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May 29, 2009

The Essence of Leadership

"The essence of leadership... is to pay it forward."

That's what Velma Hart, national finance director and CFO of AMVETS National Headquarters, says in her This Week in Associations Video on leading, particularly in difficult times. I'm still trying to decide if I agree with it not, but I like this thought—that the essence of leadership is not inspiring action by followers so much as inspiring the inner leader of others. I think that fits nicely with a leadership tenet I absolutely believe: that no person truly motivates another. Perhaps some people—leaders—are better at finding and tugging at the strings that people use to motivate themselves than others, but charisma from one will never conquer the apathy of another unless their willing to let go of that apathy.

Check out the full video:

Update: Due to a vendor's player change, the video cannot be embedded directly. To access the video in this post, please choose it from the playlist in the video player below.


Quick clicks: Straight talk

Happy Friday! Here is your weekly roundup of interesting posts from the association blogging community and elsewhere.

Eric Lanke at the Hourglass Blog asks if you’re still the right person for your job.

In a guest post on the Socialfishing blog, Leslie White offers some straight talk about risk—specifically, the risk of lost opportunities, specifically relating to social media (although what she has to say can certainly be applied elsewhere).

The Signal to Noise blog has some equally straight talk about planning: “The only plan you should make is to plan on improvising.”

Wes Trochlil points out what I’m going to call the “office kitchen conundrum”: “That which no one owns, no one will care for.”

Tony Rossell continues to explore the question “What is one thing an association marketing team must do, if nothing else?”

The Challenge Management blog muses on the strange profession of association management (and hiring people who can be successful at it).

Kerry Stackpole at the Wired 4 Leadership blog has some thoughts on exclusivity, inclusivity, and social media.

Sherry Jennings at the Sound Governance blog has posted a case study on how a nonprofit can work to avoid a crisis if a major source of funding dries up.

At the Forum Effect blog, Doug Eadie shares some insights on the role of the CEO as chief board developer.

I love this: Michele Martin at the Bamboo Project blog has a great story about how a professor energized his class by lying to them (no, really). (She also recently posted a great roundup of resources on accessible learning.)


May 28, 2009

Community at ISTE, part II

(This is the second part of a two-part interview with Jennifer Ragan-Fore, director of new media and member communities at ISTE. Part I of our interview is here.)

Have you had any situations where an early, prominent volunteer who was instrumental in bringing a community together is now transitioning out of that community?

Interestingly enough, we’re in the middle of doing that right now. It’s someone who’s been instrumental, both in helping us set up our volunteer programs and also in some of our professional development sessions that we’ve offered in our Second Life community. He’s an early adopter, and he’s ready to move on to some other technologies—which doesn’t mean that he won’t continue to be involved with ISTE, but he’s just ready to move on to other opportunities.

I think that’s one of those things that sometimes makes people very nervous, but you just have to be cognizant going in that part of the opportunity in being able to offer these kinds of informal volunteer roles means that people are going to drop in and drop out. It’s not as tidy as, say, being in a professional interest section, where we say, “Your term is a year and then you can re-up at the end of that year.” You may have a volunteer say (at a very unfortunate time), “You know, I need to step back from this, because this is going on in my life.” You have to be aware of that and have some plans in place for it.

That’s part of the beauty of being able to offer these opportunities, though: People understand that they can sign on for a short period of time and then go do something else that interests them, and they don’t feel like they’re letting anyone down. It’s much easier to get a potential volunteer involved these days if they don’t feel like they’re signing over the next three years of their lives in order to commit.

Are you doing anything with the early adopters as they move out?

We try to give them different and new opportunities, not always with the same tool or community. We’ve had a strong group within Second Life, and it’s opened up so many opportunities there that we could juggle [early adopters] around if they were still interested in Second Life as a tool. This is the first time we’re coming to the point where people are saying “OK, what else is out there?” So we’re trying to find different ways to engage these volunteers.

One of the things we’ve just done internally is to form a social media steering committee that has representation from all the different departments within our organization, and then a larger stakeholder group that meets a little bit less regularly but is even more broadly based. We’re going to be adding members into those groups, to give us some added perspective, and it will be some of these first-mover, early adopters who can help us really strategize. What are the tools our members are using? What are the things we should be adopting? I think there are many leadership roles they can play.

Is there anything we haven’t discussed that has been critical to ISTE’s success with building member communities?

I think the biggest thing has been the volunteer piece. If you’re successful in using any of these Web 2.0, social media tools, you have to have a base of members who are actively engaged and feel ownership—people who can be your evangelists and who can put in the hours that are going to be required to jump-start the community. You have to create engagement opportunities. You can’t just set up a tool and hope that the community is going to know what to do with that tool. You have to have some people who are willing to put some skin in the game.

Any success we’ve had with this has really been about the core group of volunteers who have been willing to not just help us staff it and improve it and think about what else we should be doing, but also who will go out there and talk about it and be very authentic about why it’s a good thing. I think if you have the organization saying “This is a cool tool you should be using,” and you don’t have that group of really delighted members who are out there saying it themselves, it’s hard to gain traction and momentum.

