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September 30, 2009

Purpose-driven membership

If anyone out there thought that membership was no longer that important to associations, this month’s discussions on Acronym certainly disabused them of that idea. It’s been great to see the ongoing discussion and debate around the questions of what membership is and isn’t, and what it should and could be.

One association blogger who’s known for asking such big questions is Jeff De Cagna, chief strategist and founder of Principled Innovation LLC. Having recently heard him speak at ASAE & The Center’s Annual Meeting (in part) on the question of “What is membership?”, I asked him to share some of his thoughts with us on Acronym.

So, what is membership?

In some ways, that’s kind of an existential question, and I feel like I’m maybe ill-equipped to be too much of a philosopher on that subject. But I think, fundamentally, it’s such an important part of the identity that associations have had over their long history, that they see themselves as membership organizations. That’s a very common phrase that we use all the time in our community. It’s almost impossible to separate out that idea of membership from what an association is.

But at the same time, even though it’s been such an important part of our identity for many years, it’s also one of the primary strategic challenges that associations are grappling with right now—trying to figure out how, in a web-enabled world, membership fits in. The traditional conception of membership fits in with what our organizations do; is there a new kind of concept of membership and new concept of the relationships that associations would have with their stakeholders that is required by the challenges of an environment in which membership feels like it’s increasingly a commodity? How do you enrich the notion of membership in a way where it’s something that associations can continue to offer, but perhaps not the centerpiece of the association experience? … I think we’re at a very interesting reflection point in trying to figure out where membership goes from here.

You mentioned the contrast between the traditional notion of membership and an enriched form of membership. Could you describe what you see as the traditional view of membership and then what you see as this new form it could take?

Let me tackle that question in this way. I think there are really three aspects to the association that you have to take a look at: There’s the association as the endeavor, there’s the association as an enterprise, and then there’s the association as the extended network. Let’s talk about each of those in the context of your question.

The association as an endeavor: That’s the vision, the mission, the purpose, the rationale, the reason for the association’s existence. Some larger purpose, some larger reason for wanting to change the world in some fashion. …

There’s lots of different data out there, but I think it’s hard to argue with the idea that for at least as long as I have been in the association community we have emphasized membership as an expression of self interest. There’s a “what’s in it for me” quality to the way we talk about membership. …

Where we have to look at it going forward, from the standpoint of the endeavor, is, Are we really engaging people around purpose? Are we looking for a way to connect people with an idea of a purpose that is deeper than just their own self interest, that is larger than the needs of their particular organization, that connects with some important issue or challenge facing society? One of the things that I’m interested in and I think a lot of other people are interested in is what role associations should be playing in solving wicked problems in our society—the problems of the environment and sustainability and poverty and access to water. ... That’s one aspect of the issue. ...

I think the second aspect, this notion of membership as it pertains to the enterprise, is really rooted in the idea of what the value proposition is. Is it an economic value proposition or is it a purpose driven value proposition?

On one hand, it’s the notion of the endeavor as an expression of purpose or an expression of self interest. And then you take it to the standpoint of the enterprise, of the association as an entity that has business goals and a need to pay a staff and achieve some economic viability to sustain itself over time. Is the value proposition an economic proposition primarily, or is it a meaning driven value proposition?

It’s not to say that people haven’t joined because they believe in what the organization stands for, but I do believe that we have tended to emphasize the economic value proposition—and therefore the business model is built around economic propositions, here’s what we’re offering and you’re sort of buying that from us.

I think that we have to focus more on the meaning aspect of things going forward, which is consistent with the idea of being about being driven by purpose. How can we create a deeper meaning for people and build a value proposition that is oriented towards what people care about?

Even as we hopefully look toward a reset economy that might be stronger as we go into 2010, it’s still going to look different than it did before we had this last year’s worth of economic crisis. Even if people return to work, it will still be a more demanding environment; there will be fewer people there and fewer resources. Organizations are going to look very carefully at what they’re investing dollars in, and people are going to look very carefully at what they’re investing their time and attention in.

That’s an opportunity to really say, how can we devise a value proposition that is about something other than purely economic and built more around meaning? That allows us to think in terms of how we build meaning oriented, purpose driven business models that rely less upon traditional conceptions of membership and are looking more at a notion of connecting with the organization. It’s more about engagement and contribution than it is simply about joining the enterprise in some fashion.

