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May 27, 2011

What it takes to improve yourself

This Small Staff Week post was written by Marianne Fray, CAE, also from the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association.

It takes a village to get an advanced degree or a credential. Is it worth it? I suggest knowing what you want to achieve before taking the plunge!

I am one of nine professional staff who works for the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association (HBA). The HBA is dedicated to the advancement and impact of women in healthcare worldwide. We have more than 6,000 individual members, nearly 120 corporate partners, 15 chapters throughout the U.S. and Europe, and nearly 250 volunteer leaders. We have enjoyed significant membership and product growth in the past three years. The time commitment to achieve this success, with so few staff, is significant. So, where did I find time to pursue certification, and was it worth it? There is no question the answer is yes, because I wanted to better understand the not-for-profit world.

I grew up in the for-profit sector, holding positions in marketing and sales in the telecommunications industry. My previous employer offered to pay for my MBA, so I thought, "Why not?" The discipline of balancing my workloads at school, work, and home served me well as I pursued other professional and personal goals. The MBA opened doors for me and gave me confidence to serve my clients even better.

When I transitioned from for-profit to not-for-profit, I quickly learned that there were different lexicons. I was introduced to governance, membership, component and government relations, Roberts Rules of Order, motions, bylaws, etc. I could read a balance sheet, but felt lost in this new world. I needed a more focused understanding of this new sector.

I decided to pursue my CAPM, Certified Associate in Project Management, as I was working with project managers. A CAPM helped me better understand and speak their language. Preparing for this exam was very different than earning my MBA. A certification or credential tests for specific knowledge and proficiency in a particular area or related areas. An advanced degree, on the other hand, focuses on building broad knowledge in a functional area, while strengthening critical-thinking and team-building skills.

With the required 5 years experience in not-for-profits under my belt, along with the experience of earning my CAPM, I was now qualified to sit for my CAE. If I thought pursuing my MBA and CAPM while working full time was hard, balancing the workload in a small association while preparing for the CAE exam was almost unbearable. There was no team to back me up at work. It would have been easy to put it off, thinking I would get to it one day. I got through, literally, a day at a time. I allocated most of my personal time to study.

In December of 2010, I earned my CAE. Yes, it was worth it for me, and professional development is essential for you as well. Whether you thinking about a certification or other training or education, it will always look insurmountable when you think of yourself as being alone. But the unifying thread between all of my post-baccalaureate achievements was the full support of my family and team members. I'm convinced that no one earns an advanced degree or credential on their own; it takes a village. I am grateful for my village, and I encourage those thinking of taking the plunge to look to their village for support too!


Hold hands, don't slap them

This Small Staff Week post is another from the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association. This one is from Carol Meerschaert, who is their director of marketing and communications.

Like every association, the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association (HBA) needs a website that speaks with one voice, not one that reads like it was written by 28 different people, even if it was. It doesn't really matter if you think the word should be written "e-mail" or "email;" what does matter is consistency. Is the event a "kick-off," "kickoff," or "kick off"? Is that flagship event a conference, annual meeting, or national meeting? How is everyone to know?

Ignorance is not bliss in communications, unless you love editing out the same errors ad naseum. The communications version of antacid is education for your staff and volunteers. Write, distribute, and reiterate constantly a set of clear communication guidelines. When I began to tire of correcting common errors in our member's writing, I asked my communications intern Julie Zeglan to write a blog post about writing. Her post, 21st Century Writing: From Typewriters to Keyboards is one of our most popular blog posts because it gently instructs the reader on the difference between the style of writing we use today and what was expected in the days of carbon paper and carriage returns. I often send a link to that post when I am working with a volunteer who is writing something for the HBA.

I also send our style guide (pdf). A style guide did not exist when I started working here, so I went right to HBA member Nancy Connelly who wrote a fantastic style HBA Style Guide. Getting volunteers to help write the guidelines not only gives you the help you need it increases buy-in from all members.

Guidance should be instructional, not punitive. Lower the fear; scared people make more mistakes. My Mom told me that one of the reasons she married my Dad was that she admired the way he could gently correct his little brothers and sisters when they did something wrong. He left them with their pride intact and feeling loved. Correct what you need to, but leave the writer with a very positive feeling, knowing that you appreciate their efforts.

Finally, fan the flames of good work. Lavish praise on what people do that is 'on strategy' and within your guidelines. Working in a small staff association where you are the entire communications department allows you to accomplish a great deal if you reach out and hold the hands of your volunteers.


May 26, 2011

Investing in volunteers

Nikki Jones is the director of finance and administration for the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association, and is the latest author in Acronym's Small Staff Week.

If you are a staff member at a small staff association, I don't need to tell you that you can't do it all by yourself. I've been the staff director of finance and administration for the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association (HBA) for a year and a half and I can tell you that even if you are a department of one, you'd be wise to invest in the volunteers who are your unpaid staff.

The HBA's model blends a small paid staff with hundreds of volunteers across our 15 chapters. We offer them experiential leadership, meaning they have an opportunity to learn new skills in a safe and supportive environment. That is the professional advantage of HBA membership. What that means to me as a staff member is that my team of treasurers on the chapter boards vary greatly in accounting skills, and it is my job to support and nurture each one while maintaining business accounting standards.

Some of my chapter treasurers come with years of professional finance experience, others not so much. While my job is demanding, I always make time for training and supporting my volunteers. I think spending time up front training is a far better investment than cleaning up a mess later.

A piece of advice I offer is to invest in technology. After careful research we chose a cloud computing system that offers our chapters in-depth budget and finance information that each treasurer can access from a computer. We work with a bank that offers online banking. We have just instituted an online system for ordering marketing materials and stationery. I trained staff and volunteers to enter expenses, examine budgets, and track spending as they go. I also created step-by-step guides with screen shots where needed to serve as an initial training and ongoing resource for staff and volunteers. A large amount of time went into setting up these systems, but that investment will pay off in time saved in the future.

At HBA we offer both group and one-on-one training. Our Leadership Institute, offered each fall for volunteers, enables them to start their year of service with the knowledge and resources needed for success. One part of that day of training is a session where all chapter treasurers are trained together. This is our only face-to-face formal meeting, and it is great to have the volunteers meet each other. Each month I lead a conference call with all of them to discuss issues, share best practices, and offer support. We also use these calls to celebrate successes.

Another investment I made was to provide one-on-one training via web conferencing to each treasurer. This allowed me to gage their skills and, maybe more importantly, get to know each one as a person. This rapport is needed to assure each chapter treasurer feels she can come to me with questions or problems.

When it comes to finance, I'm gentle but firm. I'm responsible for the HBA's finances, and I take that seriously. My association counts on my expertise. I need to know that I can answer every query the auditors have each year at tax time.

I'm very busy, but never too busy to add to the investment I've made in the HBA volunteers. It gives me such great satisfaction to see my treasurers grow in skills and confidence as the year progresses. Being part of a small staff association is demanding and not always easy, but the rewards are truly great.


