “now spend MORE with us on our book/webinar/conference/whatever.” She’s still figuring out if her initial investment is going to be worthwhile. Don’t try to get her to sink more money in before she’s even sussed that out. It’s just rude.
Ask about her. What’s the main reason she joined? You need to know that so you can focus on delivering it to her, and then remind her that you did deliver it when it comes time to renew. What are her most important professional goals for the year? What are the biggest challenges she’s facing? What do you offer that can help her achieve those goals and resolve those challenges? Introduce those things to her first.
Pay attention. As you’re doing your drip campaign introducing benefits, what does she respond to? Did she ignore your email about your new book but click immediately on a link to a webinar? That gives you some valuable information about what she might be interested in. Oh: and don’t just assume “she likes webinars and hates books.” Maybe it was the topic of the book versus the topic of the webinar. That’s something else you should try to find out.
Stay in touch. You’re trying to develop a relationship here, one that you want to last over the long term. You don’t do that by ignoring the other party for a year (or, worse, bombarding her with tone-deaf marketing messages about things she’s not interested in), and then asking her for more money. You need to stay in touch on a personal and non-financial basis throughout the year. Ask her how things are going. Check in to see if she has questions. Remind her of what’s included in her membership. Get volunteers to reach out. You know, actually develop an actual relationship as if you’re an actual person and so is she. Then, when that renewal invoice does arrive, her decision will be an easy one, and you’ll have a successful renewal.
Does your organization have a compelling statement on diversity and inclusion that doesn’t seem to be reflected in your day to day operations? Don’t worry – lots of organizations face the same challenge.
Join Sherry Marts (S*Marts Consulting) and me for a FREE webinar (thanks to our host/sponsor Wild Apricot) Wednesday, July 12 at 2 pm ET to to learn how to move your organization from talk to action when it comes to authentic diversity and inclusion (D+I).
The webinar content will be based on our recently-released whitepaper Include Is a Verb, which is also free to download.
In the webinar, you’ll learn:
The barriers that stand between words and action on D+I
How to lead D+I change with the audiences you serve
Concrete steps you can take to have an immediate, positive impact on D+I in your organization
A couple of weeks ago there was a fairly lengthy thread in the Executive Management Section on ASAE Collaborate, with the subject line “ASAE Committees/Sections Feedback” (member login required). At one point, that conversation turned to talking about gender-based (and other) harassment at ASAE meetings. Bob Skelton, who holds the title “Chief Administrative Officer and In-House Counsel” at ASAE, posted a couple of messages that indicated (if you read between the lines) that ASAE does not have a written Code of Conduct for ASAE events, and simply expects “everyone” to “just know” that harassment isn’t permitted and that anyone who is harassed should report it to ASAE staff.
This approach is about as useful and effective as a screen door on a submarine.
However, we do have options.
Scientific societies provide an example we can follow. They have jumped on this issue because their members were taking action on it independently. It started with “Astronomy Allies” at the American Astronomical Society, which then spawned “Physics Allies,” “Entomology Allies,” and probably more I don’t know about. These are groups of members, mostly but not entirely women, who started by simply volunteering themselves as people who would listen to and advise anyone who was harassed or bullied at their association’s meetings. They had buttons printed that they wore at the meeting, and they spread the word via social media, paper flyers, and word-of-mouth. The groups have grown to the point where they now need application and vetting processes to handle the volume of volunteers they get every year. You can find more information at:
They did not ask permission, and, as far as I know, have never bothered to seek forgiveness either.
So maybe what we need is ASAE Allies. And the upcoming annual meeting, August 12-15, 2017 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, might be a great place to “introduce” them.
I can’t do this by myself, so I’m looking for some Early Allies. You, maybe? Or someone(s) you know? I won’t be attending that meeting, so we would need someone who is attending to step up to spearhead this on-site.
I’m willing to reach out to the “allies” groups to learn from their experiences, work on a website, get some buttons designed and printed, and do a training webinar for allies.
The answer was: by studying your data. Data can tell you when is the right time to ask, and what you should emphasize in your slate of programs, products, and services when you do ask.
Why does that matter?
Your association no doubt has a long list of member benefits, programs, products, and services you provide. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
But even though your members and prospective members share some common interests, they don’t all want and need exactly the same things. Not all aspects of your value proposition are going to be equally appealing to everyone.
What you need to do is learn what your prospects – and members – are there for, what they’re trying to accomplish, what their most pressing problems are, and then provide that.
Segmentation in your marketing and communications helps you target the right offer to the right person at the right time.
