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September 28, 2007

Planning vs. searching

I've just started reading "The White Man's Burden." No, not Rudyard Kipling's verse, the book by NYU economist William Easterly: The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good.

His main argument: that rich countries plan great interventions to wipe out poverty, but all of their grand plans are doomed to failure. He calls these people "Planners." He proposes that looking at a single problem--how to keep kids going to school in poverty-stricken rural Tanzania--leads to solutions that make a difference. He calls people finding these solutions "Searchers." Whether or not you buy his arguments about alleviating poverty, I wonder if you’ll see how the same argument applies to associations the way that I do. Consider some of the language he uses to describe "Planners" and "Seekers":

"Planners announce good intentions but don't motivate anyone to carry them out; Searchers find things that work and get some reward."

"Planners raise expectations but take no responsibility for meeting them; Searchers accept responsibility for their actions."

"Planners determine what to supply; Searchers find out what is in demand."

"Planners at the top lack knowledge of the bottom; Searchers find out what the reality is at the bottom."

"A Planner thinks he already knows the answers.... A Searcher admits he doesn't know the answers in advance."

I reflect back on the board meetings I've been a part of at three different associations. I always thought the ones where one committee report followed another followed another together with a string of unanimous votes were pretty much wastes of time. The ones I liked were the ones where board members rolled up their sleeves and talked about content and strategy--the ones usually called "retreats."

I still think the second kind is better, but having thought about it a little more, I'm less enamored with it. Too much ivory tower going on. Too much Easterly "Planning." Seems to me the real work of the board shouldn't happen in a board meeting at all. It should happen in prep for the retreats. Board members as well as staff leaders need to be out in front of all different types and levels of an organization's many constituents. Putting it in Easterly's context, I bet we'd come back with a lot more searchers--small workable ideas that really matter--and we'd produce fewer big plans that sit in 3-inch binders collecting dust.

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Mobile emulator

From the AE on the Verge blog, here's a link to a neat tool that can show you how your website looks on a mobile phone (at least, on two specific types of mobile phones). I personally am not that big on the mobile internet, except when I need to check football scores; but more and more people, especially internationally, are using their cell phones as e-mail and internet tools. It's important to keep that audience in mind.

What associations out there have specifically created mobile-optimized websites or web tools for members?

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YouTube launches nonprofit program

The 501(c)(3)s out there might be interested in a new program offered by YouTube: a nonprofit channel that offers "premium rotation" and the ability to embed a "donate" button in connection with your organization's videos.

For folks pursuing video as a way to spread the word about their mission or cause (particularly those whose missions lend themselves well to visual expression), this could be worth checking out.

(Hat tip to Michele Martin and The Bamboo Project blog, where I originally came across this information.)

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September 27, 2007

What’s Your Purpose—Your Cause?

Strategy + Business had an interesting article in a recent Leading Ideas enews. Entitled “How Causes Can Animate Companies”, the article focuses on the importance of cause or purpose to organizations. See http://www.strategy-business.com/li/leadingideas/li00040

Author Mohan Nair opens saying, “The world’s greatest corporations — Apple, Disney, Google, and others…are anchored on more than just a revenue-creating business model. Each of them has, at its core, an inspiring ideology that is intrinsically linked to the company’s value proposition and competency.”

This is the same point that James Collins and Jerry Porras make in Built to Last, where they point out that the “core ideology” is a critical element in successful, visionary companies.

Purpose--cause—ideology, call it what you will, is not the same as a mission or vision. Nair writes, “The best companies are animated by a cause. A cause is a lasting theme, an architecture that supports the transformation of the greater environment. It has personal, rather than organizational, implications. Missions are given to groups walking in lockstep; causes are taken up by creative individuals. A mission is a bounded, purposeful action. Missions impose the will of managers on employees, whereas causes are grounded in the latent, unexpressed will of the overall organization, and usually resonate with the company’s identity or history. “

So, what drives your association or organization? Is it a cause or purpose that pervades your organization? Or is it a mission or a vision statement in your bylaws? Is your organization driven by business processes focused on net revenues or by customer service? Is it driven by the personal interests of dues-paying members? Is it driven by a higher purpose in support of the profession, field or public?

