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December 24, 2009

Holiday break

Acronym, and Big Ideas month, will be taking a break through the New Year. We'll miss you! If you need any reading in the meantime, you might enjoy a few of these holiday-themed posts from other association blogs:

- Joe Flowers offers up an association version of Twas the Night Before Christmas.

- The SocialFish blog shares a social media version of A Christmas Carol.

- Peggy Hoffman links to some tips from the Happiness Project.

- Elizabeth Weaver Engel and Dave Sobol share best wishes for the season.

Take care and have a happy New Year. We look forward to talking associations with you in 2010!


December 23, 2009

Two more Big Ideas

Don't miss the latest Big Ideas discussion around the association blogging community:

- In her third Big Idea post, Elizabeth Weaver Engel considers the question, "What if the only thing associations focused on was 'how can we be better?'" However, her real focus is on why this isn't already happening, and what it takes to overcome those barriers to continuous improvement (and, she says, the answer isn't singing "Kumbaya").

- In a related post, Shelly Alcorn discusses what it takes to move an idea from the "magical land of if" to reality. She writes, "We need to remain mindful of how the beast operates to give any 'what if' a chance to see the light of day.'" Check out what she has to say about the political realities of associations at the Association Subculture blog.


December 22, 2009

Is mediocrity really the worst option?

Big ideas month continues...

What if associations didn’t accept mediocrity?

So many ways to take this question, so let’s start with the least likely. Let’s define a mediocre program, product, or service as one that nets $100 (you add as many zeros as would be appropriate for a mediocre product for an association your size) and is valued a little by a chunk of your stakeholders. What’s so bad about that? Why can’t you accept that mediocrity?

I believe leaders need to constantly look at both making big, splashy changes and at making tweaks. I’m not opposed to making a tweak to a mediocre program that pulls the net to $110, or that keeps it at $100 in the face of change.

What we’re talking about here is a risk vs. reward assessment. I like to make change decisions by looking at four scenarios for each option you are considering. Let’s say you’re thinking of scrapping this mediocre product in favor of something totally different, what are the four scenarios? One would be that it would be wildly successful and instead of $100 and creating some value, you generate $1,000 and a lot of value. What factors would have to align for this to happen? What are the arguments against it? Another outcome might be that it nets $200, but is highly valued by stakeholders—what are the factors and arguments? The third scenario is a wash and the fourth is failure (and don’t be fooled into thinking there is no value in failure, there is value in trying and failing).

Go through this and if you think the $100, some-value option is the best, then I think it’s a fine decision.

Now, one argument haters will use is that you should never expend resources on something you know is mediocre. I think that’s a dreamworld. I guess I’d agree that you shouldn’t launch a product or service that you think is likely to be mediocre. But if you already have the product, then you already have people with the knowledge and skills to do it. It’s nice to say these people can automatically be retrained for something else, but I say that has to be part of the scenario calculation.

A few caveats:

- If all you have is mediocrity, then you’re in trouble. Part of the risk/reward thing has to account for a holistic look at the organization.

- You can’t let mediocrity paralyze you. If you’re not constantly looking at how it can both be tweaked or blown up and reinvented, then you’re doing your organization a disservice. (That’s true even if you’re program is fantastic—nothing is ever good enough; you should always be thinking of options large and small.)

- Mediocrity can be a slippery slope to bad –particularly in the political world of associations where seemingly no bad program goes unchampioned by an important volunteer.

Now, a slightly different take on the question (and I’ll be quick). If the question is mediocre performance from staff or volunteers, then I say you don’t and shouldn’t accept it. I think there’s usually some obligation to train, teach, coach, etc., but as a manager in your organization, your duty is to that organization, not the employee (or volunteer). I think sustained mediocre performance is a firing offense, and organizations don’t use that option near enough (for staff or volunteers). Finally, when it’s staff, I think there needs to be some financial consideration. You could perhaps describe my position as ruthless, but not heartless. If the organization can't afford money in the form of severance, then perhaps time is the answer (accept mediocrity for 4 months while being accommodating to a person's job search schedule).

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Big ideas of the decade

Let's discuss: What have been the biggest, most positive innovations or ideas that have impacted your association since the year 2000?

I will start with my opinions about the big ideas from the last decade that are positioning my association strongly for the next:

1) Strategic planning process: Our association actually went through two strategic plans in the last decade. The first was very tactics-heavy and resulted in the establishment of an overwhelming number of goals for staff and volunteers to manage. After 3 years, we scrapped the plan and devised a new strategic direction that lays out big picture goals, but leaves the planning and creativity to the Exec. Director and his staff. It is working much better. This has taken us so far in terms of the process we've been through. As a young trade association with humble grassroots, the strat planning process has given the association the gift of vision, and facilitated a stronger, more focused board environment.

2) A functional website: Websites were around in 2000, but remember how archaic they were compared to now? (Check out your association's website 10 years ago by typing in the url here: http://web.archive.org.) For years we struggled in finding a good web solution, and although our current website is not the most advanced or the prettiest, it is functional and we control the content and don’t rely on a third party. I feel it has been essential to growing our membership the last few years.