The third element is that of the extended network. … There’s a network of people who are members. There’s a network of people who are stakeholders of other types, whether they be business partners or regulators, policy makers, industry supporters. There’s a whole set of network relationships that exist within the framework of the association and extend also beyond the boundaries of what we traditionally call the association. …

The association is an extended network that includes its closest members, its closest supporters, but also includes people who are not quite as close. And I think we have to focus our attention more on the question of, how do we engage more of the network in being purpose driven and really thinking about how to create more meaning? How do we create more value for the network and make that in some ways the most relevant unit of analysis, from a strategy point of view? Because I think one of the difficulties of where we are right now is trying to continue to think in terms of how we serve each individual member in a unique fashion. Even though that might have been a good goal and it may even still be a good goal, I think it’s going to be very hard to think in terms of the unique needs of each individual member [going forward]. And it does take us down the road, as it traditionally has done, of trying to be all things to all people. …

If we take a network point of view on all this, then the notion of membership also takes a different cast, because we’re not necessarily even just talking about the individual membership. We’re talking about membership as a network concept, where we’re not just looking at one person being a member but a whole group of people who are part of a network being connected in some way. And if we lose someone who is highly connected to other parts of the network, where there is no other alternative for building relationships with that part of the network, then we have to think in terms of how we’re going to keep strategically important members and groups involved in the organization. Otherwise we start losing connection to the broader network of players.

There is a need to deconstruct this traditional way of thinking about association membership. … It’s never been a simple question of “is the membership model changing?” It’s not a yes or no question. Of course it’s changing. It’s a question of how it’s changing. And I think we have to deconstruct some of the assumptions that we’ve made and look at it through these different lenses of the endeavor, the enterprise, the extended network, and begin to think in terms of how you construct a membership mindset and a membership model that may be sustainable but is not necessarily the end all and be all of how we make strategic decisions in our organizations. We extend our concept [of membership] to be inclusive of other ideas, other players, other contributors, and we put our emphasis on other places, not only because that makes sense in terms of what we’re trying to accomplish, but also because that’s where the financial sustainability and thrive-ability of the organization is going to be found.

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September 25, 2009

Quick clicks: My favorite things

- Jeff Hurt shares his favorite "event planning things," to the tune of "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music. Click at your own risk--it's possible you'll end up with the tune stuck in your head for the rest of the day ...

- Rebecca Leaman at the SmartBlog Insights blog shares a cautionary tale of what can happen when your budget cuts make your members' and supporters' lives more difficult.

- In a somewhat related post, the NTEN blog talks about why online donors leave and how you can bring them back.

- The Plexus Consulting Group blog says that there's no such thing as a business or management objective that can't be measured. (This post particularly resonated with me today, as I'm struggling to determine what metrics can measure my department's objectives for the year.)

- During Hispanic Heritage Month, Rosetta Thurman is profiling Hispanic nonprofit leaders whose accomplishments she particularly admires (here's an introductory post, and the first profile).

- Judith Lindenau at the Off Stage blog is posting a series of seven steps to building an association online community (steps one, two, three, and four have been posted so far).

- Elisa Ortiz at the Onward and Upward blog lists 7 habits of highly annoying coworkers. (I'm sure no Acronym reader does any of these things!)

- Jamie Notter is thinking about complaining.

- Acronym blogger Brian Birch isn't the only person thinking about volunteers and creativity this week; the CMI Observations on Association Management blog has some insights.

- Aptify's CEO Blog discusses predictive analysis and how associations can use it to improve member retention.

- Stephanie Vance muses about whether success in advocacy can blunt future advocacy effectiveness.

- At The Forum Effect, Jackie Eder-Van Hook has advice for associations on how to work with their attorneys.

- Jeffrey Cufaude has a great list of ideas on how you can be a more "sustainable you."

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September 24, 2009

How secure is that golden handcuff?

The golden handcuff is a program or product so important to a member that it effectively binds them to the organization. (I’ll mail a shiny new $1 coin to the first person who puts a longer, better definition of “golden handcuff” in Associapedia.) For teachers’ unions in right-to-work states, you could perhaps describe the insurance as a golden handcuff (that’s my understanding, I apologize in advance if I’ve oversimplified). Several certifications also act as golden handcuffs. The fact is, most associations have no such handcuff, which isn’t a particularly friendly term anyway. But for those who do, I have a message: watch out!