What‘s your enduring purpose—your cause? What drives your organization?

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September 26, 2007

Top Ten Ways You Know You're Flying Too Much...

Over the last six weeks or so, my life has felt like one continuous plane ride. I've spent many, many hours in the air during this period, and I've tried to put that time to good use by coming up with this list for your amusement. Just consider it a public service I'm performing on behalf of all the weary travelers in the association world. It's a great opportunity for us to laugh at the ridiculous things that too much flying can do to otherwise normal human beings. (No cracks from the peanut gallery please...)

So, without further delay, the Top Ten Ways You Know You're Flying Too Much!

10. You preset a song on your iPod to help speed up your walk from the gate to baggage claim. ("Limelight" by Rush is my song of choice.)

9. When inexperienced travelers slow down your security lane, you look knowingly at other passengers, roll your eyes, shake your head and say with disdain, "Rookies." They nod back at you in agreement. (I've never done that...;>)

8. You spend an hour (or more) calculating whether you'll need to book a "mileage run" to reach the next level of status in your airline's frequent flier program before the end of the year. (I'm okay.)

7. You recognize flight attendants you've flown with before.

6. They recognize you.

5. You treat your noise canceling headphones with the gentleness of a beloved pet.

4. A fellow passenger asks if you're a pilot because you use "aviation language."

3. You consider overweight bag charges to be just another opportunity to earn miles on your frequent flier program credit card.

2. You're exasperated that your airline didn't ask for your input before changing its soft drink supplier!

and the number one way you know you're flying too much....

1. You begin to spell your name using the NATO phonetic alphabet:

De Cagna is Delta Echo (Sierra for the space) capital Charlie Alpha Golf November Alpha

I haven't quite reached #1 just yet, but with another trip next week, I expect I'll be there soon. Do you have some more fun ways to know you're flying too much to add to the list? Please do so as a comment below!

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September 25, 2007

Public’s Lack of International Experience Limits U.S. Ability to Lead Positive World Change, Says Speaker Series Presenter

With the run-up to the recent launches of ASAE & The Center’s new International and Social Responsibility initiatives, I wondered how much we as a nation and an association sector can truly contribute to the elimination of major world problems when only about one in four Americans possesses a passport—hardly the “global perspective” likely needed to build consensus and identify practical resolution strategies.

I turned to a rather unlikely source with this question: actress-turned-activist Jane Seymour, one of the last participants in the long-running Nation’s Distinguished Speaker Series hosted by ASAE & The Center.

Seymour serves as a hands-on ambassador for numerous nonprofits, including ChildhelpUSA, and works on social problems ranging from child abuse to preventable disease control. Her philanthropic efforts routinely take her to different continents, giving her unique insight into topics such as whether U.S. professionals and their representative groups should be doing more to strengthen their “world perspective” and recognize the power of possible involvement in social responsibility.

“Absolutely,” said Seymour, who speaks several languages and often takes some of her six children on her philanthropic trips abroad. “I think that Americans are very Ameriocentric. They believe the whole world is what they see on television and what they know about their city usually, not even the whole country. When you travel and see the perception of other countries [toward] America or perceive how other countries [feel toward different] countries, you see that we are a global society now.… With the Internet, with air travel, with everything that’s going on in every country in every group of people in every race, we are all interrelated…, so I think it’s incredibly important to send as many Americans abroad as we can, so they can see how fortunate they are and how different life is elsewhere.”

I asked Seymour to be more specific about the types of international experiences she would recommend that trade and professional associations offer their members. She suggested that they could raise and earmark money to send their members overseas, to start with, and shared a story about her involvement in a post-9/11 experiment conducted by the American Red Cross, on whose Celebrity Cabinet she serves.

