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September 30, 2011

Organization has to come from somewhere

Organization is not my strong suit. I'm not terrible at it, but I have to force myself to work at it because it doesn't come naturally to me. So that probably colors my viewpoint on the value of organization; I know it has to happen to get things done, but I sure wouldn't call it easy.

This week Tom Morrison argues on his blog that membership is still the strongest model for associations and points to the value of organization. One of the three keys to success, he writes, is "you must provide services and products that your members can't provide themselves effectively." And he tells a story of a fellow attendee at a Florida SAE event:

… an executive right next to me [said] "he didn't need FSAE to be able to pull together people and have a meeting like this. Members don't need an association for that anymore as much," he claimed. […] I immediately piped in and stated that, "You paid $50 to be at this 2-day event with 35 of the best minds in association management and you're telling me that for the $50 you paid to be at this amazing event, you could pull together this crowd for 2-days? Who's going to do your day job?"

This brought to mind an op-ed from The Washington Post (more than six weeks ago) by David S. Meyer titled "Americans are angry. Why aren't they protesting?" A couple points stuck out to me, the first about the transfer of emotion into action:

There is plenty of anger in America today […] Where are the people taking to the streets? The closest thing to a strong social movement in the United States in recent years has been the tea party, and it demands that government do less. Lately, we hear about the tea party largely from members of Congress and candidates for office, who have drowned out and replaced the activists at the grass roots. This is largely because although movements carry anger, anger doesn't make a movement — organizers do.

He later pointed out that even Rosa Parks had organizational support:

Rosa Parks wasn't just a tired seamstress in 1955, when she refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala. She was a longtime organizer who served as chapter secretary of the local NAACP, which organized a bus boycott and a lawsuit in response to her action. […] Without such organizational support, individual actions might be dramatic and heroic, but effective movement politics is a test of endurance. Organization gives individual efforts meaning and staying power.

This is not the first time I've said this here, but I'll say it again: It takes a vast amount of organization to channel the energy of a large group of people into collective action. And despite all the advances in tech-enabled self-organization, I still only see these types of movements knocking off the low-hanging fruit of those organizing bodies (e.g., associations).

So count me in agreement with Tom on that first key to success being effective organizing that a market can't provide itself effectively on its own. I don't know if that means membership is the model that must support that organizing function, but the means for that organizing to occur have to come from somewhere.

Below the logo on the cover of every issue of Associations Now is a tagline: "Ideas Into Action." I've always liked it because I think it embodies what associations do in just three words. But as any association executive who has come out of a board or volunteer meeting with a brand new initiative to implement knows, getting from idea to action is never, ever as easy as it sounds.

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September 29, 2011

Quick clicks: Combating conventional wisdom edition

Several of the blog posts and articles in this week's batch of links offer arguments and evidence for some new thinking. Enjoy.

Volunteering. Shari Ilsen offers seven reasons why a member doesn't want to volunteer with your nonprofit and some tips to overcome those reasons.

Hybrid meetings. Barbara Palmer at the PCMA Convene blog notes that the case for hybrid meetings—mixing online with face to face—is getting stronger, now with evidence from the world of higher education.

Pricing. Celisa Steele explains what associations can learn from ticket scalpers about pricing their products and education.

Leadership. Cindy Butts, CAE, shares some lessons on leadership from an inspiring volunteer who she admits was one of her favorite members.

Committees. Eric Lanke, CAE, argues that not all volunteer committees should report to an association's board. Rather, some should report to the board and others should report to staff. He makes a good case for it, and the debate in the comments is interesting.

Hiring. David Patt, CAE, recommends always stating a salary with the listing for a job opening and offers some good reasons. Do you agree?

Innovation. Maggie McGary reminds association executives that it's not enough to experiment. Innovations that are successful then have to be developed into mainstream efforts.

More innovation. If you're looking to guide discussions on new ideas and innovation with your staff or volunteer leaders, check out Jeffrey Cufaude's tips on facilitating innovation discussions.