3) Investing in education that matters: Oftentimes, our association got sucked into situations where we were planning educational programming based on convenience or the opinions of a small group. We are now investing in building educational planning models that are a better reflection of the needs and pains of our members. We are starting to ask consistently the question "What are our member’s biggest challenges this year, and how can we address them?" We are also moving toward a zero-loss policy on educational events (in other words, each event must break even financially). As we add value and relevance to educational programming, we minimize our risk for dependence on sponsorship alone to make programs profitable, and maximize our ability to impact the day-to-day lives of our members.

What big ideas have made a difference for your association over the last 10 years? What have you learned from them?


December 21, 2009

Big Ideas: Nonprofit vs. For Profit

Association bloggers are continuing to do great things with the Big Ideas theme: Last week, Matt Baehr posted on the Big Idea "What if associations were for-profit?" Yesterday, Kevin Holland posted a thoughtful response on his own blog. He considers the for-profit associations that are already out there, and why (or why not) the nonprofit association model makes sense as an alternative.

And don't miss the comments on both Matt and Kevin's posts!


December 18, 2009

Quick Clicks meets Big Ideas

Welcome to Friday! We have some new Big Ideas blog posts for you, as well as some new association blogs for you to welcome:

- Cynthia D’Amour kicks Big Ideas month up a notch with 15 big ideas for chapters, including "What if members had to take a qualifying exam before being allowed to step up to leadership?" and "What if committee members were allowed to vote a chair off the island for wasting their time?"

- Kevin Holland asks, “What if associations weren’t so damn afraid to generate serious cash?”, and suggests that many associations are leaving money on the table not because the money isn't there, but because of their organizational culture. There are already some great responses in comments, as well.

- Marsha Rhea at the SignatureI blog writes about the Big Idea "What if associations came up with visions so compelling they would transcend petty politics?" Marsha argues, "A compelling vision is more likely to confront petty politics and sacred cows. It’s really a battle cry for change rather than a kumbaya moment. A compelling vision should break up the peace and quiet of complacency."

- Please welcome three new association bloggers: Cathi Eifert, at the One More Association Voice blog, and Kevin Whorton and Acronym's own Scott Oser at the College of Association Marketing blog.


December 17, 2009

Go Big or go home

Six more Big Ideas posts came in over the wire today (well, over the RSS feed, anyway). As always, thanks to the association bloggers who have embraced Big Idea month!

- At the Wired 4 Leadership blog, Kerry Stackpole asks, "If your association couldn’t charge dues, would your members pay you for the experience of belonging?"

- Matt Baehr considers two big ideas: "What if associations weren't afraid of doing new things just because they might fail?" and "What if associations were for-profit entities?"

- Peggy Hoffman at the IdeaCenter blog suggests the Big Idea, "What if associations looked at volunteerism through the lens of fundraising?" She points to one intriguing possible result: Changing our reward system could help address the problem many associations face of having the wrong people attracted to volunteer leadership roles.

- Jeffrey Cufaude addresses another recurring problem many organizations face: lack of honesty. He asks, "What if we each begin speaking our truth more regularly, invites others to do the same, and create a climate where doing so is normal and expected?"

- Shannon Otto at the Splash blog is concerned that Big Ideas month might be all hat and no cattle. She writes, "I’m worried that this is all just talk – and no one will actually step up and make some changes." How many folks out there are willing to commit to turning the Big Idea spirit into action?


December 16, 2009

Innovation with boundaries

Next question in our Big Ideas Month:

"What if associations put aside a percentage of their budgets to try out some offbeat ideas?"

This is a fun one, because, somewhere underneath, it also means this:

"What if associations didn't stink at innovation?"

Not all associations are voids of creativity, of course, but the call for greater innovation in the association management field is common these days. Setting aside budget dollars for tinkering is just one method along a scale, bounded by these extremes:

  • "Nothing new is allowed here, ever." (Familiar, zero short-term risk)
  • "Every association employee and volunteer is encouraged to try any and every new idea they have." (Unknown, lots of risk)

A lot of associations seem to lean toward the former, if only because the familiar feels safe. As they say, better the devil you know than the devil you don't know.

So this is just a long way of saying that risk is often, if not always, the driving force against innovation. Why bother spelling that out? Because the acknowledgement of risk is exactly why dedicating budget dollars to testing new ideas is, itself, a great idea.

By dedicating a specific amount of money, in advance, to testing new ideas, you've removed a key level of uncertainty. From the risk perspective, you know exactly how much money will be sunk into ideas that may never deliver a return, and you know that, in a given year, you won't "waste" any more than what you've budgeted.

And thus, some modicum of that oh-so-important control.

Setting up some parameters for innovation at an association could take a variety of forms:

  • Time allotment: By the phrasing, it sounded like whoever originally posted the question was familiar with Google's famous "20-percent time." It could look like that. Conveniently, 20 percent of full time is one day per week.
  • Laboratory-style R&D department: A lot of industrial and scientific organizations would probably chuckle at the fact that we're even having this conversation, because Research & Development departments are a standard part of their companies. Associations could simply follow the R&D model and employ dedicated staff to testing new ideas and practices.
  • Chief Innovation Officer: This would be a staff leader who is tasked with fostering new ideas throughout the association in a measurable way and reports to CEO and board with hard numbers on yearly investment and return. This person wouldn't personally do all the testing; rather, he or she would guide others in experimenting effectively.