Seymour and her husband, film director James Keach, agreed to take eight, inner-city, racially diverse 12-year-old children from a Los Angeles school to Africa and film their reactions to what they saw while they helped Seymour and Red Cross volunteers vaccinate 7 million children in one week. The results became a documentary.

“It was just an amazing experience,” enthused Seymour. “Every one of those children came back realizing things that they never understood, which is first of all, how important education is and how they took it for granted. Even though these were kids in an inner-city school who were obviously straight A [students], they saw that all these kids in Africa wanted more than anything in the world was an education. … They wanted to be able to learn, and this was just stunning to [the kids we took].”

She noted that both the children and participating adults were likely “changed forever. … They spread their stories, and they would talk to individuals and realize that you could make a difference--that for very little money, a huge amount of help could be given in these countries.… The more you travel, the more you realize that.”

She also agreed that setting up international exchanges, educational trips and peer-to-peer relationship-building programs with professionals in other countries “would be very important. I’m a great believer in mentoring.

“… The thing that I speak to people about is that everybody has different talents, different abilities,” continued Seymour with great passion. “You might be good at fundraising. You might be good at teaching. You might be good at being empathetic. Everybody has an ability to do something unique to help other people, whether it’s locally or globally.

“Indifference and apathy are the biggest crimes on the planet. Just to say, ‘Oh, the problem’s too big. It’s insurmountable, just can’t be done or is corrupt, and I’m not going to bother.’ That’s unacceptable. What you have to do is … get these people out there and just say, ‘Okay, maybe you can’t solve the [problems of the] whole world, but you certainly can do something for your neighbor.”

Seymour emphasized that her philanthropic work has been transformational for her both professionally and personally. “I am an actress, but I’m not sitting by waiting for the phone to ring to act, … that’s not what drives my life,” she emphasized. “I’m much more excited about being able to make a difference. I am! When I can put two people together or make something happen where a large number of people are motivated to do what they uniquely can do, I get excited…. I see myself as a conduit. I see myself as the person who can take information from experts in the field and can speak it in ‘people’s speak’ in public places. But I won’t do it unless I understand it, believe it and can trust it.”

Perhaps other professionals are starting to recognize the personal, professional and global benefits of devoting more effort to obtaining a world perspective. Within the next few years, the U.S. State Department expects that about half of Americans will hold a passport. Whether and where these holders use it, though, could make all the difference in--and to--the world.

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September 24, 2007

Are you an agent of calcification?

On the Gaping Void blog last week, Hugh Macleod mentioned an interesting term: “agents of calcification.” Macleod defines such agents as “the folks in a big company … whose role isn't to invent, make, or sell stuff, but to maintain and enhance the apparatus of bureaucracy, even at the expense of the business itself.”

I would say that such calcifiers aren’t unique to big companies. It’s possible that all organizations have calcifying tendencies—and specific individuals may be active agents of calcification or just enablers of an ongoing organizational hardening of the arteries.

If calcifying tendencies get out of hand, the symptoms can do real damage to an organization and its ability to fulfill its mission. Unneeded bureaucratic procedures take time from employees who could otherwise be providing your members with great customer service or dreaming up new ideas. Not to mention that, while some bureaucratic paperwork is understandable and necessary, past a certain point it can drain individual employees of energy and enthusiasm.

Here’s a little quiz to determine if you or your association needs to go on a bureaucracy diet:

1. Do you find yourself saying any of the following things on a regular basis?

- “That’s a great idea, but we tried that x years ago and it didn’t work.”
- “That’s a great idea, but it would never work here.”
- “That’s a great idea, but we don’t have the resources to pursue it.”

2. Do you spend more time reporting to others about a problem than you spend thinking of creative solutions to the problem?

3. Do you ever find yourself filling out more than three forms that are all related to the same, single task?

4. Do you spend more time filling out forms and writing up informational reports for a board meeting than you do preparing for strategic discussions?

5. Do you spend more time filling out paperwork during the budget process than you spend thinking of improvements to your area of responsibility that could take place in the next budget year?