Working virtually: A benefit or a barrier?

Small Staff Week continues on Acronym... this post is from Laurie P. Cooke, CAE, CEO of the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association.

As a very small-staff organization, starting with just me in 2006, I started out in a spare office in Philadelphia offered to me by a generous board member. When I found my first employee - a perfect hire - who lived in North Carolina and considering that the organization's members were spread across the U.S., I decided to try out the growing trend of working virtually. When the second hire - again a perfect hire - lived in yet another state, I accepted that this business model was something to embrace.

We now have 10 perfect-hire employees from northern New Jersey to North Carolina and each employee is working from their home office. This has allowed me to hire the best person for the job regardless of their geographic location. Having five years of working as a virtual organization, we are now well placed to reflect on the benefits and barriers that an association faces.

We have found many benefits to this arrangement including significantly lower overhead costs for office space and equipment; employees have the ability to work from home and manage their work-life activities with more control over their time and choices on priorities; and our multiple locations gives us more access to our members and chapter leaders with ability to attend events and have deeper relationships with volunteers.

We have found many barriers including technology challenges when an employee has technical issues and has to resolve much of this themselves which as non-technology folks can be time consuming and frustrating; difficulty to manage work-life balance because your work becomes your life as your office is in your home; and the ability to bond as a team when you are not co-located so no chance to share small talk over the water cooler.

What have you found to be the case working virtually - is it a benefit or a barrier?

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May 25, 2011

One small step for the busy executive

This Small Staff Week post is from Caryl Garais Tynan, director of membership services at the American College of Phlebology.

Small staff associations struggle with a huge list of duties, juggling multiple hats with limited resources, and time. Recently, I attended a time-mangement class, and they had great motivators and ideas, but one idea that stuck with me was an email management tool called RAFT.

The instructor said that we should strive to have clean in-boxes and regardless of how you manage your tasks with flags or by printing out emails, this principle can help you quickly get through to the core of your email/file system.

As many of you know, we hear many great ideas, but how many of them do we truly implement. My email intake is very large, so I decided to give it a shot.

RAFT stands for Refer, Action, File, or Throw away. The principle is to apply these four categories to each email and each piece of paper that hits your desk. It is simple, easy to implement, and, even though a messy desk is a sign of genius, this can change your work life. When I read email, I can refer it, which means to forward (or print and forward) then delete it. Emails that require action can be flagged (with a color) or printed for a to-do or action pile. When the action item is complete, it is either thrown away/deleted or filed for history. Emails that need to be saved for archive/history can be filed accordingly. Emails that are just simple responses or do not require referral, action or filing can be thrown away/deleted. This leaves your inbox virtually empty except for action items that are flagged.

I never thought it could happen, but my desk and email has reached a new organization level. Staff thought I was quitting because of the lack of paper on my desk. That made me chuckle.... keeps people on their toes. There are moments when I lax on the RAFT method, but quickly realize that I have to get back on track to keep my efficiency at a high level. This was just a 5 minute portion of the day-long, time-management presentation, but it made the entire meeting worth while. It is hard to find what works for you, but when you do find it, you can't help but share the wealth!

The RAFT method is a survival technique that is integral to my organization. I hope it works for you.

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Small staff organization, big staff workload

Small Staff Week continues with this post by Amy Guzewicz, membership coordinator at the American Society of Ophthalmic Administrators.

Small staff organizations have their perks; the large workload isn't one of them. One of the most wonderful things about my organization, to me, is the size. This gives me the opportunity to expand my skills, knowledge, and expertise in ways in which I would never have the opportunity at a large organization. However, having a small staff organization can also be a negative thing.

Don't get me wrong, small staff associations shouldn't be saddled with a negative connotation. In regards to workload, however, working at an organization with only a few staff can be challenging at times.

I work for a company of two organizations: one is the parent organization and one is the child organization. I work for the child organization--a staff of five, including the executive director. Together, our two organizations put on our annual congress and symposium every year.

One of the most frustrating things that large staff organizations don't realize (a parent company, for example) is that while the small staff organization may only have 5 people, each of us is critical to our organization and we carry a very full workload that often spans across content boundaries (network in the small organization circles and you're going to run across the government relations-IT-HR person or the editor-marketing-membership-designer person).

Because the workload is just as intense as at a larger organization, and because of the variety of roles thrust on each staff, our work lives can seem chaotic. Workers at small staff associations have to be ruthless in their approach to organizing their work. We have spent considerable time developing systems to keep our staff organized--and happily the effort is noticed. However, it remains chaotic. Just when things seem to be coming into balance, something new will fall onto our plates. Being rigorous in our approach to organizing is the only hope.

Related to the workload, a second frustration is innovation. We are a bright, creative staff, and we come up with tons of interesting ideas. I'm not exaggerating--we literally have file cabinet drawers labeled "Projects 2012 and on." We love jumping on new projects and bringing them through to a final product or service. Don't get me wrong, I'm very proud of the work we do, and I'm constantly amazed at all that we are able to accomplish (thanks in no small way to staying organized). But I still think about the ideas in the drawer; the things we could accomplish if there was more human capital to work on them.

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May 24, 2011

Building a culture of acknowledgement in your association

This Small Staff Week post is by Peggy Hoffman, CAE, owner of Mariner Management, an association management company and consulting firm:

A little while ago I read Patricia Morgan's post "To Appreciate, First Acknowledge" on SmartBlog on Workforce and felt as though the message was doubling important for those of us in the small staff association world. You see while it focused on paid staff, it hit the nail on the head for unpaid staff too. And as we in small staff org know, our unpaid staff is as critical to us and to achieving our mission as our paid staff.

She points out a curious statistic from "How Full is Your Bucket? Positive Strategies for Work and Life," that indicated 65% of Americans say they receive no recognition at work. That's not unlike what we've heard from volunteers via ASAE's Decision To Volunteer study. We saw that while the issue of acknowledgement wasn't a deal breaker, it also wasn't seen as a done deal. Volunteers rated it a C+ when asked how satisfied they were with it. When I've asked association execs how they feel they do, they say of course we acknowledge our volunteers. Interesting, the employers said the same about paid staff.

I wonder if that last belief is simply a case of not being in tune. If you run a Volunteer Appreciation Day or program or event, you are likely to think you've got it covered. Same if you regularly do a thank you to volunteers in your newsletter. But acknowledgment at that level is much like our "call for volunteers" - it's a task list item, a basic. As volunteers told us in DTV, a "call" is not asking me to volunteer. A direct, personal request is asking. A direct, personal recognition is the same idea.

Patricia makes the observation "appreciation has the biggest impact when it is given randomly," drawing from B.F. Skinner's discovery that random reinforcement more strongly anchors behaviors than consistent reward. I'd add that it's not just that it's random, but that it usually means it is also personal. Stepping up to a more meaningful level of acknowledge really means creating a culture of acknowledgement in our associations. This rich culture is characterized by both the task list items like the Volunteer Appreciation Day or thank you's in our newsletters and the random acts.