I think that’s the biggest thing: Start with the members, continue with the members, finish with the members. It starts with having that core group of people who are so excited about it that you don’t even have to do marketing for it. It’s them out there getting their networks excited about it. And then you can pick those threads up when it becomes a little bit more mainstream and your marketing message already has really great results built in.

(If you’re interested in more of Jennifer’s thoughts on building member communities, she has a great slide deck available on Slideshare. She'll also be speaking at the ASAE & The Center Annual Meeting this August on volunteerism and Web 2.0.)


Community at ISTE (part I)

Our final interview in this month’s “community” series on Acronym is with Jennifer Ragan-Fore, director of new media and member communities for ISTE, the International Society for Technology in Education. Jennifer has spent several years working with volunteers and other ISTE staff to develop member communities in Second Life and elsewhere online. I had the opportunity to talk to her about that experience and what she’s learned from it—and she gave me so many good answers I’m splitting it into two posts.

What were some of your goals when you first set out to build up ISTE’s member communities?

Initially, one of our big goals was to reach out to a younger demographic. I think this is generally a goal for most associations right now, but it’s especially true for our association—our core base of members are the first-mover technologists from the late 1970s and early 1980s who are now starting to retire. We have a big directive to infuse the association with younger generations of members as more and more of our members retire.

We thought, as we were starting these initiatives, that we would be reaching the under-35 crowd. We were sort of surprised to find that we weren’t necessarily doing that. The people who were embracing tools like Second Life and Facebook were a little bit younger than our general demographic, but not significantly younger—people in their 40s and 50s. We were a little surprised by that, but we ran with it, and it’s been a great value-add to our existing member benefits. And we continue to use other strategies to reach out to that younger demographic now.

Were there other things that surprised you as you started and continued the effort to build member communities at ISTE?

So much of our activity, like a lot of associations, is centered around the single face-to-face opportunity at our annual meeting. We were pleasantly surprised that there really was an interest and a need out there in the membership to contribute throughout the year—not just show up and help with events, but actually to be able to engage in a deep way and do it on a regular basis throughout the year.

Are there any new challenges that you’re facing now that these communities are maturing?

I think a challenge with any virtual community like these is that once you get to a certain point, the community becomes a lot more mainstream. And with an influx of new members, the initial core group of people can feel a little lost in the shuffle, where once they were a small, cohesive group.

When you start out with a smaller group—maybe a few dozen growing into a few hundred—it’s a very insular kind of community. And it’s really desirable to that group, I think, to know everyone there. As it grows, it’s not necessarily the same faces every time. There’s sort of a rebalancing at that point, and you try to figure out how to gain equilibrium as a community, because not everyone is known in the same way. It also means that you have to set up more structure with community rules, and you may not know every single personality at play. It does take it out of the grassroots level. You just have to make it a little more structured, but at the same time, also figure out how to retain the grassroots feel even while you’re setting up these structures.


May 27, 2009

Saying too much, or not enough

In a recent blog post, Cindy Butts wonders how many channels is too many when communicating with members--particularly members who actively participate in many channels and might resent seeing the same message in email, in your e-newsletter, on Twitter, and so on and so forth.

Her post resonated with me, because I recently received an email from a member who felt left out of the crowdsourcing process used for the May issue of Associations Now. The member who contacted me never saw any of the communications we put out about the crowdsourced issue until she received the end product in the mail.

So, on the one hand, you have members who can feel bombarded when they receive too many communications about the same thing through multiple channels. On the other, you can communicate through multiple channels--and still miss some members, who can then feel left out of the loop. Where's the happy medium?

I have a couple of thoughts:

Don't hit every channel every time. That, to me, is the definition of bombardment--when you see the same wording appear in five places every time an announcement is made. Figure out who among your audience is most likely to use a particular channel, and decide which of those audiences most need to know a particular piece of information.

Suit the message to the channel. Some channels are more suited to in-depth information, and others are more suited to get short bursts of information out. Some channels move quickly and others are available long-term.

Consider a cheat sheet. Maybe it would be helpful to develop a list of channels available to your association, with a few sentences on how best to use each. When you have a message to get out, you could consult the list and quickly assemble a plan of attack.

As a fictional example, if you had an association blog, your list might describe it this way: "Our blog is best for announcements less than 300 words that can be presented with a little personality (we avoid dryness). Our blog readers are primarily mid-career professionals. Posts are rarely accessed more than a week after they go live. A typical blog post is read by 10,000 unique visitors."

What suggestions would you add to the list?

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May 26, 2009

Going virtual

Here is a topic that must strike fear into the hearts of commercial real estate people—virtual offices!

I’ll admit this is a difficult concept for me because I work in an office environment with colleagues with whom I can share ideas and pick brains whenever the need or whim strikes. I cannot begin to number the ideas that have sprung out of such casual conversations…which would not have occurred at all had they been planned. I also have witnessed the gradual degradation of relationships that have depended solely on emails, phone conversations and even audio-visual links—with misunderstandings and suspicions growing until that time when the individuals actually meet face-to-face and find all pent-up tensions fading away like fog exposed to a bright sun. For all these reasons I see humans as social animals that require face-to-face contact in order to communicate effectively and to realize their full potential as colleagues, partners, and friends. But I may be wrong…..