If you’re answering yes to several of these questions—is it time to consider some changes?

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September 21, 2007

Another potshot at marketing

So when I touched on marketing earlier this week it was so popular (see Lisa's comment about the people taking me to task for it) I thought I'd try again.

On the Membership Marketing Blog, Tony even had the nerve to point out an annoying habit I have of introducing topics with "I'm not such a big believer in..." whatever it is. (Just kidding, Tony -- thanks for keeping me on my toes.)

In that spirit, I offer this: I'm not such a big believer in associations marketing at all.

It's actually the use of the word "marketing" that sticks at me. I may be getting too wrapped up in semantics, but I've been thinking recently that I'd rather inform members than market to them. I'd rather let them know of something great that I think they'd find valuable, rather than try to motivate them to action. I like to think of an association model where people are linking together to accomplish something and to participate in something that would be impossible to do alone. I don't like to think of an association as a captive member-market for products that an organization produces. To whittle it down even further: I like to think of all members as creators (or potential creators) rather than consumers. Getting back to marketing, it's not so much that you're marketing a product or program as you are informing members of opportunities to participate.

With that approach, does the work of what is currently called the marketing department change? Or perhaps it goes back further in the process than that--the types of things that the organization works on and develops may change.

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September 20, 2007

Not just for managers

There’s a very interesting post on the Signal vs. Noise blog on the secrets to Amazon’s success. Some of these “secrets” include

- “People’s side projects, the ones they follow because they are interested, are often ones where you get the most value and innovation.”
- “Innovation can only come from the bottom. Those closest to the problem are in the best position to solve it.”
- “Everyone must be able to experiment, learn, and iterate. Position, obedience, and tradition should hold no power.”

These ideas collided in my head with an article in MIT Sloan Management Review’s Business Insight on “How to Fill the Talent Gap." Authors Douglas Read and Jay Conger identify five factors that they believe will make it increasingly difficult for companies to fill top positions. One factor they identify is the downsizing of many organizations since the early 1990s—by stripping out so many middle management positions, they argue, companies removed developmental opportunities for up-and-coming leaders.

Read and Conger are seeing time in middle management as an important learning experience on the track to upper management, but I think you can help your staff develop similar skills even when they don’t have the word “manager” in their titles—and even when there aren’t any middle-management positions likely to become available.

If you work to create an environment like the one described in that Signal vs. Noise post, where everyone can experiment and pursue side projects and ideas, then employees will develop and learn even in the absence of open middle management positions. Creating that environment takes work—but if senior management can be open to and supportive of staff-driven initiatives, then the staff involved in them reap all kinds of benefits as they learn to take a product or service or program from concept to reality. (There was some discussion of how this would work in a past Acronym post by Peter O’Neil.)

Of course, this kind of environment is a two-way street. Folks in senior management need to do all they can to create a culture of openness and inclusion; and those outside of senior management need to keep their minds open for new ideas and make the effort to pursue them. If you’re in a junior position and you believe that you can't develop without that “manager” word in your title, then you’re a part of the problem, too.

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September 18, 2007

Tipping points, evangelists, sneezers, mavens, etc.

I started to add my 2 cents to Jason's excellent post below as a comment, but it got too involved.

I put myself in Jason's camp: I'm not such a big believer in associations and traditional marketing. I've often wondered what would happen if the 50-gazillion dollar flashy 500-page annual meeting brochure were replaced with three reminder postcards? Could you take the money saved and plow it into other efforts, efforts that would build WOM marketing?

One of the first articles I researched and wrote when I came to GWSAE (that's premerger, folks) was on Seth Godin's Ideavirus. I liked that article a lot, I think as much because I got to use the word phlegmatic, and it had always been an ambition of mine to use the word phlegm in my professional writing without it being a huge stretch. (Tee hee, see how I did it again?)