For instance, a prospect who’s just finishing up school might be most interested in your job board and career services. So when you’re pitching her to join – or renew – you’d want to emphasize that.
A mid-career professional might be ready to learn about your certification program, so as you’re describing your member value proposition to her, you’d want to be sure to highlight that.
As I covered in the previous post in this series, a given individual might like to attend webinars, or buy books, or attend face to face events, or volunteer, or support your advocacy efforts, etc.
How do you know what’s most important? Active and passive data collection.
On the active side, you ask questions like:
What are your most important professional goals?
What are the biggest persistent problems and challenges you face that you can’t seem to solve on your own?
Why did you join (or renew)? What were you looking for?
Are we delivering on that?
On the passive side, track what people do. Remember, what a member says she wants and needs may not align with what she actually does. Tracking behavior is an important reality check on what people say. I might say that I want to eat nutritiously, but if I consistently order the fries rather than the kale salad… Your members are no different.
You have a wonderful, extensive list of member benefits. But most individuals join for 2-3 key things, and those vary from person to person. Your job is to find out what those are for a given individual and focus your marketing efforts to her around them.
(And now the stick part of the equation: if you constantly promote your list of 15 benefits, and your member is only here for two of them, she might start questioning why she’s paying dues that funds all that stuff she doesn’t use. I’m not saying you NEVER want to share the full list with your members – people’s needs change over time – but be careful about how you do that, and don’t do it in every communication. Constantly promoting stuff she doesn’t use also shows the member that you don’t know her or care about what’s important to her, which is another message you don’t want to be sending.)
For those of us who are “on the bus” on the value of genuine diversity and inclusion, this is the crux of the matter: how do we effectively walk our talk on D+I?
We have to work from the inside out, starting with our own selves, taking steps to uncover and combat our implicit biases, understanding where we do – and do not – have privilege, and answering the question “Now that I know, what will I do?”
To quote Include Is a Verb:
That is, how will you move from unconscious reaction to conscious responsibility? How will you use your privileges to help others and, at the same time, let them use theirs to help you in areas where you lack privilege?
Only then can we begin to move outward, to working on our associations as workplaces, then to our boards of directors and other volunteer leaders, then to our members, then to the professions and industries we serve.
I’d like to conclude this week’s focus on Include Is a Verb: Moving from Talk to Action on Diversity and Inclusion with another quote from the whitepaper:
There’s a poem that begins, “When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world.” As the man relating the parable lives his life, he realizes that was too grand a goal. He scales back to changing his nation, only to recognize that, too, as too grand a project. So he decides to focus on his town, and then his family. By the time he’s an old man, he realizes that the only thing he can change, the only thing he can control, is himself, but that when you change yourself, that impacts the people around you, and the people around them, and through that, you can change your nation and the world.
Start there. Pick one thing to change in yourself. Then think about one thing you can work on in your workplace with your colleagues. Then identify one program your association o ers that you can enlist your volunteers and members to help you transform. Small steps will add up to big shifts over time.
My co-author Sherry Marts and whitepaper contributors Joe Gerstandt and Jess Pettitt will be joining KiKi L’Italien for an Association Chat focused on Include Is a Verb on Tuesday, July 11 at 2 pm. You can register here.
And, of course, don’t forget to download the whitepaper itself at http://bit.ly/2peWwP0. It includes interviews with a DELP mentor/scholar team (Shawn Boynes and Desirée Knight) and with Cie Armtead, the current chair of ASAE’s D+I committee; sidebars from noted D+I experts Jessica Pettitt, Joan Eisenstodt, and Joe Gerstandt; and case studies of three associations that are doing outstanding D+I work for the audiences they serve (the Association for Women in Science, the Entomological Society of America, and the Geological Society of America).
Most of the focus on diversity and inclusion in the for-profit world is on staff and, to a lesser degree, boards of directors (which, of course, only some for-profit companies have).
The association operating environment is much more multi-layered.
Of course, we also have staff teams and boards of directors. But associations have very different relationships with our boards than for-profit companies do. Although our members are also our customers, the membership relationship is vastly more complex than the consumer relationship. We also have relationships with – and responsibilities to – the professions and industries we serve for which there is no parallel in the for-profit world.
The Association for Women in Science has successfully navigated the transition from a largely homogenous board of directors to one that is truly inclusive, while also avoiding the trap of tokenism.
The Entomological Society of America has created a strong code of conduct for their events that not only aims to reduce instances of harassment at events but also provides a concrete action plan for dealing with them appropriately when they do occur.
The Geological Society of America has responded creatively to the dual imperatives to recruit more people into the field and to increase the diversity of those recruits.