Writing. As an editor I can't help but share some writing-related links from time to time. If you want to avoid cliche phrases in your writing, you'll do well to avoid the ones highlighted on the new Unnecessary Journalism Phrases tumblr.

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September 26, 2011

Every Circle Wants to Be a Triangle When It Grows Up

One of the magazines I most look forward to getting at the office is Stanford Social Innovation Review, a quarterly published by the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. That's a mouthful, but the magazine's raison d'etre is simple: What does the latest research say on how we can make the world a better place?

This hits the sweet spot for association leaders, who seem to love hard data as much as they love their mission. There's plenty of good stuff in the latest issue (Fall 2011), but I was particularly drawn to "Circles of Change" (subscription required), an article about how small groups of volunteers can work together on specific problems to gain more knowledge about an issue or organize to improve their status. "One of the oldest, most widespread, and effective tools for creating personal change is the Circle," writes Tracy A. Thompson, a professor at the University of Washington's business school. (I imagine the folks at Google Plus have been thinking along much the same lines.)

But Circles, in Thompson's reckoning, shouldn't resemble the kinds of groups associations are familiar with, such as boards, or section councils, or task forces. Almost by definition, those groups are hierarchica—Triangles, as Thompson metaphorically puts it—while true circles are are hierarchy-free. Four things define Circles, she writes: "egalitarian participation, shared leadership, group-determined purposes and processes, and voluntary membership."

You needn't have read Lord of the Flies to be skeptical about how long an egalitarian group is going to stay egalitarian. Thompson is too: "Triangle dynamics are pervasive in human interactions, so the roles that Circle organizers and facilitators play need to be carefully monitored. Circle facilitators need to be acutely aware of how easily Triangle behaviors can slip in." She cites a few examples of cases where it's worked—microfinance self-help groups in India, for instance. I can imagine a few cases where it might work in associations. Perhaps an ongoing discussion group among self-selecting industry leaders within an association can routinely brainstorm ideas on new products and services. It wouldn't be time-limited, as task forces are. Nor would it have a specific set of things to accomplish, as section councils do—that requires reporting out to leadership, necessitating Triangular behavior. But it would give the organization a space to improve itself from within, and free the group from downward pressure to generate regular "report-outs," let alone results.

But even as I type that, I have my doubts. Our instinct is to build rules into any group, and inevitably some people want to take charge more than others. (And would you sign up for an open-ended group with only a loosely formed goal?) So here's what I'm curious about: Would a Circle format work in your organization? And if you think it would, how do you keep a Circle from becoming a Triangle?

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Welcoming some new voices to Acronym

A quick blog service announcement: In the coming weeks and months, you'll be seeing a few new names here on Acronym. As we aim to continue to share ideas and build discussion within the association community, several of ASAE's staff editors will be chiming in on the blog:

  • Julie Shoop, VP, editor-in-chief
  • Mark Athitakis, senior editor
  • Samantha Whitehorne, managing editor, Associations Now
  • Summer Faust Mandell, project editor

Julie and Mark are new contributors to Acronym. Julie took the reins as editor-in-chief in June, while those of you who read the Associations Now masthead know Mark has been an expert writer and editor for the magazine for close to three years. Samantha and Summer's names you might recognize from their past contributions to Acronym as onsite bloggers at the ASAE Great Ideas Conference.

So, keep an eye out for Julie, Mark, Sam, and Summer here on Acronym and please welcome them. (In fact, you'll see a post from Mark here in a few minutes.) Meanwhile, we're always eager to host volunteer guest bloggers from the association community on Acronym as well, so please email acronym@asaecenter.org to inquire if you're interested. Thanks!

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September 23, 2011

Someone to tell you you're crazy

We all live in bubbles, little worlds unto ourselves that we create so we can manage our lives with some sense of sanity. But if we stay in those bubbles for too long or if we don't let others in, they become echo chambers, where all we hear is whatever we tell ourselves. This goes for people and for organizations.

This came to mind after I read Jamie Notter's blog post on Monday about competing narratives, as well as Joe Gerstandt's post (that Jamie linked to) about the intersections of those competing narratives.