You could employ some sort of blend of these ideas, too, of course, or apply them to staff with other roles rather than creating new positions.

Innovation evangelists out there might scoff at the notion of anything less than a fully permeating "culture of innovation" within an association. If you can get to that point, great, but as a general idea, it doesn't account for the reality of actual business decisions based on dollars and resources and returns.

By dedicating a specific, finite amount of money and staff to innovation, perhaps you've fenced off your innovation efforts, but at least you've set up some sort of space for them, which is better than nothing. And nothing is what often happens in the face of unknown risks. Don't think of it as a fenced-off area that keeps innovation in; think of it as a protective bubble that keeps fear and risk out.

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More big ideas to wrap your brain around

Two new blog posts and a Twitter chat to add to the growing conversation on big ideas for associations.

Jeff Hurt, on his Midcourse Corrections blog, asks, "What if associations provided brain-friendly annual conferences?" I enjoy reading about brain science, and Jeff has some great ideas here that, while they run counter to common practice, are grounded in the science of how our minds actually work. My favorite line: "We do know that the [brain's] process is similar to a blender running without a lid. The information enters the blender, is sliced into pieces and splattered all over the insides of our mind." That's a fun image.

Meanwhile, on her Mizz Information blog, Maggie McGary asks, "What if your big idea meant you were out of a job?" She raises a fair point that underlies any examination of innovation or change: "I doubt many of us are that altruistic that we'd be willing to forsake our paychecks for the sake of innovation."

Also yesterday, the topic of the weekly association chat on Twitter was "big ideas," and the crowd of association pros that joined in discussed some tough questions about both inspiring innovation and implementing it. You can find all the tweets from the chat by searching for the Twitter hashtag #assnchat (an abbreviation that raises some eyebrows for sure, but there aren't really any other good ways to abbreviate the word association, are there?). The Twitter search link above shows everything in reverse order; theoretically, you can get a normal-time transcript on the website What The Hashtag?, but it wasn't working correctly when I tried this morning, unfortunately.

FYI: The weekly Twitter association chat is at 2 p.m. ET on Tuesdays; follow the #assnchat hashtag or chat moderator (and founder, I think) Jeff De Cagna at @pinnovation to get info on upcoming chats.

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December 15, 2009

Your daily dose of Big Ideas

I know I've said this before, but I feel compelled to say it again: It's great to see the way the association blogging community has jumped right into Big Ideas month! Thanks to all of the bloggers who have participated so far.

Here are five new Big Ideas posts for your reading pleasure:

- Elizabeth Weaver Engel tackles the Big Idea "What if associations said no to their members?" She argues that associations do say no--they're just doing it wrong.

- At the Splash blog, Shannon Otto addresses the Big Idea "What if association staffers had to swap lives with their respective memberships?" Shannon says, "In all seriousness, I think we too often get caught up in how our own jobs are so difficult, not thinking how our roles play into the big picture." Could getting to know members' challenges up close and personal help?

- Jeffrey Cufaude goes meta with a post on "What's so big about big ideas?" He argues, "Engaging in an exercise that generates and discusses big ideas is worthwhile. But ultimately we need to develop the organizational culture, attract the talent and knowledge, and turbo-charge our daily processes and systems to enable big thinking and big execution on a routine basis."

- KiKi L'Italien, blogging at the Delcor Connection Blog, would like to continue the Big Idea spirit by bringing together a group to discuss ways to transform the ways we do things in associations. You can join the folks who've indicated interest in being part of such a group by leaving a comment

- Jamie Notter responds to Scott Briscoe's Acronym post on "What if associations abandoned hierarchy?" Jamie says, "I push back against hierarchy because in general its reality is falling WAY short of its intention, and not just because of ineffective individuals. Hierarchy in organizations was designed in a completely different era. We don't have to get rid of it, but we need to address its weaknesses in a deep way ..."


December 14, 2009

Opening Board Meetings to the World

What if all association board meetings were Web-streamed live? Would board members or senior staff change their behavior if it was being witnessed potentially by the entire membership? Would they flee behind "executive sessions," be less likely to tolerate a vocal minority that is disrupting the agenda, take the safe road and say or do little, or embrace the change as the best way to ensure board members are acting and voting in ways that meet the expectations and desires of members?

The concept came up in a recent interview I was doing with a Canadian foundation executive director and his nonprofit's co-founder. We were talking about transparency trends in organizations, and the ED noted that technology has made efforts by organizations to be transparent much cheaper. But were leaders ready for that level of openness and associated accountability, I wondered? The ED didn't think they would have much of a choice soon.

I asked another nonprofit CEO for his thoughts on the topic. He laughed ... and laughed some more. His board members would "freak" at the idea of being live on the Web site during their meetings, he said. In fact, he didn't think they'd even be willing to publicly vote on the idea. Board meetings can be really messy, he continued. Volunteer leaders don't necessarily want members to know how ugly some meetings can get, how far off the concept of strategic guidance their meeting agendas and discussions may be, which topics generate the least and most debate, etc.