Do virtual offices work for organizations of any size? Could organizations the size of IBM abandon its buildings and have all their employees operate from home in a virtual environment? Technically of course they could, but would it be as efficient and as innovative?

Does the type of business matter? Obviously employees of manufactures need to come together to make things, but what about professional services—such as law firms and accounting firms? Does it work for any business or association that is not required to physically assemble stuff?

Organizational structures clearly have changed because of technology. We see client service teams in consulting firms whose members are located variously in Japan, the US and Europe with their team leader in South America. The possibilities of virtual business relationships are mind-staggering; but in all of this are there limits or hidden expenses related to lost efficiencies?

Here I am in my tie and professional environment writing this blog, but for all you know I could be in a swimming suit next to a pool….hmmm…. How virtually can we lead our lives and our businesses? Is there a limit at which we begin to lose something essential?

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(Re)welcome Steve Worth!

We have another new blogger joining us this month--Steve Worth, president of Plexus Consulting Group. Steve has more than twenty years of experience as a professional consultant and has provided strategic consulting assistance to associations, businesses, and governments around the world in areas covering organizational restructuring, public policy, and public and organizational communications.

Steve actually blogged with us last year, with a series of posts on partnership. This time, he's not focused around a specific topic, and he'll be taking advantage of that to share many interesting thoughts related to associations, leadership, and much more.

Please welcome Steve back to Acronym. We're glad to have him blogging with us again!


Finding ideas

Last month, I was fascinated by Ashton Kutcher and CNN’s race to reach the 1 million followers mark on Twitter. (As you may have seen, Ashton won.) Reading through the coverage, I’ve been wondering where the idea for the competition came from. What inspired the idea for the challenge? What inspires you to think outside the box?

Ideas, like "I should get a million followers," often come about when we least expect them. We’re chatting with colleagues, family or friends, often not even talking about the subject that inspires such a movement but perhaps random thoughts and ideas, and sparks begin to fly. It’s these random chats, these idea-sharing opportunities that often inspire us to collaborate with each other to achieve success on one project or another. We shouldn’t shy away from these moments, even if the ideas we come up with are not really feasible or practical and are eventually tossed aside for another. That is all part of the process. If you find that you aren’t coming up with these little sparks of genius, these ideas that motive others to movement, perhaps you aren’t chatting with the right group. Maybe it isn’t the strangers we meet on LinkedIn and Twitter that will drive us to new ideas. Sometimes it’s the staff in our own office who are often not asked what they think on a subject they would love to share ideas on, or maybe it’s just your drinking buddies or shopping friends who would inspire you most.

So don’t be afraid to gather in groups and share that idea that seems stuck, or as you fear, even a little stale. Ask for advice from those around you and toss around ideas that might improve your projects or services. See what happens when you meet with your group, perhaps monthly or weekly, and let the sparks of great ideas fly where they may.


May 25, 2009

Beauty School Dropout

Writing this post, I’m reminded of the song “Beauty School Dropout.” You remember it, right? If you close your eyes—just for a few seconds—I’m sure you’ll recall the stripped down set, the low-budget costumes and the bad choreography. I’m also betting you’ll remember at least some of Frankie Avalon’s infamous lyrics.

Like Frenchy, I’m looking for some direction. After months of planning, programming and editing, I’m happy to report that our new web and audio conferencing services are up and running. It was the first significant project I managed in my new role as director of member relations, and it was a tremendous learning opportunity.

Dozens of long-term care professionals will be speaking in the coming weeks. Their knowledge and expertise will provide our members with valuable education in a convenient and cutting-edge format. There’s only one problem: our members just aren’t visiting the association's Web site to sign up for these innovative, new programs. And while I wear many hats, I’m once again reminded that I’m not a marketing professional.

So, my question to you is this: What clever marketing strategies have you used to increase traffic to your association Web site? How can I attract people to our flashy, new registration site when it’s one of many things competing for attention on an out-dated, disorganized, content-heavy association Web site?

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May 22, 2009

Searching for stories

A colleague of mine shared a great idea that I thought I'd share with you: He has a friend who gives a lot of presentations. To inspire himself, the friend wanders through the fiction section of bookstores and reads the first pages of novels, chosen at random off the shelf.

Why? Because the first page of a book has to hook you--that's what it's there for. If a reader isn't motivated to keep reading after the first page, he or she certainly isn't buying your book.

This presenter takes the techniques he sees as effective in fiction, and finds ways to twist and apply them to the stories he tells in his own presentations--the better to hook his audience.

If you ever need to hook an audience, this idea could help you find some inspiration and new ideas. (Or, if nothing else, an excuse to spend some time in a bookstore ...) Happy reading!


The return of quick clicks

I have been extremely remiss lately in sharing links to some of the great discussions happening in the association blogging community (and elsewhere). Here are just a few of the interesting posts I've seen this week.

(What did I miss? Feel free to share links to other recent standout posts in comments. Note that links can occasionally trip our spam filter; if your comment goes into quarantine because of the link, I'll release it for you.)

- Totally not association related, but if you'd like to take a few minutes to change your perspective this morning, check out this set of photos on The Big Picture photoblog: Human landscapes as seen from above.

- Cindy Butts at the AE on the Verge blog asks which of your association's programs are your "biggest losers." (A follow-up post describes what you might do once those "losers" are identified.)