Patricia offers her 10 tips for building a culture and I'd add to those:

  • Be sure to attribute ideas, tips, editing help, resources, quotes to members - even the smallest ones, e.g. "this article was culled from conversations with ...."
  • Incent your staff to "pay if forward" by giving them a budget or supply closet of trinkets and thank you's they can use at will to acknowledge volunteer efforts - and then make them accountable to use them.

For some more reward & recognition ideas, check out High Performers Have Enough Coffee Mugs.

How are creating a culture of recognition in your org - for paid and unpaid staff?

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The nimble advantage

Small Staff Week continues on Acronym... this post is from Joseph Normandy, executive director of the Vermont Insurance Agents Association.

Small associations, thy name is nimble...

How many times have you heard that? What? Never? I get it, but it's very true.

I have run both large and small groups, and the advantage small groups have for a quality exec is that you get to touch each operation point and trust each employee that shoulders the various efforts.

That is where the long-range plan comes into play. Created by current leadership, past chairpersons, and staff, this critical give-and-take session will separate the pie-in-the sky dreams from the realistic goals a small staff and small budget can accomplish (and they should be able to accomplish a lot, or you have the wrong team). Small organizations do have resource constraints but being nimble in those long-range plans is a huge advantage. You're not dragging around all the momentum that a large organization carries with it. Often, a large organization will lose focus because an elected leader will see it as "their" year and they are going to adjust the ship in a different direction and thus any long-range planning document is useful only as a doorstop. Small staff organizations can build flexibility into their planning; they can analyze their environments and change appropriately with staff and elected leadership working together to chart the best course. The key is planning smartly.

You want to have a good year, your staff wants to have a sense of success, and surely your leadership team, especially your chairman/president, wants a good year, and that can only be achieved through a working long-range plan. Such a working plan is one that everyone follows and is flexible enough to enable the organization to capitalize on circumstances, but provides enough guidance and support to thwart outcries from singular individuals that want the group to address their pet issues.

Being nimble is fun, and used wisely, it is one of the greatest advantages of working for a small association.

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May 23, 2011

The advantages of knowing how to cook a burger

The first post for the Small Staff Week on Acronym is by Mychelle Blake, MSW, CDBC, deputy director, the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. Be sure to read all the posts from the week.

Last year Joe Rominiecki blogged about the CBS TV show Undercover Boss and posed a question to small staff association executives: is there an advantage to being more familiar with the work of the staff because of the size and lack of resources in a small staff association? Or would you prefer to hire someone to man the burger and fries station while you handle the "typical" duties of the CEO?

In the time that I've worked for a small staff association, I have found myself juggling the duties of a full-time Communications Director, Membership Director, Acting Executive Director, Social Media Guru, Trade Show Coordinator, Conference Planner, and Dog Behavior Consultant (Ok, I work for the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, so that last one is not as odd as you think!) While I would love to have a large enough staff that could handle all these duties so that I could find out what that thing called "sleep" is, I think the experience of being able to understand your association from the ground up is invaluable.

For one thing, I believe anything that helps you gain empathy for your staff's day to day realities keeps one humble and open to taking input from all levels of your staff. Years ago in my first jobs after college, I hated working as an administrative/executive assistant, but now I look back and see those years as the best sort of training ground for learning how to think on your feet and solve problems quickly. When our association creates new programs and membership benefits, the plans are circulated to all our staff, from administrative assistants to directors, so that we can determine how the program will affect the membership and the association through everyone's eyes and experiences.

Another advantage is that I find small staff association personnel tend to have a strong grasp of the bigger picture of an association because, while they have their own specific duties to focus on, such as accounting or marketing, they are not as ensconced in those areas as staff in larger associations can be. The constant exposure to issues outside their own particular sphere, whether it be membership retention or marketing the annual conference or using social media, tends to create staff who consider all departments when making decisions and builds a stronger sense of mission for the organization. I've experienced less turf battles in my small staff association than in larger organizations and more cohesion among the staff.

Of course there are obvious disadvantages. The constant influx of work and need to multitask as an executive director can be exhausting, and the lack of resources and points of view can contribute to an insular world view when it comes to your association. Given the choice, I prefer knowing how to cook a burger, or in our case, handle a membership phone call, do the page layout for our latest member magazine, or answer a reporter's question about the best way to house train Fluffy.

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Small association staff week

We've got another themed week for you here on Acronym--this time we've asked people who work at associations with 10 or fewer staff to provide guest posts. We've got several posts over the next few days offering this perspective, including several from different staff at the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association out of Fairfield, NJ.

We may have a post or two this week from outside the theme; you can access all the ones from this week in the Small Staff Week 2011 category (will add the link after this is posted). I'll be putting them all in the system, but each one lead with a quick identification of the author.

As always, please jump in and provide your thoughts, tips, and experiences--we welcome conversations on Acronym!


May 17, 2011

Which "hat" makes the best association CEO?

We association people like to say we "wear many hats," meaning association management often requires broad expertise in several different roles. The hat I generally wear is the editor's hat (which I guess would look like this if we were talking about literal hats), and while editing an article for the June issue of Associations Now today, I came across a quote that got me thinking about these various hats:

"Become an expert in your functional area before becoming a generalist in association management. Exhibiting a strong skill set in your area of responsibility (communications, education, meeting planning, and so forth) builds credibility and a solid foundation for your career. Also, producing results for the organization in your area of expertise will get you noticed."—Gabriel Eckert, CAE, executive director of Building Owners and Managers of Atlanta

Seems like pretty good advice, but it got me thinking: What functional area makes for the best initial education in association leadership? Or, from another point of view, what specific background is most important to look for in a candidate if you're hiring an association CEO?

I'll offer a few suggestions:

  • Volunteer relations, for the skills learned in supporting, guiding, and facilitating member committees and groups, which translates directly to working with a board of directors.
  • Communications, for the skills learned in crafting and delivering strong and consistent messages and building buy-in to those visions.
  • Membership, for the insight gained into exactly what makes members tick.
  • Advocacy, for the skills learned in coordinating collective, sustained action toward large-scale goals.

[These last two might have a built-in advantage that other functions don't offer; scoring major growth in membership or a victory on Capitol Hill is resume gold.]

Of course, association professionals work in a wide variety of functions (just see the list of ASAE professional-interest sections or CAE domains), and I'm sure a case could be made for any functional area. But, I'm curious if you have a strong opinion one way or another. Is there a part of your association background that has proven most valuable to you as a leader? Do great association leaders come from volunteer relations, from membership, or from somewhere else? Or is Gabriel's advice really just about driving toward success in whatever area you might start in? Let us know what you think.

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May 11, 2011

Helping a Volunteer Member Organize a Study Tour

When ASAE hosted a recent study tour of about a dozen association professionals from African nations, we thanked our lucky stars for the volunteer member who developed the idea, organized most of the memorable experiences, recruited fellow colleagues to help with home stays and mentoring/knowledge-sharing events, and now is willing to share tips to other associations keen to replicate the activity.