One of my line of questions to Godin was going to be on how associations as a perfect for cultivating what he called the sneezers (those early adopters that spread the ideavirus—McConnell and Huba called them evangelists; Gladwell called them mavens). I mean, unlike for-profit businesses in a sea of marketing chatter, association members chose to be members. They chose to associate. Shouldn't ideas spread fast in such an environment. No, not really, he said. He didn't think associations had much of an advantage.

He killed my line of questioning. To this day I disagree with him—mostly. Associations should have an advantage. (Here's where you can groan appropriately) but because we're busy measuring the number of members and the number of butts in seats, we don't try to develop measures that will tell us who our sneezers/mavens/evangelists are. We go by reputation and our own knowledge instead, and subsequently we must miss gobs of potential sneezers who slip through the cracks.

Of course, the next step is figuring out what sorts of things will make these people feel special so that they want to continue to come back again and again. But that's another post for another time. (And apologies for all the Godin from me today.)

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Word-of-Mouth Un-Marketing

I bought a copy of ASAE's Decision to Join book back at the annual meeting. It's a worthwhile read and I was happy to listen to Ben Martin's praise of the book in his audio review.

What shocked me was Ben divulging that he's not a big believer in word-of-mouth marketing. This is odd coming from such an advocate for social/participatory media. Hmm...

Conversely, I'm not a big fan of "regular" marketing. In fact, the IGDA hasn't had a marketing budget - ever (we don't even have a line item in the accounting system for it). We haven't put out much in the way of official press releases in the past two years (besides getting tons of media coverage). We've not done any marketing campaigns or membership drives in the traditional sense. We've haven't bought any magazine ads or web banners. Really, nothing.

Yet, the IGDA has enjoyed a massive amount of growth over the years (from less than 500 members in '99 to 13k today (oddly enough, who's average age is 31, but that's a whole other discussion)).

Now, certainly, there are many variables at play, not least of which that we are a relatively new association in the booming video game industry. But, we've been so deliberate about not marketing, that much of our focus has simply been on doing "meaningful stuff" - or rather, facilitating/enabling members to do "meaningful stuff" via the IGDA.

My guess is that the "meaningful stuff" comes with built-in marketing. Admittedly, I've not looked at WOMMA for insight, so perhaps they have some sophisticated models/theories for how "meaningful stuff" = free/word-of-mouth marketing.

Also, to some extent, it means that there's not much for the Bens of the world to do or control from a marketing plan point of view (hmm, do I smell a hint of protecting professional turf). That is to say, the marketing plan is really the overall plan to ensure that your association does "meaningful stuff". (Though, there are probably lots of little tactical things to do like ensure that each web article has an "email this to a friend" type link, etc.)

Decision to Join, word-of-mouth, the Net Promoter Score concept, social media, etc, etc, really do require us to do a complete rethink of what we mean by marketing. I, for one, can vouch for the success of not doing any!

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How do they not know?

Wow... what a great post on Seth Godin's blog. Turns out, not only do we need to figure out what our members don't know, we need to figure out in what way they don't know it.

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September 14, 2007

Even more on growth

It’s all Scott’s fault, really. He started it with a post on “why does growth always have to a strategy?” A vigorous discussion broke out in comments, leading to a follow-up post.

Now, other bloggers are getting into the act with thoughtful posts of their own:

- Jamie Notter discusses why “if you want growth, you have to do the real work of strategy” at the Association Renewal blog.
- Kevin Holland at Association Inc. argues for metrics that value both the members who are in it for the connections and the members who are in it for the magazine (aka mailboxers).
- Kevin also shares what he considers to be the real problem with growth.

ETA: Ben Martin at Certified Association Executive has also responded to Scott's post: "To exceed, meet the need."

(Did I miss anybody? If I did, please drop a note in the comments!)