- NTEN has posted a roundup of materials related to the recent Nonprofit Technology Conference. I haven't had a chance to review them in detail, but if you're interested in nonprofits and technology, I'm sure there's something in there for you.

- Frank Fortin at the Guilt by Association blog says that associations can learn a lot from Staples on how to operate in a recession.

- Bruce Hammond has some thoughts on personalizing membership: "People like to be treated like they're the only member of your association."

- Lindy Dreyer at the Association Marketing Springboard blog as a provocative question to raise: If having great content on your website is no longer enough to draw people there, what should we do next?

- If you have ever sat through an unsuccessful RFP process (on either side), you may be interested in a post by Rick Johnston on a new trend called "speed sourcing."

- Is your association listening actively? Peggy Hoffman at the Idea Center blog has some ideas on how to open your organizational ears.

- Maddie Grant at the Socialfishing blog has some thoughts on the complicated nature of our organizations' identity in a digital age. Jamie Notter has posted in response.

- A group of association Twitterers have started organizing "association chats" on Tuesday afternoons. Deirdre Reid at the Reid All About It blog has more information and a summary of the first discussion.


May 21, 2009

New thinking about community

We continue our theme of exploring ideas around the concept of community with a brief email interview with one of my favorite authors and thinkers, Seth Godin. If you have missed it (and believe me, you’ve missed something if you have) do yourself a favor and become a religious reader of his blog. He will help you think about things in new ways, I guarantee it.

Me: Let’s say I work at a nonprofit and am charge of a community of specialists within a profession. Once highly active and engaging, this group has stagnated, it still has a number of participants, but it lacks the energy it once had. How do I know if I’m in a dip or if I need to bail?

Godin: It lacks the energy because you're not going anywhere. Is there a mission? A status quo worth fighting? Are there leaders with something at stake, or connections that matter?

In my experience, there are too many associations that exist to pay the staff.

(Scott here – ouch! But think about that statement some. I think there’s probably more truth to it than we’d ever like to admit.)

Me: A typical association: My program is a cul de sac (going around in circles), problem is, there’s a few important people who think it’s critical for my organization. I’ve tried to quit the program before, but am told its political. How do I navigate these politics and keep my job?

Godin: What makes it political? If you shut it down, who would suffer? What would you invent to take its place? It's probably political because there isn't a better alternative. Invent that first, and then see what happens.

Me: There are tons of ways for an organization to muck things up and kill community, but in what ways can organizations act as catalysts for community creation and involvement?

Godin: As I mentioned earlier, the juicier your goal, the more imminent it feels, the easier it is to build community.

Me: If you think of the communities you’ve engaged in – what, besides the topic, attracted you to participate?

Godin: Way more than the topic, the two things are: the people and the velocity of movement.

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May 20, 2009

What do you call a group of association professionals?

Do you remember learning some of the special terms for groups of animals, like a pride of lions or a gaggle of geese? (I'm fond of "an exaltation of larks," myself.) I recently came across a list of ideas for similar terms that can be applied to people: a brace of orthodontists, a wedge of golfers.

Of course, that list made me think that we association professionals need a term of our own! I've come up with a few ideas, but I'd love to see yours too. I'll put my thoughts in a comment on this post; if you have ideas of your own, chime right in.

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May 19, 2009

Is social media hurting face to face meetings?

As we all know, there is more and more top-notch information being shared online, especially through all of the social networks. Twitter seems to be the hottest for now and the number of links to good, and not-so-good, information I receive on a daily basis is overwhelming. Social Networks now give us almost instant access to many of the experts that we used to have to attend face to face meetings to hear speak. Is this good or bad or both for associations?

My experience at the face to face meetings I have attended most recently is as follows—great networking, lots of good people to meet and connect with but the content was just average. A lot of the presentations were people talking about things I had already heard, or read before, poorly hidden sales pitches or just “performers” up on stage keeping the audience entertained but not really providing much value. Overall the education did not make it worth my time and money to attend. Fortunately the networking did.

Has the purpose of having face to face meetings changed? Should they be all about “entertainment” and networking? Or do associations need to do a better job of really getting fantastic speakers who share information you cannot get online or at almost any other meeting? Since many associations derive a good amount of revenue from face to face meetings I think this is something we need to figure out sooner rather than later. What do you think?

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May 18, 2009

Everyone has a story

It's easy to get caught up in life around us, to believe everything we hear and see, but life just isn’t that way. The mantra I've been posting on Twitter recently is quite simple: Don't judge, don't make assumptions, and everyone has a story. I can only imagine what a better place we would all be in if we tried harder to follow these rules. Not just physically, but emotionally as well.

How quick we are to judge others. When a car pulls in front of you and you curse at them, chances are they never thought about how it might affect your day. Their thoughts might be a thousand miles away, on a grumpy boss or a sick child, their financial situation, or even relationship problems at home. But we often judge them as rude, careless, or inconsiderate without stopping to think they have their own story.