While many organizations have study tours as part of their regular international offerings, I'm not sure many of them are volunteer-driven and volunteer-organized.

I asked the ever-energetic Liz Jackson, president of Jackson Consulting and prime mover-and-shaker behind the African study tour, to provide her advice regarding ways that associations can support volunteer members willing to put in the work needed to pull off a study tour for international association professionals . Here are her responses:

(1) Identify the project goal. Why does the volunteer want to do this, and how will it help strengthen the association and its community?

"Certainly most associations send their members outbound rather than receive them inbound," Jackson says. "If you're receiving delegates into your own country and office, determine if it's because of a [desire for] fact-finding, training, a chance at future membership opportunities, or perhaps an international initiative. My reason for proposing it was that I'm doing consulting in sub-Sahara Africa and am working with an association [that works] with other associations....

"Associations are bursting out all over Africa, but they're currently more of a community of like-minded people than an association that's run as a business, like we see in DC.... If you assess your goals for the study tour, that will set the stage for what your program will be like."

(2) Incorporate a strong component of personal networking with participants' professional counterparts. Jackson determined after questioning potential participants that a combination of expert-based presentations and private networking opportunities would generate the most value to attendees--and U.S.-based association members.

Jackson organized two lunches and a dinner specifically for networking, and called for volunteers willing to sit with an African professional to answer questions and share ideas and advice. About 100 volunteers responded. She then contacted each, so they could choose their assignment either for lunch or dinner.

"Many delegates said that was the most impressive part of the study tour," Jackson says. "To sit down and talk about living in this country, about associations in general, progress in their country versus ours, and just having a private heart-to-heart discussion of life as it is today [was incredibly rewarding to both parties]." An association can help get out word for such a volunteer opportunity to a wider community.

(3) Don't underestimate the role sponsors can play in adding value to the attendee experience. Association staff can help a volunteer leader by identifying and connecting him or her to potential sponsors. In Jackson's case, two sponsors--etouchs and Marketing General--came aboard, organizing meal set-ups using small dinner tables at which one or two of their representatives sat to talk about applications of technology and development of technology-driven membership strategies.

"Also, if you're dealing with candidates from developing countries, the likelihood of them needing sponsorship would be great," Jackson explains. "We knew most associations in Africa do not have full-time staff, but that was the candidate we were looking for.... [Even those groups] with enough money to have full-time staffers [still were challenged by] the cost of living,.... so almost half needed sponsorship help." Jackson sought funding from potential sponsors directly and, fortunately, "had very few people say no."

(4) Understand that this type of volunteer project takes more time to execute than it might if it were on an association staffer's work plan. It took Jackson a year and a half to organize the tour, working closely with two ASAE staff members and deciding against establishing a specific committee.

"They were good about helping with the registration component, finding pre-paid hotel rooms, and other things," notes Jackson.

Study tours are time-consuming, detail-oriented, fabulously enriching projects. If your organization is lucky enough to have an enthusiastic member willing to take on the effort, find a way to support it with gusto so you too can hear the kind of study tour feedback every association wants: "This has changed my life."


May 9, 2011

Borrowed from ASAE

One of the things I love about the association world is the willingness to share ideas, models, plans, programs, documents, themes, strategies, and more. And how we're pretty okay with letting another association take our ideas and transform them into their own. Within state CPA societies, we have an entire conference where our staffs get together to share ideas (lots of other good stuff happens there too). Some have created almost identical brochures, switching out the organization name and benefits (with permission, of course). Are you feeling the love?

Imagine now if Burger King and McDonalds started selling natural fries with skin and sea salt and had a commercial with customers standing in a giant fry box. The king and clown would be battling Wendy in court.

I thought I'd share the two ideas I recently borrowed from ASAE. I've been on the Associations Now Writer's Resource Pool for a few years. Every month I get an email that asks what I think about what's on the editorial calendar, if I have anything to contribute or know someone who they might interview about a particular topic. Some months I have nothing to contribute and other months I send a quick email. All in all it takes me 5 minutes per month. Associations Now Senior Editor Mark Athitakis told me there are 400 people on the pool, so if I don't respond one month, I don't feel guilty.

It was such an easy way to be involved and NJSCPA was looking for more of these small-scale opportunities to engage members. I prepare editorial content for our e-newsletter for young professionals. We needed a way to make the content more relevant and a way to engage the members who said they wanted to write for the publication through our Volunteer Interest Profile. A writer's pool was the perfect answer. I'm now up to 30 volunteers - several of whom are writing or being interviewed for upcoming articles. Almost all of them had never been involved. We continue to look at our Volunteer Interest Profile in order to develop opportunities that match our member's interests.

One of the article ideas came from the April issue of Associations Now. There was a short article called "What you missed at the Diversity and Inclusion Conference." It included quotes from four speakers and a two-sentence summary of the speaker's overall big idea. I have two writer's pool members writing a "What you missed" article about our upcoming conference. I'm providing them with a cheat sheet they can bring with them to the event and fill in as they attend each session. It asks for the big ideas of the general sessions, one practical tip from the technical sessions and their best take-away.

It's a bit of common sense, but it bears repeating: when anything gets you to act, ask yourself how and why it did so. And follow that up by asking yourself how you could do something similar in your work. You never know where inspiration will come from.

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May 6, 2011

Setting meaningful goals for community building

Per my previous post about my interest in the community-building sessions at MMCC, I'm adding a second set of thoughts here about a different question: How do you set goals for something as emotionally based as "community?"

Sure, my colleague Chris Wood, director of ASAE's Convene Green Alliance (CGA) for sustainable meeting planners, and I could just look at CGA program attendance, newsletters published, registered members, and business partners attracted, but we want to consider goals around value, the quality of the relationships in the community, the relevance of the knowledge shared, and the "ROE" (return on engagement, as so many MMCC speakers referenced), too.

"The challenge [with community building] is to do it at a methodical, measured pace and to introduce one piece at a time," advised Ray van Hilst of Vanguard Technology when I asked him his thoughts. Ray wins my "good sport award" for stepping in at the last minute to fill the shoes of an ill Chris Bonney, supporting Andy Steggles and Joe Flowers in a crackin'-good session about community-building/social networking trouble-shooting.

"Just say 'we're adding a feature to the website,' rather than 'building a social network' to avoid any anxiety within the group, he continued. "Remember, it's quality, not quantity" [that counts most when evaluating a community]. So often numbers and expectations are unrealistic."

Still, if a numerical goal must be established for "community" in a work plan or to satisfy higher ups, he recommends looking at the levels of engagement or percentage of participation in some of your other key activities--maybe in your webinars or at your annual meeting--versus your overall membership size, and "approaching a possible number like that."

Thus, if 20% of your members attend your conference, you might set a goal of developing an engaged community of around 20%.

"Take a look at everything else you're doing [and the respective participation percentages], and ask yourself, 'Would we consider ourselves successful if we did the same thing with our community?' Then you can manage that expectation issue," he advised.