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September 13, 2007

The Graying of the Web

The September 12th edition of the New York Times ran an article of the same name in their business section. The article provides an interesting insight to the ever-present discussions of social demographics and web frenzies for younger generations. This is particularly interesting to me, since today is my 66th birthday. As a Millennial, trapped in the body of a pre-Baby Boomer, I find the article has applications not just to demographic segments and their web use, but also to my association’s membership programs. You can find the article at: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/12/technology/12social.html?ex=1347249600&en=437a4c71f256da39&ei=5088&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss

Author Matt Richtel opens saying, “Older people are sticky”. He goes on to say, “Technology investors and entrepreneurs, long obsessed with connecting to teenagers and 20-somethings, are starting a host of new social networking sites aimed at baby boomers and graying computer users.” Richtel notes that investors see a profitable characteristic of older Internet users: “they are less likely than youngsters to flit from one trendy site to the next.”

“Teens are tire kickers — they hang around, cost you money and then leave,” said Paul Kedrosky, a venture capitalist and author of the blog “Infectious Greed.” …“The older demographic has a bunch of interesting characteristics,” Mr. Kedrosky added, “not the least of which is that they hang around.”

Does this remind you of your association’s membership characteristics? It fits my association’s membership trends. Our major attrition period is in the first five years of membership. We find that those members who maintain their membership longer than five years tend to be members for a long time thereafter.

Here’s an interesting closing thought from the article that assesses the value of the older generation as Internet users: “…there are 78 million boomers — roughly three times the number of teenagers — and most of them are Internet users who learned computer skills in the workplace. Indeed, the number of Internet users who are older than 55 is roughly the same as those who are aged 18 to 34, according to Nielsen/NetRatings, a market research firm.

So, should we association executives refocus our membership programs from 18-34 year olds to boomers? I’m not sure my association should, but it’s thought provoking! Let’s don’t ignore any of our demographic groups, eh?

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September 12, 2007

Required reading

There's an interesting post at Shawn Lea's blog listing the books that brokerage firm Bears Sterns requires its interns to read. I'd be curious to see if there are any associations (or specific managers) out there with similar reading lists for new employees. What books would be most valuable to someone brand-new to association work? Drop a comment at Shawn's place if you have thoughts!

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Geeking out

In his post yesterday, Jason Della Rocca said something that really resonated with me about “associations being the place where members can be geeks about what they love.”

The term “geek” is one of those that can be used in a derogatory way, but it’s often used proudly within the various permutations of geeky communities. Whether you’re a geek about science fiction, engineering, ancient history, IT, or art, there are few things in life that are more fun than sharing time with those who share your geeky passions—to “geek out” with them about a great book you just read within your favored subject area, pick to pieces a movie that got all of the facts wrong, or debate the finer details of a subject that outsiders wouldn’t begin to understand. (Just as an example, my degree is in religious studies. Just ask any of my coworkers; you don’t want to get me started on certain topics or you’ll find yourself hearing a lot more than you wanted to know.)

I personally have had the great opportunity to attend both the Institute for Organization Management and a bunch of ASAE & The Center events, and in both cases, one of my favorite things is to connect with other association professionals and geek out over association stuff. Wow, your volunteer president did that? Really? How did you handle it? Have you ever had to communicate with your members about a dues increase? How did it work out?

Association bloggers are another case in point. It’s fun to hear them geek out about various aspects of association management; it’s fun to participate in the geekery. And it’s both fun and reassuring to see that others share your passions—whether for association management, religious studies, or what have you.

Really, geekiness is the foundation on which associations were built. Help your members embrace their inner professional or industry geek—and geek out with them!

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September 11, 2007

Great Happiness Spaces

I'm heading to Tokyo for my third time next week. Being one of the mecca's for video games, I have no shortage of excuses to visit (in this case, there is the massive Tokyo Game Show that boasts ~200k attendees, and various other technical conferences I'll be speaking at).

Like many travelers, I'm always compelled to learn (more) about where I'm traveling. Sadly, given busy schedules, this usually means reading the country/city Wikipedia page (which alone is still massively helpful). In the case of Japan, I generally like to consume some of its pop-culture and so have been on a somewhat informal/personal "Japanese immersion program"...

A colleague recommended I watch the documentary on male host-club workers, The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief.