What would happen if we just shook it off and went back to our own business? If we just determined not to prejudge them and move on? And perhaps in our desire to be more considerate, more patient even, we would find that others adopt our kinder philosophy, our non-judgmental views, and soon life would change. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe people wake up with the intention of judging others. Of making quick assumptions or reacting harshly to situations they face, I just think it builds. Slowly at first, but soon, without even realizing it, we react. Or perhaps over-react.

Judging others and making assumptions isn't something we just do with strangers. We do the same thing every day with our friends, family, our staff, and association members. We can get disappointed when our members fail to rejoin or choose to drop a sponsorship, but do we ponder on what lead them to that decision? Are they having issues of their own?

The key is communication. Remind yourself every day not to judge others or make assumptions and know that everyone you pass, everyone you judge, has a story of their own and you can't truly know what it is without being in their shoes.

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Welcome Kimberley Gray!

I'm happy to introduce you to our newest Acronym blogger, Kimberley Gray. Kimberley is the events coordinator for the Associated General Contractors of Alaska, a small-staff trade association located in Anchorage. To my knowledge, Kimberley is also our first Alaskan blogger (correct me if I'm wrong about that ...).

Kimberley will be posting with us over the next month with some thoughts on membership, social media, and communication.

Please make Kimberley feel welcome as she gets started on Acronym. Kimberley, welcome!


May 14, 2009

Investor check-up resources

Went to a session on lessons from the Madoff scandal (at ASAE & The Center's FBOS) and while nothing can ensure you'll avoid the next Madoff, there are some smart practices to enact. Chiefly, have separate investment advisers and investment managers.

Also check out these sites to perform a little due diligence on your financial managers:



Managing across generations

Brett Farmiloe and Zach Hubbell, cofounders of Pursue the Passion and keynoter at the first day of ASAE & The Center's Finance and Business Operations Symposium, took a refreshingly different approach to talk about their chosen topic: What Generation Y Wants.

The pair of Gen Yers traveled across the country interviewing thousands of people who enjoy their work about why they do--from CEOs to shoe designers to park rangers. Rather than talk about generational differences, they talked about the similarities that span generations, and they developed three attributes that are common to all people who go to work and enjoy what they do, doesn't matter their age, experience, level, gender, or anything else. The three are:

1. Significance
2. Trust
3. Measurability

Now, you can't have a keynote on generations without bringing it into the mix in some way. So their take was to go into the three areas and talk about what, specifically, what these three things mean to someone in Generation Y. Personally, I'm an anti-generation guy. I absolutely think the generational stereotypes have some basis in factual research, but these stereotypes break down so seriously at the individual level, that the noise around generational differences is significantly detrimental.

So, there take on Gen Y and the three commonalities sounds to me like there was no need to bring generation into it all.

Significance - Gen Yers want to feel valued and feel that the organization their working for does valuable things. Their advice: make them feel like they are missed when they are out of the room. To me, that's just good management advice.

Trust - Note that some of the best ideas in an organization come from people who have not been institutionalized, but too often these are from lower on the org chart and never get serious consideration. Their advice: give Gen Yers enough rope to swing (and do great things) or hang themselves (a teaching moment). Again, sounds like good management.

Measurability - They made the point that Gen Y is used to instant feedback because of the communication methods they grew up with. My broken record moment -- instant feedback is just smart management.

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Building and sustaining community

Last week, we took a look at some of Clay Shirky's thoughts on community. This week, we're continuing our exploration of the "community" theme with a conversation with Maddie Grant and Lindy Dreyer of SocialFish.

Maddie and Lindy have demonstrated their community-building talents in a number of ways--through YAP, their contributions to the Association Social Media Wiki, and through their own blogs and their active and enthusiastic participation in the association blogging community. They're also currently writing a book on building community, so I wanted to take this opportunity to pick their brains about that very topic.

How do you define “community”?

Lindy: When people bond together over a shared interest, they form community. Community is a complex matrix of adjacent and overlapping relationships. Community has gravity. The more massive the group, the bigger the pull. The closer the relationships, the tighter the bond.

Can a community be built from the ground up, or does community develop organically?

Maddie: Yes and yes! You need both forces at work. The key driver to building community is passion. When you hear about a community that develops organically, you're actually hearing about a community that was built from the ground up by a group of passionate people. In our work with clients who are building community online, every successful community has at its core a small group of tireless champions--usually a mix of members, staff, and even stakeholders from outside the organization.

In building or growing a new community, what are the roles of the community builders, versus community members?

Maddie: New communities need people in three important roles--builders/managers, members, and champions.

The first role you mentioned--the community builders or community managers--are the people who are defining the space, setting the tone, and hosting the party, so to speak. In the association context, this is likely a staff role. A great community builder knows when to get involved to settle a dispute or stoke a conversation, and when to get out of the way and let others in the community take center stage.

The second role you mentioned--the community members--really define their own role. Their engagement levels will ebb and flow, where they will dip in and out of the space as they choose. Some will become champions, others will only participate temporarily, and that's OK. This is their space to do with as they please, so long as they adhere to the community's core values and culture.

The third role--community champions--are the community members who are so passionate they take the lead. The community champions have an important bridging role between the community builders and the community members.

What do you think are the secrets to building a sustainable community—one that will last for the long haul? (On a related note, do you feel sustainability is always an important goal for community builders to have?)