Interesting idea. What do other folks think?


Key Ratios quiz: Chi Town v. DC battle

It's time for the Form 990 Key Ratios battle royale: DC v. Chicago; Chicago v. DC. But first, I want to thank those who have been following the quizzes all week (and I'm talking to all three of you!). I'd like to tell you the point was to show you some of the ways you can slice and dice the 990 Key Ratios database to develop benchmarks that are most meaningful for your organization. And in the interest of full disclosure, I absolutely timed this series to be the week before you could get in an play around with the tool yourself at the Finance, HR & Business Operations Conference.

But mostly I'm just kind of an association nerd, and I find poking around in the database fascinating. I've enjoyed researching the questions. Anybody who wants to guess at answers to this final quiz should do so in the next four hours (and oh yes, I do have a fantabulous prize for the person who does the best or provides the funniest or most shocking answers), after which I'll be putting the answers up.

First, a little information to help you answer the questions. Overall, the database found 242 qualifying associations in the Chicago area and 399 in the DC area for the 2009 tax year (those numbers will likely go up with the next update as many associations are still filing their 2009 returns). The median size in DC is 11 employees and $1.7 million, the average (which does not correct for outliers) is 32.6 and $6 million. In Chicago, the medians are 11 and $1.2 million, with averages of 37.9 and $3 million. Wow! What a difference right there--which tells you there are some really large associations in DC that skew its averages. And now...

Game on!

1. You have to start with the compensation right? Which area has the higher median compensation costs per employee (remember, medians correct for outliers)?

ANSWER: Not even close: DC $63,574, Chi: $39,976

2. Is that difference in median compensation costs closer to 5%, 20% or 40%?

ANSWER: That's 40%. FORTY PERCENT! That's just not right.

3. Do the compensation differences hold when you control for the revenue of the association (i.e., compare only associations in each market that are, for example, between $1 million and $2 million in revenue.)

ANSWER: I looked at $1M to $2M and $2M to $5M and $5M to $10M, etc. DC was always ahead. By a lot. Maybe not 40 percent in every case, but by a wide margin.

4. I'm going to give you a piece of information that might sound like it helps answer the first three questions, but I wouldn't count on it if I were you. The information is this: compensation costs as a percent of overall expenses is pretty even for both regions. Does the same hold for compensation of officers, trustees, and key employees? If not, who pays the top staff a higher percent of overall expenses?

ANSWER: This is much closer, but DC still is ahead, with the medians being 11.7 percent and 9.9 percent.

5. Ok, enough about compensation. Which area has more profitable associations?

ANSWER: DC is threatening to make this a rout--they're more profitable then their Chicago counterparts in the 2009 tax year (remember, associations were still reeling from the recession). DC had a profitability of 1.2%, Chicago was -1.5.

6. Who has more assets tied up in land, buildings & equipment?

ANSWER: Don't know if it's good or bad, but Chicago has more than twice as much--as a percent of expenses anyway--tied into land, buildings, and equipment: 5.9% to 2.5%.

7. Who has a higher percentage of unrestricted net assets?

ANSWER: Chicago looks to be the healthier big-picture position with unrestricted net assets of 81.3 percent compared to DC's more pedestrian 59.2 percent.

8. Who pays higher occupancy costs as a percent of total expenses?

ANSWER: It's close, but DC does, 4.8% of expenses vs. 3.6%.

9. Who has lower conference and meeting expenses as percent of total revenue?

ANSWER: Chicago comes in at a lean 1.0%; DC is 4.1%

10. Who got better returns on their investments?

ANSWER: No ties in a battle royale, so Chicago takes this question, but by the slimmest of margins: 0.6 to 0.5.

Bonus Question: In which town is it better to work for an association?

ANSWER: Yeah, I'm not touching this one with a 39.5-foot pole. Feel free to weigh in though.

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May 5, 2011

Key Ratios quiz day 4: Hodge podge

I'm sure everyone is breathlessly awaiting tomorrow's Chicago vs. DC quiz, (well everyone in the two largest association hubs in the U.S.) in this series of posts from ASAE's 990 Key Ratios database. Today, there's not particular theme, just me playing around in the tool and finding some things I thought were interesting. Good luck on the quiz--I'll post answers tomorrow morning. If people take some guesses in the comments, I'll come up with a fantabulous prize to the person who does the best or is most entertaining.

1. When ranked by per capita income, Connecticut is the richest state; Mississippi is the poorest. Looking at all data we have for each state from the 2009 tax years (217 for CT, 106 for MS), the associations in Connecticut are on balance larger, averaging 27 employees and just over $2 million in revenue, compared to 28 employees and $1.9 million for Mississippi. So which state averages higher compensation costs per employee?

ANSWER: The obvious answer would be Connecticut, so of course the answer is Mississippi.

In the next four questions, choose either c(3) or c(6) as in the tax status of the association. Quick reference tip, most charities are c(3), but in the association world many of the education-based and scientific-based organizations also receive that designation. Most other professional societies and just about all trade associations are c(6). To control for size, I limited my search to $1 to $5 million.

2. Which group is more profitable?

ANSWER: The infamous tie, but I'd give it to you if you said c(3). Here's how the numbers break down, with profitability being revenue divided by expenses (I'm giving median and average respectively): c(3)s - 1.3 and 1.7; c(6)s 1.2 and 0.8. It's a little surprising to me, because most people in the association world assume trade associations are more profitable than professional societies--though remember plenty of professional societies are in the c(6) category. It's hard to ascribe a lot of meaning to this number by itself. It could mean that professional societies in the c(3) category are more profitable than those in the c(6) category, or that the other main element in the c(3) category, charities (remember only ones which collect membership dues would be included in this research) are more profitable--but I admit it's hard to know why that would be the case. My guess would be that trades are hit harder than individual membership organizations (IMOs) by economic downturns, and this number reflects that. It will take a couple more years worth of data to test that theory.

3. Which group has a higher current ratio? (What's a current ratio? See Question 4 from yesterday.)

ANSWER: If you knew the answer to question 2, you could probably answer this one, too (if you knew what the hell a current ratio was); it's c(3)--5.5 compared to 3.0. Both are healthy numbers.

4. An easy one: Which group depends more on dues?

ANSWER: Of course it's the trades in the c(6) category that are the difference maker. When comparing trades and individual membership organizations, trades generally place more emphasis on advocacy and public awareness--things that take the collective dues assessment to pay for. The IMOs place relatively more emphasis on knowledge attainment and sharing, which often have fees in addition to dues associated with them. So it's an obvious answer, but I never would have guessed how big the difference is. For c(6) associations, 46 percent of revenue is from dues; for their c(3) counterparts it's only 7.9 percent.

5. Which group has more revenue per employee?

ANSWER: Interestingly, even though c(3)s are more profitable (at least in the 2009 tax year) and have a better current ratio, it's the c(6)s that are more efficient with their staffing--strikingly so. The c(6) category gets $172,000 per employee while the c(3) category earns just $74,000 per employee.

