Letting Go for 2018

I recently had the opportunity to contribute to Beth Brodovsky’s Driving Participation facebook icon in a trash binpodcast year-end special.

Beth posed the following question to her contributors: In 2018 what marketing tactics, social media, or tech tools are you letting go of and why?  

My response?


I’m not recommending that you delete your organization’s Facebook page. More than a billion people have active accounts, so they need to be able to find your organization there if they’re looking. But I would recommend interrogating your investment in Facebook critically.

Facebook is not in the business of helping your organization. They are in the business of making money. You’re using their platform for free, which means they can change the rules of engagement any time they want to, and you have no recourse. And they do change those rules, frequently. Pretty much every change they make that affects organizational pages degrades organic reach. You can still get your messages in front of people on Facebook, but you have to pay to do it.

For some organizations, paying for reach makes good financial sense. But I would argue that for most it really doesn’t. I would strongly encourage organizations to do a clear-eyed accounting of their Return On Investment – both direct financial investment and investment of staff and volunteer time – in Facebook, and if you discover that your ROI is in the red, scale back and devote those resources to audience engagement efforts that have a higher, more consistent return.

Personally, I deactivated my Facebook account more than a year ago, and I don’t miss it.

There are numerous studies that increased time on Facebook leads to decreased self-esteem and increased depression and anxiety.Which makes sense, when you think about it, because you end up comparing your every day life to your friends’ highly curated timelines of only the most amazing pieces of their lives.

“But I’d miss the baby pictures! And how will I keep up with my high school classmates and my grandma?”

Here’s the thing: Now that I’m not inundated with baby pictures, I’ve found that I’m much more motivated to go actually see the actual baby. In fact, now that I’m not under the illusion that I’m keeping up with my friends because I see their posts on Facebook, I’m more motivated to spend time with them in real life, listening to them tell me about their lives, and getting the juicy bits of their stories that don’t make it onto Facebook.

Be honest: Do you really care about what’s going on with your high school classmates? If you haven’t seen them in 25 years, there’s your answer. While it can feel good in the moment to see that the cool kids haven’t done much with their lives, while all the nerds have great careers, as one of the nerds, I can tell you it’s ultimately bad for your soul.

You know what your grandma would love? A phone call. A card, in the actual US postal mail. A visit.

Remember that if it’s free, you’re the product. Facebook is a highly addictive platform that creates a false sense of connection and encourages people to provide all sorts of private data about themselves that Facebook then controls, sells, and profits from.

If a divorce feels too scary, I’d encourage a trial separation. Delete the app from your smartphone (or at least move it to the farthest back screen of apps) and pledge not to open the web platform for a week (there are all sorts of productivity apps that can block it for you, if you’re afraid your willpower isn’t strong enough). Then see how it goes. You may find that your life is better without Facebook. I know I have.

Need more incentive to reconsider your relationship with Facebook? Check out techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci’s TED talk on the subject:

Image found here.

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Membership 101: Data, Data, Data

If you’ve been following this series – and I hope you have! – you’ve probably noticed that I cartoon man filling out surveytalk a lot about data.

You need data to calculate LTV.

You need data to construct your ladders of engagement.

You need data to personalize effectively.

You need data to run an effective welcome series.

You need data to understand why people joined in the first place.

You need data to know when prospects are ready to join.

You might be thinking: “That seems like a lot of data. How am I going to get it?”

I’m glad you asked!

You can collect data actively AND passively. You can collect it formally AND informally. You can collect quantitative AND qualitative data.

Ideally, you’ll do all of the above.

What do all those options mean?

Active data collection is when you intentionally and purposefully ask for feedback through something like a focus group or an online comment form.

Passive data collection is when you use technology to record what your members and other audiences do, like what emails they open, what links they click on your website, what they purchase from you, what conversations they participate in on your white label social network, and what events they attend.

Formal data collection is when you’re collecting data in a time-bound, structured way, like an annual membership satisfaction survey.

Informal data collection is what you learn from your day-to-day interactions with members, like your email and phone exchanges with them, or talking to them at in-person events.

Quantitative data is stuff that can be reported on with numbers, charts, and graphs, like a Likert scale asking attendees to rank your conference.

Qualitative data is freeform or unstructured data that can be highly illuminating but challenging to share, like the results of interviews.

We tend to do a good job with active, formal, quantitative data. Not that constructing an effective survey is easy – it is definitely not – but we know how to run surveys, our members know how to respond to them, and we know how to report on and disseminate the results.