Maddie: Many communities form to tackle a specific task or issue. Once solved, the community happily dissolves. So no, sustainability is not always an important goal. That said, for an association to be sustainable, its community must be sustainable

Lindy: One secret: All community forms in small groups. This is something that Peter Block covers well in his book Community: The Structure of Belonging. Large communities have a large number of small, tightly bonded groups. And within those groups, there are connectors who bond the small groups to other small groups. I think it's easy, as association executives, to gloss over the needs of the small groups in favor of the big picture, and the big picture is very important, so I get it. But when it comes to building community, the small group IS the big picture.

Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you think is important to think about when you’re thinking about building community?

Maddie: Many associations are actually quite accomplished at building community, at least in real life. But we're way behind in establishing ourselves as community builders online. (Which is actually related to another secret to success--reinforce online connections through offline events and vice versa.) There's a difference between having an "online community," versus having a community online. You can buy the tool, but not the relationships.

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May 13, 2009

Antitrust back in the spotlight

It took three weeks for the newly confirmed Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division Christine Varney to note a major federal policy shift. In remarks on Monday and Tuesday, she left little doubt that the Obama Administration will actively pursue possible antitrust violations. As if right on cue, the European Union on Tuesday smacked Intel with a record antitrust fine, all of which presents the perfect opportunity for associations to take a look at their own antitrust risks and practices. I talked with Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman attorney Jeff Glassie about what this means for associations.

"I think you have to look at the new assistant district attorney's remarks and you have to look at the consent order the FTC issued to settle charges against the National Association of Music Manufacturers issued in March as evidence of how this administration is going to focus on antitrust issues," says Glassie.

The NAMM case is notable because there was not an allegation of an anticompetitive agreement being reached by means of NAMM, only that NAMM facilitated an exchange of information. Agreements can be per se antitrust violations, information exchanges by themselves are not. Still, the FTC pursued NAMM because it said the way they actively sought to exchange information could lead to anticompetitive practices. (Read the FTC's take.)

Varney's remarks, on the other hand, were aimed more at monopolisitic parts of antitrust law, which are not an area where associations face a great deal of risk. Still, Glassie warns that her remarks are not insignificant to associations.

In a poor economy, there might be some expectation of deference to business to ensure that they remain or regain profitability and avoid bankruptcy or closure. But "she pretty clearly laid out that protecting consumer welfare cannot take a backseat in a challenging economy," he says. "She didn't use the word 'associations,' but she did say that there is no adequate substitute for a competitive market, particularly in times of economic stress. In terms of antitrust enforcement, the administration has signaled it intends to play a vigorous roles, which is a sharp contrast to the last eight years."

So what should associations do about it?

First, "Don't look at this as some kind of black cloud," says Glassie. "When I make presentations to associations on antitrust, I'm sure to say that our country is founded on a free market system. What keeps it a free market and not one subject to collusion or to the dominance of a very few, very large players, is antitrust law."

As for due diligence, this is what Glassie recommends:

- Dust off the antitrust policy and make sure that it's updated and applied. It should be part of board books and any relevant committee meetings as part of the agenda and minutes.

- Be especially diligent that any surveys or research on prices, fees, salaries, or other sensitive areas are performed and released appropriately. (See Statement 5 in "Statements of Antitrust Enforcement Policy in Health Care.")

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May 12, 2009

Cherry-picking Relevant Journal Articles Adds Value to Membership

Plenty of conversation is occurring about how to add value to association memberships, with much discussion focusing on delivering more knowledge and further developing members’ skills.

One added benefit I like was announced recently by the Web Analytics Association. Its Research Committee has arranged access to four online peer-reviewed journals that may interest its members. To “bridge the gap between industry research and the research conducted within the academic communities,” a project team of the committee reviews and summarizes selected articles to keep WAA members apprised of the latest research and offers an archive of issues as well. The committee also is recruiting members to write reviews.

This example reflects aspects of chatter I’ve heard lately about the need for associations to “get over” their “territorial attitudes” regarding their publications and instead focus on finding and delivering access to the best range of knowledge for their respective professions or trades—and that may mean outside of the hallowed halls of the association. Indeed, it may mean reaching out to peripheral organizations that aren’t a perfect match to all members but may hold attractive information to members involved or interested in cross-disciplinary knowledge exchanges.

A more open attitude also may prompt more association journal/magazine exchanges and wider tapping of for-profit publications and knowledge products.

Frankly, associations aren’t always good at that type of strategy, but if we want to retain the value of our reputations as comprehensive repositories and leaders in relevant knowledge delivery, then we need to re-examine what types of knowledge our members truly need in this changing economy—and whether we have to be the ones to create it from scratch.

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May 11, 2009

The Power of A

Here's a video of ASAE & The Center President & CEO John H. Graham, CAE, talking about the public's perception of associations and one of the steps ASAE & The Center is taking.

Check out more on the public awareness campaign at its microsite, and also be sure to take in Graham's other video on ASAE & The Center's legislative priorities.

Let us know what you think.


May 7, 2009

Shirky: Associations must be the broker of connections

Community is one of those words that an old journalism professor of mine told me to never use because it doesn't mean anything. Or, more to the point, it can mean about 100 different things depending on context, so you should always find a more specific word to use.