I wondered if anyone has actually tried streaming board meetings live on the Internet and what type of engagement and response from members such an experiment might have generated. Please share if you have.

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And the Big Ideas just keep on coming

Welcome to Monday! Big Idea month continues, with three new posts:

- Maggie McGary considers the big idea "What if associations required every staffer to work at another association for three days?" Maggie argues, "I think that having the experience of working at a number of different associations is critical to truly understanding the underlying principles of association leadership," and she has three good reasons why.

- Maddie Grant looks at the idea "What if association staff weren't permitted to use email internally?" In fact, she takes it even further and assumes that there's no external email either. Be sure to check out Maddie's thoughts on what could result (and Jamie Notter's comment on a company that actually did this!).

- In a follow-up to his earlier post on "What if associations promoted all of the lowest-ranking staffers to VPs for a week?", Bruce Hammond finds a resource that speaks to the idea of empowering staff at lower levels as an engine for innovation.

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December 11, 2009

What if associations promoted all of the lowest-ranking staffers to VPs for a week?

Bruce Hammond has added to the discussion of big ideas on his Insights from a Future Association Executive blog. He follows up Scott's two posts about staff heirarchy by considering what would happen if association VPs and entry-level staff pulled a week-long switcheroo.

Bruce wonders how a VP's perspective might be affected if he or she considered these questions: "What are members frustrated about? Why are the processes at that level so tedious? Why is it so hard to get my voice heard by those at the highest level?"

Thanks Bruce. Keep those big ideas rolling around in your heads (and on your blogs), everyone. Happy Friday.

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December 10, 2009

Associations as value facilitators

Here's a Big Ideas Month blog post we received from Jeffrey Cufaude—thanks Jeffrey!

"The things you own end up owning you."
~ Tyler Durden character in Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

What if associations shifted more of their efforts from being direct providers of member value to facilitators of members receiving value?

Associations have long prided themselves on delivering high-quality programs and resources for members, including certification, educational conferences, magazines, and journals. Most of these programs are done in-house and require a significant investment of resources. In essence, these are association-owned efforts. They create them; they pay for them; they deliver them. They are an essential part of the association’s stated benefits and identify with members.

Association staff and volunteers often express some of the not-so-positive consequences of this direct provider approach: You can’t ever kill a program around here. Once we start doing something we rarely stop doing it. We keep adding more to our plate without ever taking anything away. We try to do so much for so many that we don’t do very many things very well. By trying to be everything for everybody we end up being not much for anyone in particular.

So what’s the different between being a provider of value and being a facilitator of value being received? At its roots, the word facilitation means “actions taken to make it easier.” What is it that associations would be making easier? Members receiving the value they need in the form they want it, when they want it, and at an affordable price.

But wait you say, isn’t that what associations already see themselves as doing …? Providing programs and services that meet member needs? Well yes, but the key word there is providing. Associations see making things easier for members primarily through the lens of the association being the direct solution provider. But no association has unlimited resources or ability to meet all of the specific needs its members might have at any given time. Rather than try to do so, associations should incorporate a greater role facilitating members receiving the value they need. Doing so would complement the specific areas where it is in the association’s best interests to retain its role as being the actual provider of value.

Some associations already do these by default. I’m simply advocating that more of it be done by design. Associations doing so would:

  • Identify complementary/competing associations its members might now consider joining and negotiate special affiliate rates that provide a limited bundle of benefits, the ones that would be most attractive to members.

  • Negotiate special rates for members to purchase resources/attend educational programs sponsored by other organizations. These resources or programs might be ones that the association itself would be less capable of providing at the best cost or the highest quality or that might require a disproportionate percentage of resources in relation to the number of members who would be served.

  • Purchase generalist content others create and then adding additional information addressing specific implications/applications for the association’s members and providing the enhanced product as a member benefit or publication for resource.

Instead of seeing this as a gatekeeper roll think of it as a door-opener or hyperlink function, one in which I receive additional value specifically through access, pathways, and opportunities that my primary association has acquired for me … ones I might not have been able to access myself as easily or as cost effectively.

But perhaps the greatest shift in mindset and action would be in the way the association sees itself relating to, and interacting with, its members. In any association community, a significant pool of member interest, talent, and knowledge remains untapped. In its purest role as facilitator of members receiving value, associations would devote more effort and resources to creating the infrastructure that would enable members to more easily and quickly connect, share, and create with each other.

Again many existing efforts fall into category, including listservers, online discussion forums, member directories, etc. We frequently see members rating these services as being very important benefits, yet the association merely provides the framework in which members provide the actual content that is valued. They facilitate members doing what they want to do.

This is where the real untapped opportunity exists— engaging members in determining the platform that would enable them to create and access the value they most desire. Associations pursuing this path would be seen as enablers, facilitators, and amplifiers of member-generated content and initiatives. In this respect, the association would be acting somewhat like the iPhone application store: providing the hardware and the programming guidelines for others to create apps that are then screened for standards compliance before being released to the market.

The value is sustained for any particular initiative by members’ interest and ownership as opposed to direct allocation of association resources for a specific program. Associations wouldn’t have to kill off sacred cow initiatives that only a small population values. Initiatives would die on their own when insufficient member interest and ownership remains to perpetuate and manage them.