I think the broad, popular perception of golden handcuffs is not unlike the perception of a monopoly. In a free market (or mostly free market) natural monopolies are created, and, surprise, surprise, they are not per se illegal. In fact, a monopoly signifies a good, strong company, one that is so valuable that it is able to beat out every single competitor. They’re able to do this because people like the value the company provides. As any good CAE candidate and hopefully any trade or professional society leader knows, anticompetitive practices are illegal. The formerly popular company that built the monopoly is now subject to public scorn because of the abuses, or perceived abuses, to the free market system.

Carrying the analogy forward, organizations with their golden handcuffs are fine as long as they piss anybody off. Fifteen years ago, you anger a few people and, unless you’ve been blatantly illegal, you just stifle their voice. It’s different now obviously. A few disgruntled people can easily find each other and magnify their voice. This is true for any organization, but public sentiment is distrustful of powerful organizations—and an organization with a real golden handcuff is powerful, even if it’s limited to small field or trade. I happen to believe that insurance and certifications and other handcuffs have done a lot of good for society, but I don’t think that argument matters much in a nightmare PR scenario.

The point is this, I think it’s a mistake to take that golden handcuff as a given. Something is granting you the power to have that handcuff. Maybe it’s a government or maybe it’s a hard market niche to enter, but something gives your organization that power. You need to look at that for vulnerabilities. What would it take for whatever is giving you that power to take it away? I would venture a guess that you are less inoculated from that power than you were 10 years ago, and your vulnerability will only increase.

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Efficiency vs. Creativity

As I sat in a recent board meeting, and we talked in circles about subjects we have already talked in circles about, I saw impatience and heard frustration. I even heard some bellyaching. Have you been there?

I have noticed over the course of my experience in committees and even staff meetings that sometimes you have to pound your head against a wall several times before you get somewhere. At the same time, our world and business culture drives us toward efficiency and speed—many measure the speed of the meeting these days, not the quality. In our association, our members are all business owners and managers, and they are used to delegating work in meetings, and less used to consensus building and constant evaluation of any given topic. I am here to say that some of the best ideas I’ve ever heard of for our association came when we deviated from the agenda--please don’t pelt me with rotten tomatoes.

Let me give another example. I recently started a task force concerning a topic that is pretty controversial in our industry. I hand-picked 8-10 individuals for the task force, and set the first meeting.

About half of the folks made it to that first call, and we had a meandering, big picture discussion. I then assigned some work and set the next meeting 1 month later. At that meeting, the other half of the folks showed up, but none from the first bunch! We had basically the same conversation, but came out of it with completely different ideas and action items.

Both groups were creative, and the repetition was pretty inefficient. However, the combined ideas are more powerful than either alone. I’d love to claim that this was all by design, but honestly they are a bunch of hard headed folks and I couldn’t get them to stay on track.

My questions to you are:

- What are some tips and tools to manage the balance between efficiency and creativity or efficiency and thoroughness?

- What are some tips for group dynamics without reading a book on it?

- How do we prepare for meetings and help engage and foster creative discussion, while avoiding repetition or off-topic discussion?

Please, don’t just answer having an agenda or applying good meeting management skills ... we all have those or we wouldn’t be here. I mean new, creative ideas that I know people are using out there.

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September 23, 2009

Associations, nonprofits converge at Clinton Global Initiative

There are some crazy-good speeches and announcements of new partnerships, new commitments, new ideas, and more over at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting going on live. If you’re feeling a tad down about the sluggish economy, world poverty, eco-destruction, blah, blah, sigh, then you’re a good candidate for a big old dose of optimism, creativity, resourcefulness, and, yes, hope!

You’ll find a pile of your peers potentially making history as well as connections at the global gathering, so don’t hesitate to be a fly on the wall.

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Delivering intangible member value

As promised in a previous post, this is from Jeffrey Cufaude from Idea Architects. I think he does a wonderful job describing a life lesson on how to serve and delight that gives us something to think about in the way we interact with members. What do you think? Is there a treasure trove of missed opportunities to create meaningful membership experiences? How can you spot such opportunities? How can staff be trained to spot and respond accordingly?

Jeffrey's post:

Waiting tables in high school, I consistently made a killing because the person who trained me had instilled in me a key three-word phrase about delivering value: transaction, transition, transformation. I often think of this phrase in relation to membership value.

Similar to the food and shelter base of Maslow’s hierarchy, transaction reminded me that the first priority is to ensure guests get perfect execution on the key components of their transaction: prompt greeting, timely order-taking, good quality food, efficient and unobtrusive follow-up. I prided myself on scanning every table every time I was in my section, always looking for an opportunity to serve before someone had to flag me down. Doing that generally guaranteed a 15 percent tip.