Well, Acronym is going to focus on community this month anyway, and we'll embrace it for all its different meanings.

First up is some keen insight from Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody and a Thought Leader at the 2009 Annual Meeting & Expo this August. He spoke at the Digital Now conference in April, and I had the good fortune to pick his brain for about 30 minutes. He offered some great thoughts on how community is evolving for associations.

On gathering people around knowledge:

"With this forwarding and forwarding and forwarding possibility, the ability of organizations to use what they have and know as kind of bright, shiny objects to attract the population they'd like to be serving or addressing—whether it's their own members or potential members, or even just the sort of penumbra of interested people—means that anyplace you can get sharing to happen at low enough cost and high enough redistribution value, there's a model available now that didn't used to be available." 

On the survival of conferences and meetings:

"If I want information about a Cisco product, I'm so much better off getting it from Cisco's [web]site than I am going to a conference and hearing about it. The reason to go to a conference is to be around the other people. ... The conference business that struggled ... were the ones that assumed that a conference business was basically a way of broadcasting information to a passive audience. And the conference businesses that have done well are the ones that say, 'You're going to be in a room of people you'll be glad to be in a room with, and in the design of the conference we're going to respect that by carving out some space for you all to create value for each other.'"

On connecting your audience members to each other:

"When an association can broker introductions or can create a way that people can have conversations around shared interests ... you [the association] can benefit from that, but not if you imagine that you can control it or that you can decide whether or not [the converstation] is going to happen."

On member engagement:

"It's not clear that getting more of those mailbox members in should be a first-order goal. ... Wikipedia's ability to deliver value to people who have never and will never participate is a big part of the success of Wikipedia. ... So, the question isn't about 'How do we get everybody to participate?' You can, but what a nightmare that would be. The question is, 'How do we get enough people participating so that it ... raises the value of the organization for the whole group?'" 

With those wise words to set the stage, what does community mean to your association, and what will it mean in five, 10, or 20 years? Keep an eye out here on Acronym throughout the month of May for more thoughts on community.

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May 5, 2009

Are you picking up what I’m putting down?

Although the title of this post – “Are you picking up what I’m putting down?” – is a shout out to my sister Lindsay who first introduced me to this phrase several years ago, it also serves as an important reminder about the true definition of communication.

In my mind, communication is much less about what we say as association professionals and much more about what our members perceive we’re saying. Less colloquially, my sister’s question looks like this: “Are you receiving what I’m sending?” Think about it.

Earlier this week, a colleague released a member alert and call to action informing various Association stakeholders about provider rate cuts expected in an executive order. An excerpt of the e-mail communication follows:

“On Friday, a member call to action was sent asking facilities to contact the Governor, House and Senate leadership, and members of the Appropriations committees to address the proposed four percent provider rate cut.

We continue to ask for your help in e-mailing or calling these individuals to emphasize the devastating affect this cut will have on facilities, staff and residents. Please use the sample news release for further comments and talking points when contacting state officials.”

Specifically, the sample news release referenced in this alert outlined a series of talking points crafted by our Association and several testimonials intended to demonstrate the devastating impact this cut would have on nursing and rehabilitation facilities statewide.

Essentially, a four percent cut would mean a loss of $14 million in Medicaid funding. This is on top of record high unemployment, record numbers of uninsured and the highest number of Medicaid enrollees in the history of the program.

Unfortunately, not everyone appreciated this news. In fact, following is one member’s response to our e-mail communication: “Right now the Association is feeding hysteria to its members and the public – I’d prefer solutions.”

Obviously – or not so obviously – the intent of our message was three-fold: to inform members about the executive order; to demonstrate how the cut would impact their facilities; and to encourage administrators to contact their elected officials. At least for one person, the message we sent was not the message he received.

So, my question to you is this: Have you experienced similar instances of miscommunication? What message did you intend to send and what message was actually received? How did you address this disconnect? What would you have done differently?

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The wrong way to renew

If you read Cynthia D’Amour’s blog you will have seen multiple posts on a series of renewals that she has been receiving from a group she used to belong to. She was nice enough to share her reaction to their efforts, and in a sad way it has been pretty funny. I recently had a similar experience.

I had been a member of a local association on and off for over 15 years and recently decided not to renew. From what I recall their renewal marketing started 3-4 months before my membership lapsed, with a letter telling me to renew my membership. Pretty simple and straightforward, but it obviously did not get me to reconsider my decision. Over the next few months, I got an email or two along with a few more letters. The one that got me to write this is what I will call the “expire” letter.

The letter was all about them and nothing about me. It inferred that if I didn’t renew I would no longer be a member of the cool kids club. It told me about all the great things happening at the organization—events, my subscription to their publication, my complimentary listing in their directory and lots of discounts. Nowhere in the letter did it tell me anything about how membership would solve any of my needs or address any of my challenges yet it told me how I would value my membership all year long. To put icing on the cake there was a sentence in there that I didn’t even understand: “You won’t want to miss from free subscription to any more issues of our publication.” Huh?

The mailing also included a renewal form. The renewal form did have my name lasered in at the top with my member number and my expiration date, which was good. Unfortunately it also included a rehash of all the products and services they told me I would miss from the letter. Again, nothing telling me how I would benefit from my membership. The topper: At the end of the form it told me to keep my benefits flowing. What benefits? They didn’t tell me what they are.