Not everyone wants a DIY bundle of value, so associations cannot—and should not— get out of the business of being a direct provider of value. But the resources provided for doing so should be more focused and leveraged more exclusively for those topics/areas where the association is uniquely positioned to directly provide the value … better, faster, more efficiently, or at a better price.

The right mix of direct provider versus facilitator is something each association must decide and regularly revisit based on changing conditions in their profession or industry, broader environmental trends, as well as members needs and preferences. So finding the answer is up to you and your organization. I’m fairly confident that the act of doing so is well worth your time and attention.

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More big ideas

It's been great to see the discussion of big ideas spread out among the association blogging community--thanks to all who have participated so far!

Here are two more Big Ideas posts that you should definitely check out:

- Jamie Notter asks, "What if only you could change associations?" (Think Smokey the Bear.) Jamie says, "For all the valuable thinking we do about improving associations, the actual behavior change we engage in as a community is fairly pathetic. ... I ask you to actually change what you're doing in ways that support our lofty visions for an evolved association community. Pick something, and do it." What could you do to take Jamie up on his challenge?

- Eric Lanke wonders, "What if associations allowed their CEOs to be board chairs?" Here's a big idea I never would have thought of, but it's a fascinating concept. Borrowing from some ongoing discussions he's seen about for-profit companies' governance, Eric asks, "Are companies better run when a single person holds both the position of CEO and Board Chair, or when two different people--with different skill sets--each hold one of those positions and work together as a leadership team?" Head over to the Hourglass Blog and see what he has to say!

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December 9, 2009

Big ideas: What would you really do for your mission?

Does a mission mean something, or does it justify something? Imagine the following scenarios:

...Your association has what you feel will be its single best opportunity to fulfill its mission since its inception 10 years ago...you can increase revenue, decrease expenses, and deliver the information and tools to members that they are screaming for, and you can help them lead better lives. The catch? You have to disband your entire association and its brand and merge it with another, stronger association that needs 1 or 2 of your strengths to really make an impact.

...You finally have found the perfect leader for those key challenges facing your association, challenges that need someone with the tact, skill set, and industry knowledge to get things done and help fulfill the organization’s mission...you know in your heart that this individual is more qualified, more passionate, and more poised than the person in the current position, and has the vision to really make things move. The catch? The position is yours.

...Your association has gotten really great at targeting the most essential and influential people who will bring long-term life and longevity to the association, as well as help it fulfill its most vital role, making the association more effective and relevant in a changing world. The catch? You’ll have to increase the requirements of becoming a member, effectively eliminating half of your less engaged, less relevant members in the process, oh, and cutting revenue.

...You have found that one thing that will solve one of societies most pressing problems...you have guaranteed proof that if you implement this tool, it will change the lives of members in your association and improve the quality of life for thousands of people. The catch? The solution involves breaking an outdated federal law still on the books.

...Your association’s cause is fighting a specific disease, and your sole existence revolves around education, advocacy, and information related to the condition ...you have built a great network of peers in medicine and health, and your organization has been awarded repeatedly as one of the top 5 most effective charitable, cause-driven associations in North America. The catch? They just announced this morning a cure for your cause...

What is the core of your association: Is it the association and its people (staff/volunteers), or is it that one big idea (mission)? What is more important?

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Two more posts about big ideas

Thanks go out to KiKi L'Italien and Jeffrey Cufaude, the latest association bloggers to join the discussion this month on big ideas for associations.

On her Acronym Soup blog, KiKi tosses up this idea: what if associations "identify one day a year for free memberships and keep it secret until the actual day...then announce it using their social media outlets"? She says she doesn't think it's a "big" idea, but it seems pretty radical to me, so I like it. KiKi says it's "exciting to think of watching the word of mouth and viral nature of the promotion unfold during the day." Agreed.

(BTW, KiKi's idea was a new one, not included on the original list of big ideas that were submitted by readers in October. Adding ideas, of course, is encouraged. Those of you out there contemplating writing your own entries for Big Idea Month, consider that list just a starting point.)

Meanwhile, on his Idea Architects blog, Jeffrey sees Big Idea Month as a chance to also reflect on the ways we think about and pursue (or fail to pursue) big ideas, and he uses a surprisingly accurate analogy to a classic Seinfeld episode (aren't they all classic, though?). Jeffrey says "Pursuing a big idea is an experiment. By the time it is a sure thing, it rarely qualifies any more as a big idea." Excellent point, one to keep in mind in the midst of this month's various discussions.


December 8, 2009

What if associations cold-called members?

Big Idea Month is a fever, and the only cure is more great blog posts. Today, Elizabeth Weaver Engel, CAE, gives us a dose of her usual straightforward honesty in answering the question "What if associations required every staffer to cold-call one member each week just to connect and listen?" on her Thanks for Playing blog.

My favorite line: "We all talk about the idea that we exist to serve members, meet their needs, etc. But most of us have no freakin' clue what those things are."