Transition and transformation worked hand-in-hand to move a mere transaction into something of greater value, sometimes value the guests weren’t originally seeking. In the transition stage, I listened carefully and paid close attention to the interactions and conversation at my tables. I looked for an opportunity to connect with the guests on a more personal level they would see as appropriate.

If they responded well to such overtures, I’d then expand my interactions in an effort to transform their meal into more of a dining experience, one that would be enjoyable and memorable beyond just the food. Getting guests to smile and laugh almost always guaranteed a larger gratuity. But even more importantly, it made me feel more pride in our restaurant and my work.

I don’t think serving members is all that different. They come to us in a transaction mindset and expect it to be flawless. But that’s just the minimum threshold, the tangible exchange of value, and it won’t always build loyalty and retention when some of that value can be obtained elsewhere.

Association staff and volunteers need to attend more to the transition and transformation opportunities that deliver the intangible member value that binds an individual to the organization and not just its books and webinars. It means constantly scanning “your section” and always looking for opportunities to serve. It means building relationships with your colleagues that allow for transactions and transformations to occur. As a server I had little control over the kitchen, so it was in my best interests to have good rapport with the cooks and to do everything I could to make their lives easier, not more difficult. The same can be said for many staff and volunteer relationships.

In 2001 the ASAE Foundation released Exploring the Future, an environment scan identifying “Meaning Matters” as one of the seven strategic conversations associations needed to have: “Meaning is the ‘why’ that gives significance to all the ‘whats’ and ‘hows’ and helps us make sense of our lives.” More of our attention should address the four elements of meaning the study explored: meaningful purpose, meaningful relationships, meaningful stories, and meaningful contributions.

Instead too much of our conversation is still about the stuff, the traditional benefits we promote as benefits of membership. Important as they are, they aren’t the complete value proposition. A good meal nourishes the body, but a great dining experience nourishes the spirit. We can (and should) be doing the same when serving members.

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How do staff members rein in volunteers? Or should they?

I have been on a number of committees, councils, task forces, etc., etc., during my 14+ year career in associations. I have also served as staff liaison for a number of committees while working in a membership capacity for an association. I typically enjoy every minute of both of those roles, but I have recently become more away of an issue many associations are facing--the chair that has a different opinion from staff and other committee members yet a personality that does not allow them to see the perspective of other key players. I hope you can provide your insights into the situation I am about to spell out in detail.

In every volunteer structure, not every member of a committee can be the chair or vice chair. There need to be as many "worker bees" as there are "queen bees" or things get very confusing very fast. What I am wondering is, what does a staff member or a "worker bee" do when one of the hive leaders is not willing to listen to the rest of the bees and is only willing to see things their way? Should the staff interject? Should the "worker bees"? As an individual committee member, do you as a dedicated volunteer stand up against the "queen bee" and fight for what you believe is the smarter way of doing things?

Personally I see that all of these options have their pros and their cons. Unfortunately this is a common, yet complicated situation to have to deal with. As a staff member you do not want to discourage the "queen bee" but you also cannot discourage the entire rest of the committee by letting the chair make the decisions for everyone involved. In many ways I think the "worker bees" are more important, as they are typically the ones who do the most work and then will want to become leaders in the near future. I am not saying that all "worker bees" are great, but if the "queen" is part of the problem, shouldn’t we hope that one of the many "workers" will be able to get things moving in the right direction? I would love to hear your thoughts and advice.

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September 22, 2009

Member value is the easy answer. Too easy.

How do you know what your members value?

A lot of the membership discussion has centered around this elusive idea. The general thinking is, dues-paying membership as a model isn’t broken, it’s just evolving. The secret sauce for associations is finding and delivering what people value, for which they will be happy to fork over their dues payment.

Which leaves me with the question, how do you know what your members value? Maybe some research – both quantitative and qualitative – can provide some answers. Certainly what people actually purchase is indicative. But this retort in the membership debate smells like people justifying status quo to me, and perhaps even something more dangerous. One association trap is that an organization will realize that a number of people would value “x,” so they add “x” to their list of member benefits, but nothing is taken off. X becomes Y becomes Z and then back around to the top of the alphabet, and all of a sudden, you’re servicing 5 or 10 or 20 niche markets under the umbrella of membership. This is not a sustainable model.