Wow, what a fascinating and disturbing story about the hard drinkin', smokin' and hair-sprayin' young men that entertain women for money. Just from an other-world culture point of view, it is quite a jarring film to watch and does a great job in peeling away the layers of the onion off the "glamorous life" facade.

Anyway, what does this have to do with member associations? Well, there's amazingly a lot of parallels to draw in terms of creating "happiness spaces" and being attuned to customer needs, etc. The central character, being the most successful host in Osaka, states multiple times that it's always/only about the customer, and never about himself - he exists to anticipate and serve their needs.

Portions of the film also made me think back to Douglas Rushkoff's thought leader session at ASAE-07 about associations being the place where members can be geeks about what they love.

In short, we should always be striving to create such great happy spaces for members - perhaps even at the expense of what we may personally prefer...

(FYI, the documentary is freely available via Google Video and runs approx. 75 minutes.)

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Quick clicks: Future web trends, global social media

- Via elearnspace, I came across a list of 10 web trends to watch out for over the next 10 years that may be of interest. Some of the trends, such as “virtual worlds,” I’ve definitely been hearing about; others were new to me. Are there any trends you’d add to their list?

- I also wanted to point you to an interesting post from Peter Turner at opensource.association. He has a map showing the leading social media sites around the world, and he points out some interesting patterns from the data.

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September 10, 2007

More on growth as strategy

There has been a lively discussion to my last post on questioning growth as a strategy.

One of the commenters mentioned that in her opinion as engagement goes up, so will the measurements of things like number of members, member retention, and product and program sales. I tried to respond in another comment, but the comment was getting too long, so I thought I'd write a quick post on this idea.

In general, I agree with her—that as more people get engaged, the numbers associations traditionally measure will go up. One important note is something Virgil pointed out in his comments, the relationship isn't as neat in the other direction—as the numbers go up, engagement is probably going up. Maybe, maybe not.

But I could easily see something else all together happening. I could see a relatively small, tight-knit group of engagers and a whole bunch of nonengagers on the outside. If the small group that is engaged is engaged on topics that mesh with the organization's mission, then I can see it being beneficial for the organization to focus energies on the small group.

One prerequisite is that the group must be inclusive—if it keeps people out then the organization should work to change that. But as long as the nonengagers can relatively easily choose to engage, I see an organization that most likely would be stronger by focusing on enhancing the experience for those that engage, rather than cast spend most of their energy casting a wider net to ensnare more nonengagers. In such a scenario, I could see number of members, retention, butts-in-seats, etc. all going down, though I would say the strength and relevancy of the organization is going up.

The reality is, it's not an entirely either-or discussion. My point is this, organizations that are actively trying to fulfill their mission should usually slide the needle on that continuum toward the side that serves those that are engaged.

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September 6, 2007

Why does growth always seem to be a strategy?

I'm back on my diatribe again about measurement. I'm actually going to try to write something about it in Associations Now, which is kind of a scary prospect for me. (I think it's scheduled for the Volunteer Leadership supplement, so it's something that has to be interesting and coherent not only to execs, but their boards as well.)

It's scary because I don't know exactly what or how to do it, but I've been increasingly presented with the notions that the metrics and strategies that just about every association uses are of tertiary interest at best. I've blogged previously on this topic, and it remains what I think is my best post to Acronym. The fact that Jason Della Rocca has agreed to continue guest blogging on Acronym for a while is significant because I loved his comments to my original post.

Wes Trochlil has a nice allegory on his EDM blog today illustrating the point.

One of the questions I want to explore is: why is growth so important? Why does your budget have to grow? Why does your membership need to grow?

There really is only one type of growth that seems important to me: participation growth. People have heard me rail against the "butts-in-seats" measurement—I begrudgingly admit that this is indeed one thing to look at when you're talking about participation. But it has to be much more than that. Going back to my earlier blog post, the best way to look at participation is to personalize it member by member, and then look at the aggregate—are people getting more engaged or less engaged? Is your association constantly trying to create new ways for people to engage? If so, is the only measure of whether or not such engagement opportunities are successful financial?