I have 3 points here:

1. Do associations, or any organizations for that matter, no longer understand the difference between features and benefits? Benefits sell. Features don’t. Do members care that you sell a book? Or do members care that the book will help them go further in their career, or do their job better, stay up to date on all of the latest information or even make more money?

2. Are we doing the little things that we need to do to appear professional? Someone should have proofread the letter that I received. If I was on the fence with my membership, as I was, a bad impression can be the last impression.

3. Are we taking advantage of technology? The letter and renewal form I received was not customized to my needs; it was totally generic. They know my purchasing history so they should be able to tailor a piece of their renewal effort to me as an individual. I am not asking for true one to one marketing but something closer would be nice.

I am not writing this to beat up this one organization. I am writing this because I think that with everything else association staff members have to do on a daily basis, renewals sometimes get dumped into the “have to do,” not the “want to do,” category and are not given the attention they deserve. Retaining members is critical for the majority of associations. If we are not doing everything we can with our renewal series to get members to retain their membership, then we are not doing our jobs.

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Be fine with members leaving the room

Was tuned to this Makin' Ads blog post about a captivating local musician from Seth Godin's blog, which I think is a good parable for what I've been preaching of late.

Here's the salient quote from the bottom of the Makin Ads' post:

"3) He got us to participate. He never said it, but there was no choice. You were going to participate, or you were going to leave the bar.

"4) He was fine with people leaving the bar. Didn’t bug him at all. And this is the most important thing. He was polarizing. But it was so much better to have a smaller group of people who were really into the act than a large group of half-interested folks. He just put himself out there. This is me. This is what I do. Jump on or jump out of the way."

Associations need to define what they do, then do it very, very well. You'll lose people by doing this, but that has to be ok. The end result may be an organization that is smaller, but it will most assuredly be better for those who stick around.

The alternative is to continue trying to be all things to all people, or a whole lot of things to a whole lot of people, with the end result of losing everybody. Even the people who remain in the bar would be trying to ignore you.

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"Green Desks"--An Option for Meeting Attendees?

While many association meeting planners are adding special educational programs and tracks on adopting more environmentally friendly work habits and goals, the Association of Woodworking & Furnishings Supplies has crafted an additional approach for its upcoming conference: a "Green Desk."

The Green Desk, which debues at the July 2009 AWFS Fair, provides “a place where anyone in attendance can stop by to ask questions related to green practices and issues that are impacting virtually all businesses.” This one-on-one approach is in addition to the association’s education track, “Going Green,” to help corporate members move to more sustainable products and processes, and to meet new “green building” standards.

I like the idea of associations offering such "green coaching," even if it isn't more complicated than serving as a one-stop resource desk at an event to pick up relevant tips lists, discuss the latest industry eco-trends and benefits, or connect members interested in the same green steps.


E-mails to Myself?

In my rapid-fire life as to owner of an association management company, just keeping track of all everything is a big deal. In fact, I think it is the “biggest deal” of all. I simply can’t let anything slip through the cracks. When dealing with multiple associations, there are deadlines set, often by others, with no regard for how these deadlines might interact. Sometimes it is a challenge.

For years I have maintained a master to-do list. “Shoe repair,” “finish book,” “develop project plan for membership drive,” and “plan Berskshires trip” all share space on a single list. There is only one me, so I figure I only need one to-do list. But I have to say it is a long list. It used to be on sheets of yellow legal paper; then it was on my desktop, and the latest version was in a spreadsheet.

The problem with maintaining any kind of to-do list is that it takes time – lots of time. I would rather be “doing” than writing lists of what I need to do.

Today, I came up with the best way yet to maintain a to-do list. It isn’t a list at all; it is my e-mail box. About 70% of what I need to do comes in the form of e-mail. Another 15% comes from my own notes from meetings and another 15% comes in the mail.

My e-mail program (I use Eudora) allows different mailboxes, so I have named one “To Do List.” I can also give each e-mail a color, though you could use whatever system your e-mail program offers for prioritization.

If an e-mail comes in that requires me to take some sort of action, and I can’t do it immediately via return e-mail, I give it a “priority.” At the end of the day, I transfer everything that is prioritized into the “To Do” Mailbox. Other items go into the 2009 Archive.

I use the following Priority categories, but you could set up something that works with your e-mail. The categories are: HOT, ACTION, LATER, PENDING, ORDERS, ATTEND. Because I am using color coding, the Priority Flag is not in use. This means I can go in each day and look at the HOT items, and actually use the real Priority Flag to note the ones I want to tackle first. When a task is accomplished, it can be moved into the Archive file.

This is great for the 70% of actions that are e-mail driven, but what about the others?
In the case of things that come up in meetings with client boards, I can just send an e-mail reminder to myself, right there on the spot at the board meeting. When things come by mail, or something pops into my head that I think I should do, I just send e-mail to myself from my desk or cell phone.

This simple technique allows all of things I need to do to come together in one place, and the system in very easy to maintain. Now I can spend more time doing and less time making lists. This will definitely save me time and help me do a better job.

What tricks do you use to keep yourself organized?

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