Here is where I agree with the argument: if you are going to expect to receive dues, you are going to have to deliver something that people value. But I augment that with two things: first, you need to be narrow and focused in the definition of what your organization does. I think this has a lot of implications for associations, namely smaller staffs and decentralized control. The chase for ever-growing membership rolls gives way to the chase for ever-deeper engagement with the members attracted to your narrow focus.

Second, if peer networking, information, collective action, or affiliation are significant parts of your value proposition, then you need to take a critical analysis of your situation; it is quite possible the social web is changing people’s expectations and values in these areas.

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September 19, 2009

Quick clicks: Life and death

- It's always great to welcome new association blogs to the community: Plexus Consulting Group (Plexus is led by Steve Worth, a former Acronym blogger); the Association Subculture blog, written by Shelly Alcorn; and a new blog from BoardSource, Board Life Matters, focused on younger board members and their experiences leading nonprofits.

- A recent blog post by Seth Godin arguing that nonprofits are far behind for-profits in terms of risk taking and innovation sparked a number of responses in the nonprofit community. Jeff Hurt has a good rundown, as well as his own response, here; Maggie McGary at the Mizz Innovation blog also posted her take.

- Cecilia Sepp shares 10 things she loves about association management.

- The Signature Insights blog shares some reasons why so many future forecasts are wrong, and thoughts on how to get them right (or at least less wrong).

- Shannon Otto at the Splash blog responds to some of the recent discussions on Acronym about the death (or life) of membership. Judith Lindenau touches on similar themes in the post "RIP, Associations?".

- If you aren't following the Harvard Business Publishing blogs, there's a ton of good stuff there. A couple of posts that recently stood out for me: "The Awesomeness Manifesto" and "Is Work Taking Over Your Life?"

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September 18, 2009

Internet users focus on content over community

The Online Publishers Association has released the results of a six-year study of where Internet users spend most of their time—and it appears to be good news for associations.

"Internet users continue to spend a majority of their time with Content sites, up from 34% of total time spent in 2003 to 42% in 2009, a 24% increase," says OPA. The analysis of its Internet Activity Index (IAI), a monthly gauge of the time being spent with Commerce, Communications, Community, Content and Search, shows that "while consumers may be spending significant time with Community sites, it’s coming at the expense of their time with Communication sites whose core capabilities are email and Instant Messaging."

OPA President Pam Horan points out that among the major shifts detected in the past six year is the tremendous "emergence of Community," but "Content is still king."

This finding may temporarily comfort competitive-weary organizations—for now anyway--that worry people will become too caught up in Facebook and other social media sites to spend much time in the heart of most association sites—their knowledge centers. That said, there’s no denying that blogs, Twitter and Facebook are funneling knowledge in new and exciting ways to our members. To me, the "Community or Content" question likely is changing rapidly to "Community and Content," and aren’t both of those what differentiates associations from the chaotic Internet madness swirling around?

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September 17, 2009

Other angles on the membership discussion

It's been a week since our first post on membership models, and several others in the blogging community have joined in the discussion. Our traditional look at other blogs covering the sector, Quick Clicks, will be posted tomorrow by our own hyper-engaged Lisa Junker, but I wanted to give a quick point to these four posts on membership:

• Tony Russell on the Membership Marketing Blog weighed in with "A Response to Acronym Blog: Membership Recruitment and Retention are Alive and Well," noting that membership is alive and well in associations, and is increasingly becoming a tactic of the for-profit world.

• Maddie Grant from SocialFish writes in "Being interesting – at the heart of the future of membership?" that organizations need to be interesting, and that goes beyond style or creativity. It's about connecting with people in ways they find valuable.

• Jeff De Cagna on Principled Innovation says in his post, "Exploring the new look of associating," that he'll be exploring the themes of trust, contributing, and meaning in future posts.

• David Patt on Association Executive Management is pretty emphatic in "Membership is not dead!" that, well, membership is not a dead model, rather it is one that is being defined differently.

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September 14, 2009

Why should members join?

The discussion on membership has started off well, with lots of good back-and-forth comments from last week’s post.

Jeffrey Cufaude from Idea Architects has been particularly active, so much that I asked him to write a post for later in the month. We also engaged in an exchange in which Jeffrey says that perhaps the question associations should be seeking to answer is not, Why should someone join? Rather, the appropriate question is, Why should someone have to join? (NOTE: updated with emphasis on the right word. Sorry about that!)