Remember, Big Idea Month continues through the end of December (or at least until the holidays), and you're encouraged to jump into the mix on your own blog or even here on Acronym (go to the Big Idea Month intro post for the original list of ideas and the lowdown on how to get involved). You could even be really cool and write about more than one "what if" idea, as Elizabeth says she plans to do. Thanks for playing, Elizabeth. And to everyone else, keep the great posts and comments coming!

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What if associations gave member recruitment the old college try?

Already started working on this post when Shannon Otto beat me to it last week on the Splash blog, but I'll follow up with some further thoughts anyway (you should go read her post, too).

I like the idea of associations taking some cues from colleges and universities on how to attract young people to their ranks (an idea submitted for this month's "big ideas" theme), though I'm not sure if it's revolutionary (frankly, if simply looking to an industry other than our own automatically qualifies as a "big idea," associations might be in trouble). But that doesn't mean it's not a really good idea.

Shannon made an important reference to a study showing that college admissions offices, more than any other industry, have embraced blogs and social media tools. No surprise, really; the vast majority of their audience is made up of high-school students, so colleges are meeting prospective students on students' turf.

As any marketing or social media expert will tell you, though, simply starting a blog or a Facebook page is not a "build it and they will come" scenario. I spoke last week with Ryan Munce, vice president of the National Research Center for College & University Admissions, who said the schools that are most successful mix traditional direct marketing with the new methods that the young generation uses.

"The response methods are what are changing," he said. "Historically, one of the most popular offers in a recruitment or marketing communication has been 'for more information, take this action.' The problem is today, 'more information' is no longer an offer, because information is free. Information is readily available. Especially among younger populations, they don't think of more information as something they can't just get instantly on their own online."

Munce mentioned one college that pointed prospects to a web address to download a free ringtone of its fight song, what he called "a real thing that they can't get any other way." From there, Munce said it's wise for colleges to understand and have a social-media presence but that young people are still very guarded about commercial interactions entering those spaces.

An important distinction to make between college and association recruitment, however, is the initial yes-or-no decision. The desire to attend college is almost universal among high-school students; assuming they're eligible, the bigger decision is about which college to attend. An association, however, has to convince students or young professionals that they should join.

Munce addressed this in describing how schools recruit students who may be undecided about going to college at all. "Identify what we would call an 'at-risk' student and, in essence, attack the challenges that they may have. Attack the challenges that would preclude them from attending your school. Of course, those are numerous, but there are certainly some front runners. Cost is obviously one, and location, and academic achievement are all huge issues," he said.

So the first steps toward attracting young members are to communicate with them on their terms and to address their unique concerns. Set down in one sentence like that makes it seem fairly simple, but what might qualify this as a "big idea" is the high level of empathy needed on an association's part to reach young members. Once you graduate from college and get comfortable in a job, it's very easy to forget what it was like to be a student. Taking the time to consider that audience's viewpoint takes a lot of extra effort.

Who might you turn to for help? Your current student or young-professional members, of course (assuming you have at least a few). Again, take a cue from colleges, which do this like no other industry. Take a campus tour at any college, and the tour guide will be a current student. Recruiting everywhere else, colleges tap into their alumni networks for volunteers. So, send your members (young ones, if possible) out to career fairs and campus visits, or at least pick their brains to understand the viewpoints of their fellow young professionals.

Coincidentally, the December issue of Membership Developments features "10 Ways to Embrace Student Membership," by Rebecca S. Gordon, CAE. Check that out, too, for some more ideas.

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December 7, 2009

What if associations did not charge dues?

Big Idea Month continues, with a post from Shelly Alcorn, CAE on her Association Subculture blog. Shelly answers the question: What if associations did not charge dues?

It’s a frequent debate on Acronym, (see this post and long comment thread from October) though I’m not sure I’ve seen anybody see it as quite the threat that Shelly does. It’s an interesting take.

Remember association bloggers -- write up your big idea and we'll point to it from here on Acronym. And if you have a big idea, something that answers the question "What if associations..." but don't blog yourself -- write something up and send it to me (sbriscoe@asaecenter.org), and I'll post it.


What if associations abandoned hierarchy?

This part 2, see part 1 from Friday, answering the question:

“What if associations abandoned the notion of hierarchy and every employee was valued equally?”

Today, I’m going to talk about the hierarchy half of the question, which, in all likelihood, is what the author of the question thought was the “big idea” part of the question.

At various points in my life, I’ve been a hierarchy-hater, which is, I think, the trendy management flavor. (That is, that hierarchy is a bureaucracy that throws roadblocks in the way of progress and that flatter organizations are more effective.) But as I try to answer this question, I first want to take a contrarian view—one that even surprises myself a little. The view is, that at a basic, definition level, hierarchy is simply a decision-making tool.

When looked at this way, it’s really not such a bad thing. Don’t hate the hierarchy; hate the lack of leadership from the people at the top of it. A hierarchy per se doesn’t create red tape, it doesn’t squash innovation, and it doesn’t perpetuate a culture of elitism. A hierarchy does say that a particular person is responsible for making a particular decision. If the person is a poor leader of groups, then the hierarchy will suck for all those involved (well, except maybe the sucky leader). Oh well. Build whatever powerbase you can around it or get out of the situation (as Jeff Hurt said in his comments to Friday's post)—I don’t see other options for you. But if the decision maker is a strong leader, he or she will empower others to build a strong solution to whatever issue is at stake. People in these situations don’t complain about the hierarchy because they don’t feel like it gets in the way.