We tend to do a good job with passive data, as long as we put a little thought into what we should be collecting and how we intend to use it, set up the systems to do so, and remember to go look at it and report on it periodically.

Dealing with informal qualitative data is a lot more challenging. First of all, it’s distributed, and we usually don’t have a good means of collecting and sharing it. I guarantee there are staff members on your team who know all KINDS of interesting things about your audiences that you don’t know, just because you’ve never asked them and there’s no easy way for them to share what they’ve learned.

Unstructured data is hard to report on. You can’t make a dashboard or a pretty graph of the results of interviews. Even identifying themes requires us to use our words. And, to quote my Getting to the Good Stuff co-author Peter Houstle, “the plural of anecdote is  not data.” Qualitative data gives you stories and opinions, and can get at the “why” of what your members are thinking and doing better than almost anything else, but you still need to go out and validate those stories and opinions.

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Membership 101: Life Time Value

One of the questions I get asked a lot is: “How much should I be willing to invest to recruit a bar graph with people of increasing size illustrating life time value of a customermember?”

The answer is not obvious.

For example, let’s say you invest $1000 on a recruitment campaign and bring in five new members. That means you spent $200 each to acquire those members.

(Don’t get distracted by: “But I contacted 100 people, so I only spent $10 per person.” No, you didn’t. 95 of those people didn’t join.)

What if your annual dues are only $100?

Was that campaign a waste of money?

It looks like it might be, but it’s not necessarily, because of something called the Life Time Value (LTV) of membership.

Hopefully, at least a few of those five people you recruited will renew for years two, three, four, and beyond.

Even if they don’t renew, they may do things in that membership year like register to attend your conference, or buy a book or a webinar, or contribute actively to discussions in your white label social network, or boost your social media signals to their own friends, fans, and followers.

All that other stuff? That’s LTV. The total value the association receives from a member encompasses far more than just one year’s dues payment.

That means it’s probably OK to invest more than the value of one year’s dues to get a new member. But how much more?

That’s where things get tricky.

Marketing General has some helpful base formulas you can use as a starting point.

The simplest way to think about LTV is to add average dues plus average non-dues revenue and multiply that by average membership tenure (which MGI also helpfully explains how to calculate).

That provides a good baseline calculation, but there are two potentially significant issues that would skew that calculation.

  1. Not all members behave the same.
  2. It ignores the value of non-financial contributions.

You almost definitely have different segments of members who behave in very different ways. Large companies versus small companies. Domestic members versus international members. Students versus established professionals. Young professionals versus retired and retiring members. Members in regions with active chapters versus those in regions with dormant chapters. They may pay different dues amounts, have different average membership tenure, and have very different purchasing patterns. Those would lead to very different answers about the level of appropriate investment to bring them in.

A large company that pays a large sum for dues, and is likely to be with you for many years, send teams of people to your meeting every year, and require their managers to earn your certification merits a much larger investment than a mom-and-pop business that’s likely to be acquired by a larger competitor within the next three years.

You should to create LTV member segments just as you would for the other types of member engagement we’ve discussed throughout the Membership 101 series. And you need to document those segments and the assumptions you’re making about their behaviors so that your LTV calculations can be consistent over time.

Also, as I hope is now apparent to you after reading some of these Membership 101 posts, “value” is not just dollars. Members contribute to the good of your association and the profession or industry you serve in all kinds of ways that have no price tag attached to them. How do you “value” things like service on your board of directors or committees, speaking at your conference, writing an article for your magazine, presenting a webinar, mentoring young professionals, and encouraging colleagues to join your association for purposes of LTV calculation?

I can’t tell you. The answer to that question is unique to every association, and you can only decide what it looks like for yours by sitting down and talking it through with your team members.

What I can tell you, though, is that you do need to think about it. I hope it strikes you as absurd to ignore something like board service in calculating LTV. It’s equally foolish to ignore those “smaller” contributions.

You need to document which non-financial contributions you’re including (and which you’re not, and why), how you value them, and how they match up with your membership segments, just as you did with direct financial contributions, so you know the assumptions that underlie your LTV calculations.

Then you test those LTV calculations against reality, and, with all your segments and assumptions documented, if you discover a mismatch, you know what levers to push to improve.

Image found here.