The point I think he’s making (and I’d bet he’ll clarify in comments if needed) is similar to the point of my original post last week. I’d guess most associations have an answer to that question. The point is, it is entirely possible, if not likely, that the answer is subject to erosion. That’s particularly true when the answer involves community or information.

A lot of the comments have been about the value an organization offers, and others about the membership being a primary target market. I’ll have some additional thoughts about these things soon, but I’m curious about how Acronym readers would answer Jeffrey’s question: Why should someone have to join your organization? My follow-up questions: What effect does the changing ease of networking and information gathering enabled by the social web? If none, how have you inoculated yourself from these impacts?

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What I’ve Learned about Being an Association CEO – PT 1

This month marks my third year anniversary at the American Ceramic Society as well as my third year as an association chief staff officer. While this is just a drop in the bucket compared to the experience of some of my long-serving peers, I have learned a few things and thought I would share a little of what I’ve learned here. Hopefully, some of these observations will be of value to those of you who might want to become a CEO in the future. So in no particular order, here’s the first:

EQ is more important than IQ. In my past roles as chief knowledge officer for ASAE & The Center and chief strategy officer for the Greater Washington Society of Association Executives, most of my work was done on the “T” side of the Myers-Briggs scale. But being an effective association CEO demands far more emotional intelligence (EQ) than I ever expected.

Much of my time is spent building consensus, nurturing relationships, encouraging and supporting staff and volunteer leaders, discerning people’s true motivations and needs, mediating disputes, telling people things they don‘t want to hear, and helping people to see new possibilities (and preferably convincing them that they came up with the idea in the first place). In my experience, being great at writing/editing/meeting planning/product development/finances/project management/etc. is not nearly as critical as the ability to empower others to be great at those things. So, if you really want to be an effective association CEO, practice your people skills.

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The Road Less Traveled

After traveling and visiting with some of our key prospects and current sponsors/customers, I will now share 2 things. 1) Recap where my travels have positioned us to-date 2) Predictions about the future that I’d like you to argue with me about.

Sales Recap

Here is where my travels and follow up phone calls have placed us:

1) Within 2 weeks, I expect to have secured a little less than 50% of our sponsorship revenue goal, and our next fiscal year hasn’t even begun yet. This allows us to move into a new year with confidence, and gives me more time to focus on the second 50%, which is always harder to sell.

2) We have already sold more booth space this year than at the same time last year, and have secured the majority of the major booths on the floor.

3) We have commitments from most major advertisers and are planning an increase in magazine advertising commitments for 2010 because of our value-added packaging (discounts on advertising/sponsor/exhibiting if they commit to all three early).

The Future

Here are some thoughts as we move into a new economy:

1) Corporations are much better at spending their money wisely than any other entity on the planet. The days where large sponsorships will be dropped with no ROI analysis may be over.

The traditional viewpoint from associations, that large corporations are cash cows, will continue to lose ground and become obsolete.

2) Kiss that Gold/Silver/Bronze model goodbye. Just like any other customers, companies want choices and options, and they want to be able to customize.

3) Partnerships for education. Many companies now have the same basic goal as associations; educate customers ... these corps want to do so in a way that makes them look good; how do we leverage and partner with them in education, without tainting it? How do we make sure that there are opportunities for all partners to participate without exclusion? How do we leverage their resources and knowledge to deliver better quality education?

4) Trade shows are still a strong business model, but I think companies will be smarter about which ones they attend moving forward, and may reduce some of these lavish booths we’ve seen in the last ten years.

5) Packaging is the key. We need to position our sales efforts to create value year-round for them. We should be a one-stop-shop for getting a product or service message out via email, web, print, and in-person. We should increase their sales or at the very least increase their opportunity to sell.

6) Sponsors need respect. I get really frustrated when a company supports a program (makes it possible even), and members barely even register that they exist. How do we educate our members and help them appreciate sponsors, and not ignore them or see them as just a way to get a free dinner?

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September 9, 2009

RIP: Membership?

Cough.

Wheeze.

Gasp!

Did you hear that?

That’s the membership model that associations have used for the past century and longer. Someone sees a group of people that have a common interest – for the sake of most Acronym readers, that common interest is an industry or a profession – and they affiliate by filling a membership app and writing a check.

I am firmly in the camp that this model is dying. I believe that the nature of the way people affiliate, and what they expect to get out of it, is changing. And this isn’t new—it’s been going on for decades, but I’ll come back to that.

This month in Acronym, we’ll be exploring this question: what is the future of association membership? What factors affect the membership model? How is it affected?