But take out the hierarchy, and you spend an inordinate amount of time figuring out who has the power to set norms for the group and make decisions. Many people who know me, know that I hate graduate-school-style group work. I took a lot away from my graduate program, but nothing is stronger than the idea that this kind of group is to be avoided at all costs in the real world. Maybe—and I’ll concede (grudgingly) that even probably—the group’s work will exceed the work that could be done alone, but I believe the resource cost far outweighs that benefit.

So to sum up this part of the argument, I think that when people clamor for an end to hierarchy, they really should be clamoring for effective leadership that empowers staff in that hierarchy.

“Don’t hate the hierarchy” may be heretical, but it’s not really a big idea. So I’ll spend the last 150 words of this post trying to think.

When I think of a hierarchy-lite association, I think of those entrepreneurial-minded technology companies you’ve heard about where the idea champion is the project leader, and he or she forms a team from others willing to devote resources to the project. How could such a model work in associations? Picture this: An idea will need dual leadership, one staff and one volunteer. They then work to convince other staff and volunteers to devote resources to the project. If they get enough support, then they launch the project team. Some parameters could be set: maybe no one could champion more than one thing at a time, and everyone is required to devote no more than 60 percent of their resources to what they champion themselves.

One thought is that for something like this to work, you’d need to have projects that can be completed, rather than ongoing. I think the trend is toward this type of project--certainly it's toward this type of volunteering--but associations have to be dragged there, as we are typically unwilling to give up our perpetual programs and services.

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Is technology the answer?

As I write this I am sitting on my couch at home on a Saturday afternoon. It is snowing outside so I have my heat on, two lamps on, my tv on as sort of background noise and my laptop in my lap. I am sucking down electricity directly from at least 4 things. The good news is that while I am working I am printing as little as possible and I am therefore not putting much into paper folders for later reference. So am I environmentally friendly or not? I am saving trees but I am using more and more electricity.

Here is another situation I have been thinking about lately. As a consultant I spend more and more time in places that have free wi-fi or access to multiple electrical outlets. I need electricity to do my job and I have learned during my time as a consultant that more and more people are just like me. Most of these people do not carry around portable printers and just like in my situation above they print as little as possible. Is the proliferation of electricity junkies who do not use a lot of paper a good thing or a bad thing? Are we just substituting one problem for another?

I think the virtual office is a great thing. I also think it is great that technology has advanced so much that we are all now more portable and more productive. That said all of the technology does run on electricity and at the end of the day I am curious to know if the environment is going to pay for our reliance on technology and electricity.

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December 4, 2009

Staff value: it's a big idea, even if it shouldn't be

It’s “Big Idea Month” here on Acronym, and I’m tackling one of the ideas that was submitted:

“What if associations abandoned the notion of hierarchy and every employee was valued equally?”

I’m splitting this question into two parts, because the idea of abandoning hierarchy is very different than the notion of valuing every employee equally. I’ll be tackling hierarchy on Monday, with a position that I, myself, was surprised I took.

Today, I’m going to push back on the term “equally,” which I think we should throw out for the purposes of this discussion. Workers, jobs, ideas, products—these things aren’t equally valuable and shouldn’t be treated that way. Now everything needs to be important in its own way; if it’s not important, don’t do it. The question I think we should ask is “What if… every employee was treated as valuable and with respect?”

My first question is this: is this even a big idea? Would anybody seriously challenge the notion that employees deserve to be treated as valuable and with respect?

I think the reality is that most people don’t work hard enough at being a strong manager or a strong leader, and I think it takes both to make employees feel valued and respected—so, yes, I think it is a big idea worth exploring.

Perhaps knocking down hierarchical structure is one way to make employees feel valued and respected. (Perhaps not, come back Monday for more.) I tend to think strong managers and strong leaders are more the answer. Here’s some common sense advice from Patricia Williams, SPHR, senior manager, HR outsourcing with RAFFA. It’s common sense, but all too rare.

“There are so many little ways and so many big ways to communicate to employees that they are valued,” she says. “And it’s critically important to take the time to do those things.

“By little things, I’m talking about managers giving constant feedback on performance. It doesn’t matter if it’s quote, positive or negative feedback—ongoing regular communication, even in casual conversation, will make employees feel valued.

“The larger things are things tied to compensation incentives, additional authority and responsibility, promotions. The opportunities for big things aren’t going to come around as often, that’s why the little things are so important—and they don’t happen often enough.”

When employees feel undervalued or disrespected, it’s a cultural problem, and Williams notes that culture starts at the top of the organization. If you truly value strong management and leadership skills, then you’ll continually work to instill them into the culture of your company. Things like employee surveys and focus groups—and even informal conversations—can help you determine how employees feel. But Williams cautions, “those things are great, great tools, but only if the employer uses them. Nothing is more disheartening for employees to feel like they gave earnest feedback only for it to be ignored.”