I just don't believe it proves an organization is more successful if its membership goes from 30,000 to 40,000 or if its annual meeting attendance goes from 1,000 to 2,000. That sounds to me like a very corporate mindset—selling more is better. One of the takeaways from my favorite session at the Annual Meeting in Chicago was when Douglas Rushkoff said if associations are trying to run their organizations like a for-profit, they're trying to emulate a broken model. He notes that forward-thinking companies are trying to model the building of community around their products.

The goal shouldn't be 10,000 more members or 1,000 more attendees. If you have those, great, but the more important measurement is how much you mean to anybody who shows up. If you make them a better person, a better professional, or you make an organization more successful—these are the things that really matter. The distinction is this: I think too many associations get caught up in designing products and services for the purpose of attracting people. It would be better to design those products and services so that they provide meaningful experiences for people. It's a subtle difference, but I think an important one. And pretty much by design, planning and budgeting guarantee the former approach, because inevitably the goals include revenue growth--more people joining, more people buying a book, more people certifying—these are the things we measure. How would a book or a program or any product or service look different if instead of revenue growth it was measured by participant value growth?

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de Tocqueville revisited

My article ("de Tocqueville's America: Revisited") in the September issue of Associations Now is hitting the streets and is online. For the inspiration behind the article, read the short article on page 4 (print version only - sorry). And while you're there, find out about the fight club above one of our design and production staff's apartment.

I'm blogging because I'm interested to hear what questions (and answers) Acronym readers would ask de Tocqueville if they had been with me in the interview. Or how they think de Tocqueville would have answered my questions. And while you're on the site with this article or any other, be sure to take a moment and rate it and post a quick review.

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September 5, 2007

My Balance is Off

I have been a working mother since eight weeks after my three-year-old son was born. I was working from home from 5:30 – 1:30 each day, synching my hours to match an office in Atlanta, from my home in Oregon. I had afternoons with my son and my husband, who is a professor with a flexible schedule. Unlike most working families, we regularly spent well more than half the day together as a family.

I could look at the Mommy Wars from my home office and feel exasperated (and smug) because all the working women in the articles were shallow careerists who chose vocations incompatible with raising kids, and the stay-at-home moms were unambitious and retro. When I read about yet another hand-wringing executive mother seeking a better balance, I’d scoff: “Of course you can’t be an emergency room physician/hedge fund manager/Fortune 500 Executive and raise kids in an involved way. Neither can a man. Why are they acting surprised?”

Then, for many reasons, I started looking for a new job. What I found was really sobering.

In a typical interview, I asked how the firm ensured work/life balance. “We do pretty well here,” my interviewer said, totally without irony. “Most people work between 45 and 50 hours per week. We don’t allow telecommuting or flextime because it’s really important that you be accessible to clients, but we do a lot better than some of the other firms in town.” Wrong answer.

Finally, (four months ago) I landed a job I really want and I’ve taken a needed step forward in my career. But I’m apart from my family for around 10 hours a day, which means I see the kids for less than 2 hours before bedtime.

NOW I’m a working mother. I love my job, but in the middle of the day, I find that I miss my kids. A lot. I’ve learned something important that the articles don’t teach you: you don’t have to be hugely ambitious to feel strained by what it takes to work in this economy. This is reality for most working parents.

We’re lucky. Our kids have a parent front and center for most of their days, though it’s not me. Some days I’m wracked with wondering: will my baby daughter suffer because I’m gone so much? Is it unfair to her?

I wish for more hours in the day so I could be with my kids for longer than two hours in the evenings – and not want to hurry so I can just BE for a few minutes before I collapse at the end of the day. It’s banal. It’s everyone’s story. But should it be?

Here’s a recent New York Times story where the author, Marci Alboher, questions whether having a firm line between work and the rest of your life is advisable, even if it is possible. What do you think?

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