And today's last question for all you HR people:

6. In looking at all data from the 2009 tax year--all sizes, all types of associations--what percent of total compensation costs are paid as benefits (at least as reported on the Form 990)?

A. 7.5%
B. 16.4%
C. 21.0%

ANSWER: It's A - 7.5 percent. Yeah, that sounds low to me, too. Could be how stuff is being reported on the 990, or perhaps it's a fairly accurate figure. It would take digging into some individual 990s compared to an association's actual financials to tell for sure.

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7 Ways to Strategically Align Your Leveraged Social Blog with Engagement Champions for Search Engine Success in the New Association World Order

Ha! You actually clicked on this link, did you? My apologies; sometimes I feel like we are all heading down a little bit of a silly road, flush with "5 ways to do this" and "10 ways to do that," with some awesome keywords that get clicks and sound so neat in the homogenized soup that is the mainstream social internet. Ugh.

Anyway, as you know from some of my past posts, I've been working on the rollout of a new website over the past year. We've learned a lot along the way, and below are some ideas I want to let you know about or that I am randomly pondering, and I want to hear from you on stuff you are doing or pondering related to the web these days, as well. (If you don't respond then I will maybe cry a little bit.)

  • We are learning at my association that an online community is hard work, and that what works is usually not even close to what we thought would work. For example, we have a great discussion forum that no one discusses on, but people love to post their own videos and pictures on the same site, and they love contests where they can win stuff or send in funny pictures.
  • We are finding out that a social media component to web advertising and sponsorship packages gets a lot of interest from agencies and people we are trying to sell to. It's a nice value add and helps seal the deal sometimes. And we are learning that selling comprehensive packages complete with in-person, print, email, web, and social components take longer to sell but are of more value to our core sponsors and advertisers.
  • SEO is so boring and yet so important, and I think we should all invest in someone to do strategic SEO for our associations if we can.
  • Web strategy is the equivalent of association strategy. The two must exist together and not in separate vacuums, and we should contextually frame much of our overall strategy with the web in mind, due to its influence and importance (e.g. "How do we leverage the web to achieve X or advocate for Y?")
  • Associations should be using the web and social media to innovate when it comes to committees and how they discuss, make decisions, and accomplish work. Is anyone doing this, because I'm not! Most of our committee meetings are via a conference call or, on special occasions, we'll use GoToMeeting.
  • ROI discussions on social media I think miss the point; do you calculate the ROI on a stapler or for your email account or for that cocktail party? I think we are all trying to measure things too much in order to justify our own existence; these tools should help free us from this measuring overkill and allow us to reconnect with people, which is what associations are all about in the first place, right?
  • Video is the way we should archive our association history, moving forward … like those old family videos!



May 4, 2011

Day 3 Quiz: Down in the financial weeds

Ok faithful readers, if you've been following this series so far, prepare to get down in the weeds. If you're not a finance person, don't be too turned off, I needed to get a little help getting to the meaning of this stuff myself (we have a wonderful CFO here, Heidi Robey--thank you Heidi!).

One way you can sort the data in the 990 Key Ratios tool is by something called "Investment Asset Balance." I interpreted this to be a proxy of how much an association had in reserves. It's not quite apples and apples. When you compare those with a large investment asset balance against those with a small one, controlled for organization size, you see that those with the smaller asset balance are sitting on a higher percentage of cash and have more tied up in building and other capital. However, the associations with larger investment asset balances also had significantly more net assets.

(Are there any nonfinance geeks still with me? I didn't think so, feel free to blast me when I try to explain the current ratio in one of the questions below.)

As a result, I'm going to call it an apple even if it isn't quite. I'm going to say that organizations with larger investment asset balances are going to be the organizations that over time have had more financial success than organizations with relatively smaller investment asset balances. What are other characteristics that separate the investment haves from the investment have nots? That's today's quiz.

We're looking at the 2009 tax year and associations with between $1million and $10 million in revenue. We're comparing associations with an investment asset balance of less than a quarter-million dollars with those having more than half a million.

1. Those with larger investment asset balances generate more revenue per employee. How much more? That's the question (I'm using median to discount outliers, but mean would have a similar result)

A. $23,776
B. $59,591
C. $121,083

ANSWER: B, $59,591. It stands to reason that financially successful organizations would make more per employee, but that is a huge number. If you have 20 employees, that's a million dollar difference in revenue. A look at averages in each group really shows the difference: those with lower investments average $2.6 million in revenue with 57 employees; the larger investment group averages $3.3 million with 51 employees.

2. They also pay more. When you compare total compensation costs per employee, how much more do those with large investment assets spend?

A. $4592
B. $9765
C. $17,581

ANSWER: C, $17,581. You might think this one would be closer, because to accumulate revenue in excess of expenses (enabling a large investment portfolio) requires efficiency, and as we've already demonstrated in these quizzes, compensation is a hefty percent of the expense of running an association. Clearly they're not squeezing efficiency out of their compensation lines.

3. Who relies more on membership dues as a percent of revenue?

ANSWER: Of course it's the low investment group. Seems logical that the more financially successful organization is going to have more diversity in its income streams. And it's pretty substantial difference: dues are 36 percent of revenue at associations with larger investment balances and 46 percent at those with smaller balances.

4. This question involves the current ratio, a measurement of financial health. In poor man's terms, it essentially compares current net assets to current net liabilities. So, if it's less than one, it means you're going to have a tough time paying your bills and it's past time to start talking to a bankruptcy lawyer. If you're an association in double digits--if any exist--you're bilking your members and need to invest some of that cash in new initiatives. So the quiz question is this: what number does the current ratio of associations with relatively large investment asset balances start with? Two pieces of information to help you make an educated guess: the current ratio of those with little investment asset balances is 2.8; the ratio for all associations in the revenue range we're looking at is 3.5.

ANSWER: Congratulations to our one quiz taker who guessed 5.5. The answer is 5.4 or almost double. However, if I worked for an organization looking at 2.8, I'm not particularly worried. Don't get me wrong, something in the 5s would be nice, but I wouldn't be worried for my job everytime the stock market slumped.

5. If you're still with me after the complexity of that question, God bless you! The final question is which of the following expense categories do you think are significantly different when you compare the two groups of associations we've been talking about in this post? Choose any/all categories that cost one group more as a percent of total expense than the other.

Accounting, Professional Fundraising, Technology, Advertising & Promotion, Travel.

ANSWER: A trick question I put in because it fascinates me. The answer is none of them. Oh, they may differ by 2 or 3 tenths of a percent, but for the most part, the expenses outlined on the 990, other than compensation, match up pretty uniformly. (The difference is made up in the not particularly enlightening expense line labeled "all other expenses.")

That's it. No fantabulous prizes today--no one seems to be guessing answers anyway. It's too bad, I had a lovely set of coasters with our old logo on them. I think they're valuable as classics. I'm sure you're reading anyway, or at least you did before this quiz. Keep tuning back--I've already started the big DC vs. Chicago quiz that will run Friday.