I’d add a final note: Don’t be helpless. If you feel undervalued or disrespected, it’s your duty as an employee to speak up. If you don’t you’re just contributing to the miserable culture of the organization. And I’m not saying you have to do it in an angry combative way. If there’s a history of those speaking up being smacked down, then be creative. Find new ways to raise the issues you’re having.

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December 3, 2009

Make 'em laugh

One last post for social media month, almost still in the actual month of November. With seven days out of the office in the last two weeks, I consider this a success. Let's just pretend today is November 33rd.

Anyway. When was the last time your association did something funny? Something worth anything beyond a chuckle? I won't be surprised if it's been a while.

Jamie Notter made a good point on the SocialFish blog earlier this week about the need for associations to be more "human" to succeed with social media. I agree, but I'll go a step further: associations need to grow a sense of humor to succeed with social media, too.

Think of the last YouTube video that someone emailed or Tweeted to you, saying "you gotta see this." Chances are, it was something funny. The founding father of viral videos is the Numa Numa guy. Nearly 33.5 million people have watched the grainy video of him flailing and lip-synching in front of his computer. Why? Because it's freakin' hilarious.

But trying to "go viral" is the extreme. More broadly, humor is important because social media demands a higher level of personality in all of your communication. Stodgy, impersonal business copy just doesn't work anymore, even in a business environment.

Humor builds good will. If you make your members laugh, it puts them in a good mood, and later they associate that good mood with their perceptions of your association (consciously or subconsciously). Take a look at any survey of what people say they seek in romantic partners; sense of humor is always near the top of the list. This isn't rocket science. It's just human nature.

I do my best to keep informed of interesting things going on in the association community (because, you know, it's a large part of my job), but I struggle to recall many examples of associations being particularly funny. It took me a while just to dig up these links (and one of them was posted on Acronym in July!):

Note one common thread: the examples above are all good examples of self-deprecation, possibly the easiest and safest form of comedy (heck, I even tried it at the start of this post). You don't risk offending anyone if you're the butt of your own joke.

Traditionally, associations have taken themselves too seriously (making them more often the target of jokes and parodies than the source). In the age of social media, failing to be funny is missing an opportunity to build good will—or to even hit a homerun with something viral.

If you have some more examples of associations being funny, please mention them in the comments below. They can give us all a good laugh and serve as inspiration as well.

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Big Idea post from the Splash blog

As Scott mentioned in his introduction to our Big Idea month here on Acronym, we've invited the association blogging community to play along with us ... and one association blogger has already taken up the challenge. Over at the Splash blog, Shannon Otto explores the question "What if associations started looking at what college admissions offices are doing to recruit students these days, using some of these techniques as models for recruiting young members?"

Head over to the Splash blog to see what she has to say!

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December 1, 2009

Holiday giving trend info, Cyber Monday tie-ins

Many association board meetings are going on this month, and two frequent questions asked of staff are, “What are the end-of-year giving trends right now, and what donor behavior do you expect in the next year?” They also want more thorough details of how any proposed budgets are changing to reflect those expectations, especially in terms of first-quarter cash flow, when giving by individuals traditionally drops dramatically.

I’ve written before about giving trends and am happy to share the result of the latest survey out today by the American Red Cross. It finds that 90 percent of Americans plan to donate to charity this holiday season, with 62 percent planning to give more than $25, and 25 percent saying they’ll give more than $100, despite the economic downturn. In the really good news department, 40 percent are “talking with others about donating to charity instead of buying them a gift.”

“Eighty percent said that, if asked, they would be happy to make a donation to charity instead of buying a gift for someone,” reports the American Red Cross.

Nonprofits and associations have been extremely concerned about the expected diminishing of end-of-year donations, and I’ve been hearing both good and terrible numbers from a wide range of folks within our sectors. However, a Red Cross survey in November finds that although one-third of respondents said they are cutting back on gift spending, parties (31%), holiday décor (40%), and travel (44%), only 20 percent are sending out fewer charity checks, and 17 percent plan to spend more. This is impressive considering that the survey also revealed that one in four people had their salary or hours cut back, 14 percent were suffering a job layoff, and 41 percent had lost money in the stock market.

To help boost their fundraising opportunities, a number of nonprofits and associations leveraged yersterday’s “Cyber Monday” technology buying spree among bargain-hunting consumers to pitch online charitable giving. With online giving at an all-time high, association development staff appear to be shaping their virtual giving pitches to sync with a day when millions of Americans already have gift-giving on their minds. It would be interesting to learn whether these strategies have worked. Anyone willing to share their results is welcome to post here.


It's Big Idea Month on Acronym

Previously we asked Acronym readers to give us some big ideas or interesting thoughts to write about, and you came through with a lot of good fodder--so much that we might have to do another big ideas month in the future! Your suggestions and input have been compiled and will be the first comment to this post.

We've culled this list and selected several that we're going to write about directly -- two or three a week up until December 24th, when Acronym will go mostly silent until 2010.

We're inviting the association blogging community to participate on their blogs--we'll share any we see with Acronym readers. In addition, if any readers out there want to give us their thoughts on any of these ideas, we'd love for you to write a post and email it to me (sbriscoe@asaecenter.org) -- I'd love to post them. Guidelines: make them no more than 400 words long and, well, coherent.

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