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Being a First-Time Attendee

Note: my good friend Joan Eisenstodt had asked for people to share our experiences as hello my name is stickerfirst-time attendees for her Fridays With Joan column for Meetings Today. I realized that some of my blog readers might not regularly read that column and that my story might be useful to you all, too, so here it is:

My first time at any association industry event was 17 years ago, at ASAE’s old m&t conference. I’d only been in the profession for a few years, and I didn’t know anyone outside the confines of my own association employer and the staff members of our three “sister” associations.

The conference was in town (I live in DC), and being my first one, I didn’t realize that I should clear my evening schedule for the receptions and parties that would take place in conjunction with the event.

So I went to sessions, sat in the back of the room all by myself, didn’t really talk to anyone, and scurried off at the end of the educational program each day to keep my evening commitments. In short, I was the attendee with no friends.

I did learn a lot, but I kind of missed the point of an in-person event: I didn’t expand my network at all.

I didn’t attend another large association conference for another two years. Back to m&t, and I still didn’t really know anyone outside my (still the same) employer and (still the same) “sister” associations.

But I’d learned two key things in the interim: one, keep my evenings free, and two, I was going to have to make the first move. Associations weren’t yet paying a lot of attention to the newbie experience, so I knew it was on me to create a better outcome, and I did.

This time, I pushed myself outside my comfort zone to look for the other person in each room who didn’t seem to have any friends, go over to her, and ask her a question about herself, which is the easiest way for introverts to get conversations with strangers going. That was the start of building the professional network that has sustained me for the past twenty years, through multiple job changes and launching Spark more than five years ago.

Joan asked the follow up question: “What do you think is the best way to not be lonely at a conference and/or what do you think conference organizers can do to lessen loneliness at conferences, especially for people who are new to an organization or company?”

My answer: “My favorite thing – when it works – is the ‘conference buddy/mentor’ idea. You have to match people up in advance and encourage them to communicate before the event, and then hold some sort of a meet up for your pairs right at the beginning of the event – the one I think works best is a pre-opening reception gathering, where the pairs can meet in person and the mentor is trained/instructed beforehand that her job is to bring the newbie with her into the opening reception with her and spend at least the first 30-60 minutes introducing the newbie to others.”

What have your experiences been when you’ve been a first-timer at an event? What has worked well for you in trying to find your niche? What has your association tried to help your first-timers fit in? What has – and hasn’t – worked well for you? Why?

Image found here.

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Membership 101: Ladders of Engagement Revisited

Once members join, the next question becomes: How do you keep them? How do you pyramid of engagementbuild real relationships over time that deepen your commitment to each other and lead to long-term loyalty on both sides?

The answer is ladders of engagement.

I’ve already talked a little bit about ladders of engagement in the membership 101 series, in that earlier instance, specifically related to joining an association. But they’re also the key to retention, which is critical to the health of your association.

According to ASAE’s Benchmarking in Association Management: Membership and Components Policies and Procedures, the average association invests $20,000 a year on recruitment and $15,000 on retention. That means associations feel the need to spend less in both absolute and relative terms, given the number of members retained versus recruited each year. It’s cheaper and easier to keep an existing member than to get a new one.

As I discussed in the earlier post, retention starts even before people join, and you have to teach your prospects and new members what it means to be a member, help them navigate what association offers and how it benefits them, and set expectations right from the start.

The overall goal is engagement: engaged members renew, disengaged members don’t.

Associations tend to have an inward-facing understanding of engagement: “How can we get our members to do what we want them to do?”

The thing is, that’s backwards. Better questions include:

  • What do my members value?
  • What reward system can I build around that?

Hopefully, the next logical question in the sequence has already occurred to you:

  • How do I find out what my members value?

The answer is simple, but not necessarily easy: You ask them.

Remember: Asking people what they want is usually futile. To quote (possibly apocryphally) Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Ask them, instead, what goals they’re trying to accomplish and what problems vex them.

People associate to accomplish things in a group that they can’t individually. That’s where you come in, helping them achieve goals or solve problems they can’t all by themselves.

When you know that, you can begin constructing ladders that focus on your members’ most important goals and most pressing problems. You’ll go through that same process of deepening effort, cost, and/or commitment that you did when converting a lead to membership, only with better insight into what to offer along the way.

Let’s say you discover that a young professional member wants to build her network.

You still start by offering something that’s, ideally, free (or included in the price of membership) that relates to that goal: say a networking brown bag lunch. Bonus points if there’s some sort of program, which doesn’t have to be terribly formal, that provides some content about how to build your network – tips like “Connecting on LinkedIn =/= building a professional network” or “Get to know people a little bit before asking for a job” or “Rather than flinging your cards at people like Mardi Gras throws, ask them for their cards.”