POSTSCRIPT: Lauren, I love that you put yourself out there and made some guesses. You better believe I'm sending you some coasters! (Hey everyone else, see what you're missing out on by not guessing...)

ASAE coasters2.jpg

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Getting "Elders" to Engage in Community-building

I've been reviewing my notes and conversation from MMCC last week and ran into a good community-building example described by Joe Flowers, who has spent three years as community manager at the 5,000-member National Association of Dental Plans, a trade group.

I had asked Joe for suggestions about how to entice the most senior, most experienced members of an organization to actively participate in an association community when they might be feeling like they already have a strong enough professional network and often "don't learn much" from education sessions, publications, list servs, or conferences anymore.

Joe responded that NADP had tackled the dilemma by "educating our members that their entire staff could be part of any [association] conversation," rather than just one or two individuals. He learned that his older members were concerned about the quality of the professionals who would be leading their companies once they had retired or moved on.

Joe e-mailed volunteer groups with specific numerical goals aimed at boosting the community, asking volunteer members to send an association e-mail to 10-15 people at all levels of their workplace each month. The e-mails invited these individuals to share opinions, attend association events, and sample NADP content. They also included specific and easy sign-in instructions so they could try out what membership might feel like. Joe then "let it snowball from there."

It did, although NAPD "took a hit" when it switched to a better platform that not everyone immediately embraced. "They went back into their shell a bit, but now they're coming out again" because they miss what they gained as an active community member, Joe laughed.

His job has been particularly tricky because members are highly competitive. But by focusing community discussions on research studies, legislation, and committee work while avoiding product-oriented subjects, companies were not nervous about having lower-level staff involved and often found common ground.

When discussions lagged, Joe seeded the site with provocative data, restarted popular conversations from the past, asked for comments to a document, or collected suggested messages that members wanted the CEO to make in his next media interview.

As a result, "we've seen a steady increase [in the community's engagement], and we've pulled data showing about a 10% increase in website traffic each month, and even a 45% increase one month." The month before NAPD launched its community strategy, its site attracted 1,000 unique visitors, Joe noted. Five months later it's at 10,000 and has "a lot more engagement points now, too."

Those are impressive numbers. I wish Joe well in his new PR job, which starts tomorrow in California, but am sure that his oversight of NADP's community will be missed. Meanwhile, I'm going to look for similar good examples of inclusive communities that appear to excite members of all professional levels.


A Top Ten list from MMCC/Springtime

Last week, I attended both the ASAE Membership, Marketing, & Communications conference as well as Springtime. I'd imagine most people don't go to both of these (unless they need the hours), as they're basically focused on different audiences. But as someone in a (very) small association, I do both meeting planning and marketing for my association.

So, for those who were not able to attend, I thought I'd do my top 10 takeaways -- both "formally presented" and personally realized.

In no particular order:

-Twitter is amazing. I spoke on a webinar recently in which I said I was not a fan of Twitter but did it "because I have to". MMCC changed my mind - by virtue of the #mmccon hashtag that ASAE urged us social networking types to use during the conference, I was able to not only connect with a large group of my peers at the conference, but also get the best tidbits of ALL of the concurrent sessions I was missing.

-Even content leaders can learn from their own session. I was on the panel for an Association Career Path session at MMCC and while it was "character building" to present, I was amazed at how much I learned from the other panelists, Sue Holzer and Peter O'Neil.

-Mentoring relationships should not be forced. The best mentorship relationships are the ones you "luck upon" yourselves, even if you've never formally admitted to one another that you're a mentor/mentee. Less awkward and obligation-based!

-Providing incentives to members to join/register doesn't have to mean giving the milk away for free. Incentivizing can be anything -- from priority seating to a shout out in a newsletter. And it helps fill your room blocks/meet your budgets earlier!

-The iPad? Also amazing. I was able to arrange my notes easily and quietly (no clicky keyboards on that puppy). I bought it as a toy but it truly proved itself to be a valuable business asset last week.

-Find a way to provide membership/communications values to your members' employees. Knowing someone's administrative assistant by name is a good thing. Send them a holiday card just like you would your actual members -- if they have an emotional connection to your association, the mail you send their boss is more likely to make it on their desk.

-I need to get my CAE!

-This is so simple, yet we don't do it -- segment your surveys. When we all have so many different types of members (credentialed vs. non-credentialed, executive vs. administrative, experienced vs. new to the industry, etc), why are we asking them the exact same questions and analyzing them the exact same way?

-My favorite sentence I heard at MMCC was "Failing to plan means planning to fail". Put in non-cutesy-words, make sure that you have a road map for all of your projects. Have a retention communications plan, regularly look at your strategic plan, plan your week in advance.. everything should have a plan. As long as it's attainable and realistic, it's worth the time it takes because it will save you time (and resources) later.

-Offer to help other people in your office when you need a break. Even if helping someone stuff envelopes "isn't your job", it's still a small mental break from your own task, and that person is likely to help YOU stuff envelopes later when THEY need a break. Sweet!

And perhaps a #11: Blog your takeaways so you can refer back to them later...

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May 3, 2011

Key Performance Ratios quiz: Large v. Small

Today's 990 Key Performance Ratios quiz (what's that?) looks at 2009 tax year data, and we're comparing two different-sized segments of associations: less than $1 million up to $2 million in revenue (which I'll call "smaller") and $10 to $20 million (which I'll call "larger"). To give you a little context, the median number of employees and total revenue for the smaller associations are 7 and $541,000 respectively; for larger associations it's 91 and $13.2 million.

For questions 1-4, choose smaller or larger:

1. Which size association was able to weather the stormy economy better? (We're going to use net profitability and revenue growth vs. prior year to tell this story.)

ANSWER: The logical answer is the right one here: Larger--by a pretty wide margin. To correct for outliers, we'll look at medians. The median large association reported profitability of 1.3 percent in the 2009 tax year; the median in the smaller association group was 0.2. Likewise, when comparing revenue to the previous year, the large association reported a decrease of 1.2 percent, but the smaller association declined 3.2 percent. That all makes sense to me, while having more resources means you need to produce more, it also means you have greater flexibility to make corrections when needed.

2. Which size collects receivables faster?

ANSWER: Smaller organizations, with a median association taking 26.5 days versus 30.3 for its larger counterpart. I honestly don't know why smaller would be faster here--working with customers and vendors that have less bureaucracy maybe? But almost four days would seem to be pretty important from a cashflow perspective.

3. Which size spends a higher percentage of its expenses on compensation?

ANSWER: Sorry for the trick question, but it's basically a tie: The averages are 34.0 percent for smaller and 33.6 percent for larger; the medians are similarly close but with larger paying slightly more. It was a gimme question, if you'd answered either way, I'd have given you credit.

4. Which size spends a higher percentage of revenue on compensation of it's officers, directors, trustees, and key employees (note: this is usually the compensation of the chief staff and senior-most staff)?