The debate is not about answering the question, “is dues-paying membership changing?” No one would argue with the idea that it is changing. The question is this: is the model evolving or dying?

To me it’s clear. Perhaps 10 or 15 years ago, when it was abundantly evident that the trend for associations was away from dues revenue and to other things, I could have entertained the idea that the model was just evolving. But the rise of the social web over the last 5 or 6 years is absolutely changing how people affiliate with those of like mind. The number of people or businesses willing to chuck over a significant dues offering every year is going to shrink.

What does this mean for associations? Well, I have some ideas, and I’ll put them in two or three posts in the next three weeks. We’ll also be talking to others with ideas of what that means, and still others who disagree entirely. We’d like your contributions, too. Any of you with your own blogs, we’d love to see you address these questions – and of course, we love comments on Acronym. Let us know what you think… challenge us, enliven the discussion, enrich our understanding! When it makes sense, we’ll take a comment thread and turn it into a post.

Membership and dues. With the exception of being mission-driven, there’s probably not anything more fundamental to the association model, and it’s in peril… or is it?

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On the Road Part 2

-664 miles (one way)
-4 cheeseburgers
-3 snickers bars
-1 rains storm
-1 giant locust stuck to my leg
-1 construction delay
-Got lost in the middle-of-nowhere

Meeting 1: Meeting with one of our core exhibitor/sponsor companies, this company has been with the association basically from Day 1. Overall, the relationship is strong, but in the recent past, a program we were putting on created an unforeseen, non-favorable situation for this company. I know they aren’t happy with the circumstance, but I also know that had a great experience overall at our recent annual symposium.

Good Things: The meeting was very comfortable and relaxed, the relationship is in good shape, allowing us to move past the negative issue –addressing it directly, then moving on --- and maintaining the level of sponsorship and exhibiting for the next year.

Things Learned: I found out that this company is going through a fairly significant business-model change, and are investing in some equipment to diversify their business. Unsure of how this will apply to us/our industry, in some ways it is a divergence from the industry, but I know there must be a way to align their new model with some marketing concepts through us and our magazine.

Meeting 2: Hooked up with another staff member and drove to a meeting that is about 2 years in the making. This particular set of contacts used to be involved and supportive of the association, until several years ago some actions were taken by the association, and specifically a member of the board, that pushed this company away. The past 2 years have been a ‘toe in the water’ atmosphere as we feel each other out again; it was helpful that I was not in a leadership position during the time the incident occurred, and all involved parties on our side are not on the board/staff rosters anymore. Giving these folks plenty of space the last few years helped I think.

Things Learned: This contact, the decision-maker, is a very interesting and sharp entrepreneur. My sense is that he makes many decisions based on trust, and by us traveling many miles to go see him and his colleague, it has really helped re-establish a trust that was damaged years ago. We didn’t ask for the sale, we didn’t present any numbers, we just talked to them and set the next meeting...that’s the point of a sales meeting, to either close the deal, or set the next meeting, right?

Overall, these two meetings simply reinforce the philosophy that the basic foundation of strong, sustained sales is the quality of the relationship...not just in the good times, but in the bad times too.

Please feel free to share any experiences you’ve had where major sponsors/fundraising supporters were upset, and how you handled it!

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September 3, 2009

Nonprofits Unite for Census Accuracy

I’m reading a lot of anxious press releases and articles within the association/nonprofit communities about boosting participation in the U.S. 2010 census process, as fiscally stressed organizations unite to battle perception hurdles that could depress census tallies and lead to fewer federal funds for states and their social programs. Currently, the federal government distributes almost $400 billion annually to states and localities.

In Illinois, for instance, an alliance of 60 nonprofits and 10 state foundations has formed the nation’s largest response to date--a $1.2-million “Count Me In” campaign to improve participation in the tallies of often-missed populations, such as immigrants, minorities, and low-income residents. The coalition has determined that for each person not counted in Illinois, the state loses $12,000 during the next decade.

Organizers are using a wide variety of new and traditional engagement and education tools to convince people to complete their census document. Among them are celebrity text messages for Latino youth, door-knocking brigades to immigrant communities, social media strategies, special events, and outreach materials for churches, barber shops, and beauty salons in heavily African-American neighborhoods.

If you’re interested in learning more about or joining the efforts, go to the U.S. Census Bureau site for National Partners; you can also find a massive list of associations and nonprofits already signed up (PDF).