Since the ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo last month, I've been wanting to revisit a bold statement from closing general session speaker Peter Sheahan. I'm paraphrasing because I didn't take down his exact quote, but here it is:

The association governance model means associations are forced into meeting the needs of legacy members and not the needs that arise in the future. The system is built not to change.

That's a competing narrative for associations if there ever was one. And Sheahan knew this; he prefaced this idea half-jokingly with "You might not want to bring me back after I say this."

What attendees seemed to love about Sheahan's presentation was that he had clearly spent some time studying associations. And after a little studying, he gave his outsider's viewpoints, one of which (the above) equated to "what you're doing here seems a little crazy."

We all need that viewpoint once in a while. We need someone to tell us we're doing something that doesn't make sense. Otherwise, we'll remain blind to it. As Joe G. so eloquently put it, "At the point where two or more competing narratives interface, collide, merge, mesh or dance lives tremendous potential."

Association executives can seek out these intersections for their members, boards, and staff. Bring in a conference speaker from the outside who's willing to study your industry and question its practices. Invite visitors to your board meetings or to spend a day with your staff. As long as they're willing to be honest and ask questions, it doesn't matter who it is. A good consultant should give you an honest perspective. Or it could be John Doe off the street. Or it could be your mother, the one who still doesn't quite understand what you do, even though you've explained it a thousand times.

Sheahan said "someone has to agitate." He did it for us. He gave us a competing narrative. Now go find someone to do it for your association.

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Quick clicks: Catching up edition

I spent all of last week out of the office with a nasty cold and had to declare RSS reader bankruptcy when I returned. Only today have I had a chance to go back and read through what I've missed in the past couple weeks. Here are ten posts that stood out, though there were a lot of other great posts in the association blogging community that I couldn't squeeze in.

Strategy. Virgil Carter asks, "Is Your Organization Using Too Much Strategy?"

Membership. Tony Rossell says he believes the membership model will survive, in some form or another, because humans have a fundamental need to belong.

More membership. Linda Owens shares a "renewal perks" promotional offer she received and wonders if a similar offer could drive membership renewals at associations.

Executive transitions. Judith Lindenau tells the story of an association that faced major challenges when it neglected to hire an interim executive, and follows it up with two more posts in a three-part series on the value of interim execs.

Diversity. Shannon Otto suggests that age shouldn't be overlooked in seeking diversity in an association board.

Power. Elizabeth Engel, CAE, shares the concept of "power with," which looks a whole lot different from the traditional version, "power over."

Innovation. Lowell Aplebaum explains how innovation can be as simple as just looking at something that already exists and viewing it in a new way.

More innovation. Jay Daughtry provides a thorough recap of ASAE's InnovationTalks Day this week. Having missed the event myself, Jay's post is a great way to sample the innovative thinking shared there.

Advocacy (and also more innovation). Stefanie Reeves writes that association advocacy is overlooked in discussions of innovation, arguing that it's time for some new ideas in government relations.

Organization. David Patt, CAE, urges you to clean your desk.

Farewell Scott. Finally, in honor of the guy who made Acronym what it is, a sampling of Scott Briscoe classics:

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September 16, 2011

When the timer runs out...

It feels almost surreal to be writing this, but this is my last Acronym post. At least it's my last Acronym post as an ASAE staff person.

I'll be tying up some loose ends Monday and Tuesday, and then on September 26, I'm thrilled to be starting a new adventure as the senior director, communications and marketing at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. All of you from health-related organizations that I've met through the years, I hope you'll help indoctrinate me into this new world - I look forward to being part of it.

This whole journey started because of a practice I started a dozen years ago: giving myself at least a couple hours every week to randomly search the web. In early 2004 I ran across a spectacular website that reported in opinionated, colorful short articles the goings-on at a conference. (It was Ad:Tech, the conference continues, though the blogging surrounding it ended a few years ago.) The conference blog inspired me, and I wanted to try to do the same thing. GWSAE, my employer, was merging at the time with ASAE, a deal that would be consummated at the 2004 ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition in Minneapolis. Because such big things were happening, I was able to fly under the radar. "I want to write a conference blog," I would say to all the senior staff members I could. "A conference what?" was the universal response. And they'd stop me two minutes into my explanation and say, "Sure. Whatever."