ANSWER: I admit, I would have guessed wrong on this one: it's smaller, with a median of 6.9 percent versus 4.1 percent for larger (and the averages were even farther apart). Comparing this to the total compensation might indicate the relative disparity between the highest paid staff and the rest of the staff is greater in smaller associations than in larger. I've looked at dozens of Form 990s, however, and I don't think that's the case. It's probably because smaller organizations report a higher percentage of people as key staff--but don't just believe my hunch, you'd have to do the research to tell for sure.

5. True or False: Larger associations spend about $10,000 more on benefits per employee than smaller associations.

ANSWER: This is false. They do spend more, quite a bit more at $7659 per employee, but not that much more. (Actual figures: Larger = $9916, Smaller = $2257

6. True or False: Large organizations spend a much higher percentage of their revenue on lobbying and legal services than smaller organizations.

ANSWER: False--another one I would have gotten wrong. They're actually about the same, both at 0.9 percent of expenses for legal services, and 0.4 and 0.3 for larger and smaller respectively on lobbying. These are two areas where I thought having a wider reach would cost more. Upon reflection, though, I could see where larger organizations may have these functions on staff rather than paying for them as services, whereas few smaller organizations would have a lawyer on staff.

7. True or False: Both larger and smaller associations average an unrestricted fund balance that is at least half of their operating expenses.

ANSWER: Thankfully, the answer is true. What I like about this question is I would have thought they'd be roughly the same, but smaller associations average 70.5 percent while larger associations are only at 58.0 percent.

You'll find the answers to this quiz an update tomorrow morning. Thanks for playing!

Oh, and the fantabulous prize for the first person to answer all of today's questions correctly: a women's XL button down shirt that staff was required to wear at a previous annual meeting. The old logo shows its age, but it's in good shape.
green camp shirt.jpg


May 2, 2011

Rosetta Stone for Twitter

What Twitter needs is a version of Rosetta Stone for those of us trying to learn to speak the language.

I have been investing some time recently experimenting with Twitter during live educational events, trying to learn by doing what value the technology can add to the learning experience. I have found that the Twitter traffic during a seminar tends to fall into two categories: there is the virtual equivalent of passing notes in class ("What was he thinking when he chose that tie?" "Where in the food court can I find a good steak and cheese sandwich for lunch?"); then there is the substantive: the serious effort to capture content so it can be shared with others (including those not physically present).

I've learned to just ignore the former as so much useless background noise and focus on the latter. It is utterly beyond me why anyone would waste their time and attention on the sometimes infantile chatter that fills the Twitters-sphere during a session. But it is going to go on anyway and getting annoyed by it just grants it permission to interfere with your own purposes. If you don't find it useful, don't get irritated: just ignore it.

Because your content-based attention to Twitter will be rewarded. I have found some of the tweets generated by others in the room during a conference or seminar really do capture insights from the program in sometimes very compelling ways. I have, more than once, copied particularly brilliant tweets into my own notes from the seminar after the fact.
But as far as actually generating tweets during a conference, I am a complete failure. I am and always have been an obsessive note taker: even the most slender of seminar content is good for a page or two, or for a mind map. Taking notes helps me to focus on and capture the most pertinent takeaways from a session. But I find the effort needed to reduce an insight to 140 characters too distracting. The means (Twitter) interferes with the end (knowledge capture and transfer). I get too busy trying to find the shorthand to express the speaker's previous thought to follow what he or she is actually saying next. I fall behind. For me, composing and sending tweets alienates and removes me from the educational experience, rather than increasing my engagement in it.

Maybe it will be different for you. But for the time being, I will leave the real-time translation of educational content into Twitter to folks more fluent than me. And enjoy the fruits of their labor.

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Monday quiz: Overall data

The first 990 Key Performance Ratios quiz (see introductory post) looks at all the data we have from 2008 tax year returns. I'll post the answers later this afternoon in an update. The first person to answer all questions correctly in the comments section wins today's fantabulous prize: An assortment of bags from previous ASAE conferences. (Wait, make that: An assortment of BAGS from previous ASAE conferences! ... !!!)... ASAE Bags

To help answer the question, I'll get you started with a couple of facts: overall, the median total revenue was $1.03 million and the median number of employees was 13.

1. How much were total compensation costs as a percent of total expenses (using the median)?

A. 27.6%
B. 31.9%
C. 35.2%

2. When compared to the year previously, how much did overall revenue grow averaged across all associations? (Hint: 2008 was a recessionary year for many organizations.)

A. -1.3%
B. -0.4%
C. 0.0%

3. True or False: On average, associations report spending more on occupancy costs than on conferences, conventions, and meetings.

4. What is the median membership dues revenue as a percent of total revenue?

A. 30.3%
B. 37.5%
C. 39.7%

Tomorrow's quiz is going to look at comparisons between associations at different revenue levels.

UPDATE & ANSWER KEY: We had one brave guess. While you weren't exactly right, since you were the only one, I'm happy to declare you the winner and send the bags to you. Shoot me an email so we can connect: sbriscoe@asaecenter.org.

And the answers:

1. The answer is C. 35.2%. I'm personally haunted a little by this question, as it reminds me of an interview I once did with Seth Godin, and in that interview he said he thinks most associations exist so that their staffs can have jobs. Sometimes I believe it, sometimes I don't.

2. A. -1.4%. It was a bad year and revenue compared to tax year 2007 proves it. It will be interesting to see how this changes with data from 2009 (a good chunk of which is in and available in the tool) and 2010.

3. True, associations spend slightly more on occupancy than they do on conferences.

4. Reliance on dues revenue continues to decline for associations, and the answer is A. 30.3%. This is one of those trend lines that's been a pretty consistent decline over the years. It's fortuitous that associations sought to grow revenue over the years, as I think resistance to dues, or at least the way associations traditionally have approached dues, is going to increase.

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Introducing a week of Key Ratios quizzes

In a few moments, I'm going to post the first of a week-long series of posts, which are quizzes derived from the ASAE Foundation's new product: Association 990 Key Ratios. The foundation has compiled information from thousands of IRS Form 990 Records--every record that reports at least $200 in membership dues revenue and at least one staff member--which is now available by subscription, giving associations a powerful benchmarking tool.

A demo of the product was unveiled at the Great Ideas Conference at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs earlier this year, and you can test drive the database yourself at the upcoming Financial, HR & Business Operations Conference (FHRBOC) May 12-13, 2011 at the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel in Washington, DC.

To whet the appetite, rather than just give some of the interesting stats that can be derived from the 990 data, I'm embarking on a week-long quiz. Each morning I'll put out a few questions. And I'll be giving out fantabulous prizes each day to the first person with the right answers. (Note: you might think that an adjective invented from the words fantastic and fabulous would be pretty special, but we mean it to be whatever we have that's sorta laying around.) We're going to go on the honor system here, no one who has purchased or otherwise has access to the database should give the answers. So please, feel free to offer up some guesses, and be sure to check back, especially on Friday when we will feature the Chicago association sector going head-to-head against DC-area associations.