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September 2, 2009

On the Road, Day 1

My road warrior tally so far is:

-490 miles
-2 cheeseburgers
-1 Snickers bar
-1 rain storm

Road Warriors:

-Me
-Sales Manager of our outsourced national publication

Meeting 1: Meeting with a very large, diverse company that has exhibited for years at our annual show, with a small 10x10 booth only

Good Things: Met the marketing manager for a key division. Got some great face time with 3 key contacts, and helped them learn more about our association, magazine, and programs.

Things Learned: We did not establish a clear goal for this meeting, and accordingly the meeting was not very focused. It was informational-based, I did not learn anything about how they feel about key industry issues. How could I have broken through the wall?

We rushed the pitch, as the feeling from the clients was reactive, they were waiting for us to provide information and guidance. This placed us in control, but we did not know where we wanted to steer the ship. Our sponsorship/advertising packages, which add savings between advertising with the magazine and sponsoring with the association, may really help us salvage.

Meeting 2: Meeting with a major sponsor from the last 2 years, who is cutting back due to budgets/cost issues.

Good Things: The meeting was very relaxed and friendly. The two individuals were comfortable with us, and we learned about a number of frustrations and challenges they face.

Things Learned: Learned that they are going back to their core business model, as over the past two years they have expanded outside their core business. Learned that a key influencer/decision-maker does not like print ads, and is more interested in driving targeted contacts to a specialized website. Learned that they have several large-dollar pieces of equipment that they want to sell.

Meeting 3:
Meeting with a major manufacturer. Unfortunately, 2 key decision-makers did not participate as planned, forcing us to deliver our message to an influencer. We are aware that this client is not happy with some charges from our trade show through the decorating company, leading them to significantly reduce booth space next year.

Things Learned: Working hard to resolve the decorator situation put us in a decent position, if not strong. However, very disappointing that decision-makers are not in attendance, having trouble figuring it out, don’t want to over-interpret it, but it is a rejection to some degree. After some probing questions, confirmed my suspicion that the key decision maker does not see the value in both a booth and sponsorship at the show. Having trouble finding my ground in terms of next steps with this client; I know that reducing their booth size will impact them ultimately more than us (although I regret the loss in revenue and need to create a plan to replace it), but not sure putting the full court press at this time would be adding value for them or the relationship long-term.

Please share your sales stories, successes and failures, here!

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Associations Now September Case Study: Walking Away

Imagine what it would have taken 50 years ago to break away from your professional association and launch a new organization: You'd have to find like-minded members, communicate with them via phone or mail, organize in-person meetings. It would certainly take both passion and commitment to sign on for that kind of work.

Today, that kind of passion and commitment have an easier outlet: Find those like-minded members online. Create an email list, or start a blog. You can pull together a group through Ning or a similar platform within days, if there's enough interest.

This month's Associations Now case study examines just such a situation. A special interest group feels underserved, and one of the group's most impassioned leaders decides to head out on his own. What should the CEO and board chair of the original association do in response?

Jay Karen and KiKi L'Italien both offered their take--my thanks to them both for commenting on the action! (You can read their commentary, and the case study scenario, online.) What are your thoughts on what could be done to salvage such a breakaway situation, or prevent it in the first place?

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September 1, 2009

Using Social Media Volunteers Creatively

While I was reading about the National Business Travel Association’s recent updates to the NBTA Corporate Social Responsibility Toolkit and its offsetting of carbon emissions of its August 2009 conference, I saw that Carbonfund.org—a popular nonprofit that arranges and advocates offsets for organizations—was advertising for “social media volunteers.” Rather than the usual request that members who use social media serve as viral marketers, volunteers were being invited to “help set the record straight about offsets,” because “there’s a lot of misinformation on offsets in social media.”

I like that whole concept of virtual volunteers with multiple purposes, and though it seems obvious to add this concept to an association’s array of volunteer opportunities, I haven’t seen many other organizations that do so. Okay, maybe they have easily downloadable widgets and logos, but an actual specific purpose like serving as a rapid-response team member for misinformation? Not really.

What other ways could social media volunteers be actively engaged? I'm talking about a real strategy, one integrating into your overall volunteer management strategy and practices. Are you offering enough options for volunteers to leverage these tools in ways that appeal to them, not just to address our needs? Have you thought about holding a tweetfest, for instance, on getting your message out? Do you have ideas on whether or how Facebook users could, as a group, be galvanized into a new type of volunteer corps? Who else is using social media volunteers who may have "lessons learned" and advice?

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