Assuming she attends, follow up by offering her something that involves a little more commitment, maybe a webinar that goes into more detail and maybe brings in an outside expert and thus costs something so you can pay said expert.

The next step might be to invite her to participate in your small group many-to-many less formal mentoring initiative.

The step after that might be to invite her to participate in your formal, structured one-on-one mentoring program.

When she finishes that formal program, you could ask her to present or write an article on her experiences for your association – or to be a greeter at your next brown bag, or to turn around and mentor someone herself, or join your task force that’s looking into technology mediated ways of extending your mentoring program to more people.

That’s one potential ladder. There are as many additional ladders as your members have goals and challenges.

When you flip your perspective from an internal focus on what the association wants to a member-centered way of viewing the world that puts the emphasis on helping people rather than pushing programs, products, and services, people will WANT to engage with you, because you’ll have become a vital partner in their success.

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Are You Ready to SURGE?

I’m excited to share that I’ll be speaking at Association Success’s inaugural SURGE virtual event, November 7-9.

SURGE 2017 session graphic lean startup Ann Mei Chang Guillermo Ortiz de Zarate Elizabeth Engel

Around the world, thousands of association professionals confront the same challenges. We all have insights to offer on how to grow, adjust, adapt and innovate.

SURGE 2017 is designed to bring all these challenges and voices together under one virtual roof to have a productive and meaningful conversation around innovation. SURGE 2017 participants will have exclusive access to sessions centered on transformative, forward-thinking solutions to the challenges we all encounter.

The sessions will be pre-recorded and played at set times in the Association Success platform. Meanwhile attendees will be able to communicate simultaneously with both each other and the speakers. We want to see what happens when we foster participation and knowledge-sharing amongst thousands of people, with each individual thinking and talking collaboratively.

My session, scheduled to run Thursday, November 9 from noon – 1 pm ET, will be on using lean startup methodology in the association industry and will feature my Innovate the Lean Way co-author Guillermo Ortiz de Zarate, CIO at the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards) and Ann Mei Chang, Executive Director of Lean Impact.

But the adventure into collaborative innovation begins long before the event.  Immediately upon registration, you can connect with likeminded individuals in the forum, contribute to the idea box, participate by answering a session-related question, and absorb expert insights on the blog.

The aim of SURGE 2017 is to spark collaborative innovation. Click here for more information or to reserve your free spot at the summit now!

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Membership 101: The Importance of Personalization

Associations are built on relationships. woman in suit pointing at self and smiling

Sure, we have boards of directors and bylaws and committee structures and membership structures and org charts and departmental structures and hierarchies and employee manuals and policies and procedures and AMSes and LMSes and CRM systems and CMSes and social media platforms galore, but when it comes down to it, we’re communities of people coming together to accomplish things we either couldn’t do at all, or couldn’t do as easily, alone. We’re here to help each other achieve our most important goals and solve our most pressing problems.

And there is no relationship with a person you don’t know.

How do you think your members feel when they get a letter or email addressed to “Dear Colleague”?

What message are you sending when you keep bombarding them with information about programs, products, or services they’ve told you they’re NOT interested in?

What are you telling them when you fail to let them know about programs, products, and services they’ve told you they ARE interested in?

You’ve basically put up a big. flashing sign that reads: “This association doesn’t know you at all, and doesn’t care about that fact, either.”

That is, as the kids say, not a good look.

Look, I know: personalization takes time, effort, and skill to do well. It’s much easier – and faster – to just send all the information about everything all the time to all those “Dear Colleagues.” You and your team have a million things on your plates, and it feels like drop-deadlines are hitting you every five minutes.

You still need to make the time and put in the effort to ask your members what they’re interested in, pay attention to and track what they respond to, create segments driven by both their self-reporting and their demonstrated behavior, and target your communications appropriately. And send them to “Elizabeth,” not “Dear Colleague.” And learn whether I prefer “Elizabeth” or “Liz” or “Beth” and get that right, too, every time.

There are a variety of tech tools that can help you with this. Some of them are built into your AMS. Some of them are built into your marketing automation and bulk emailing tools. Sometimes you need to dust off your Excel and mail merge skills.

But if you want your members to put in the time, energy, commitment, and money to continue and deepen their relationships with you, you owe them the same courtesy.

(It’s “Elizabeth,” by the way.)

Image found here.

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Associations Respond to Hurricane Harvey

In case you missed it, ASAE’s Collaborate forum (member login required) has recently one hand reaching out to help anotherbeen hosting a robust discussion of how associations are helping their members and the local community in Houston and southwest Louisiana respond to Hurricane Harvey. With Houston and Louisiana still drying – and digging – out and Hurricane Irma about to strike Florida, I wanted to summarize some good practices that have emerged.

Dues Relief. How this would work will vary based on your association’s dues structure and also how generous you can afford to be (driven by how many members are affected and how large a percentage of your overall revenue is comprised of membership dues), but many associations are extending expiration dates for members in the affected region. Some are doing it automatically, while some are doing it only upon request. Personally, I think automatic is preferable – while people are trying to salvage what they can from their flooded homes and businesses, they don’t need to worry about having to call their membership association to ask for a favor.

Suppressing Marketing Campaigns. Likewise, whether it’s recruitment, renewal, conference, new publication, professional development series, or whatever, many associations are suppressing addresses from the affected regions so they are not targeted by marketing campaigns for the time being. Again, your members don’t need to be worrying about your shiny new webinar series right now.

Have a Space/Need a Space. Some associations are hosting a forum where local members who have spare office space – or even spare bedrooms – can offer them to other local members. This might not work for every association – your members would need to be comfortable with this level of intimacy with each other – but for those who are, this would be a highly valuable service. For manufacturing associations, this could even include donating production capacity to affected members.

Industry/Profession-Specific Fundraising. This can come in many forms. Some associations are planning offer scholarships to events that will be taking place within the next few months to members in the affected areas. Some have launched GoFundMe campaigns to help members cope with uninsured losses. Some are organizing and matching member donations to nonprofit relief agencies (a good practice there is to focus on groups that are both local and already on the ground, like the local food bank or animal rescue organization). Some are focusing on helping members replace destroyed equipment or supplies, such as for teachers who pay out of pocket for many of their classroom supplies and may not be able to replace them on their own right now or firefighters whose handheld radios may have been destroyed.

One organization has tasked volunteers with calling every single member in the affected area (admittedly, it’s fewer than 100) and asking each of them if they need help. Anyone who answers “yes” is getting a check for $1000 immediately and automatically, no (additional) questions asked. While this is not something every organization can afford to do, I would encourage you to think big. It will generate positive feeling and member loyalty within your community and will provide a halo effect for your organization and potentially your entire profession or industry.

Public Service. For organizations whose members serve the public (like doctors, teachers, psychologists), many are providing materials to help their members help the community cope with the aftermath of and losses created by the hurricane. Some have also created materials for the affected communities themselves, like materials for parents to help their children cope.

So how do you know who’s affected? The USPS of course! You have two options: the USPS Service Alerts website and the PostalPro website.

What is your association doing? Join the discussions on Collaborate, or leave your ideas in the comments.

Image found here.

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How to Be a Better Boss

A good friend of mine recently returned to the 9-to-5 office world after several years of World's Best Boss mugfreelancing while her kids were small, and she asked me if I had any advice about being a better boss, since she’s managing a team for the first time in several years.

And with Labor Day fast approaching, and having recently had the pleasure of a delightful lunch with the woman who taught me much of this, now seemed a good time to share what I learned from my first, best boss in my association career.

  • Treat people equitably (which is not the same thing as equally).
  • Praise in public, correct in private.
  • Adapt your style to your team’s personalities to the greatest degree possible.
  • Take an appropriate level of interest in them as people – you’re not their best friend, but they’re also not robots.
  • Be wildly generous in sharing credit.
  • Protect your team. Shit ALWAYS stops with you – it NEVER rolls downhill onto your people.
  • Set clear expectations and manage at the minimum your people need to achieve them. Don’t micromanage.
  • Don’t ask your people to do something you wouldn’t do.
  • Make sure they have authority commensurate with their responsibilities.
  • Find out what they’re interested in learning and seek opportunities for them to learn it.

And if you can’t remember all that, just remember this one thing:

Don’t be a jerk.

Happy last weekend of summer, y’all!

Image found here (and you should click the link, because it contains some good advice, too).



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Membership 101: What IS “Engagement,” Anyway?

Association membership professionals, particularly in the last several years, talk about Avatar people assembling building blocksengagement 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.

Image found here.

Posted in Feature Story, membership | 2 Comments