It was fun, so we did it again the next year in Nashville, which was the grandfather of the modern ASAE annual meeting--truly buzzworthy. It was leading up to the next conference - 2006 - that I worked with Scott Steen, now the executive director of American Forests, to shape the foundation of Acronym and then launch it. I'm proud of what Acronym has become. We never wanted to own the association blogging space; we wanted to be a vibrant part of something larger. I give my gratitude to all Acronym readers and especially those moved to comment--you made Acronym. Thank you to all of the wonderful guest bloggers through the years, you made Acronym great. And thank you to those ASAE staff through the years who have volunteered their time to help me keep Acronym running.

I've loved being a part of the association blogging community. My apologies as I'm sure I'm going to leave people out, but I want to give some shout outs. To the early inspirations: thank you Ben, Jeff, Jeffrey, and David. Jamie: I'm smarter because of you. Maddy and Lindy: you changed the playing field. Cynthia, Deirdre, and David: you bring such unique and different perspectives. Maggie: your ruthless honesty inspires me. KiKi: you bring the fun. And to so many others, thank you! Please keep it going.

And finally, if Scott Steen and I are Acronym's creators, Lisa, you were its heart and soul.

Joe, it's been great working and planning Acronym with you the last year or so. I can't wait to see where you take it (no pressure or anything!).

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September 7, 2011

An Anniversary No One Will Forget: Associations Vary in 9/11 Treatment

So many associations are gearing up to share tributes, assess their industry's progress, and conduct community service projects in commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that it's impractical to list them all. That said, I do want to share some of the tools, communication efforts, and creative projects in case some organizations are still pondering what their staff or members might want to do:

Created a microsite of resources. The American Psychological Association (APA) has set up a microsite with resources to "help people cope and build resistance" during the emotional days around 9/11.

Partnered for a TV special/podcast/on-demand show. APA also partnered with "Nick News With Linda Ellerbee" to co-develop a TV report called "What Happened? The Story of September 11, 2001," which ran September 1 and is available on iTunes as a free podcast and in Nickelodeon's video-on-demand offerings throughout the month. A related discussion guide helps parents and teachers talk to kids about the tragedy and tough emotions.

Developed a so-called "impact kit" for reporters--a compilation of stats, resources, and trained commentators who can discuss an event from the perspective of its impact on an industry, profession, or locality. The Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.) has organized materials around terrorism and insurance to aid reporters covering the 10th anniversary, including prepping its board president for media interviews and promoting I.I.I.'s white paper on "terrorism risk and insurance." A strong quote in its press release will likely get good response from media: "The 9/11 attack was the largest payout in the history of insurance until Hurricane Katrina in 2005," says President Robert Hartwig said. "Insurers became the nation's economic 'first responders,' and as construction progresses on the site of the former World Trade Center, insurance claims dollars continue to play an essential and highly visible role in rebuilding lower Manhattan while also mitigating the overall economic impact of the 9/11 attack."

Conducted a 9/11-related study. A good example was released this week by CoreNet Global, an association of corporate real estate and workplace professionals. The study concludes that 9/11 "had a permanent effect on the workplace," in part by accelerating the trend toward "distributed work" conducted by workers in multiple locations. "The focus on risk management as an intrinsic strategic planning and management function also grew stronger," according to the association. "Business disruption planning became a common element for many corporate workplace and asset managers as a result of 9/11," says spokesperson Richard Kadzis. "Elements of this planning include mobile work plans for employees, facility collocation policies, redundant facilities, energy back up, business continuity plans, and off-site data storage."

Combined old-time traditional communication tools with social media tools to promote public service. The Michigan Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MI) has launched a billboard and Internet campaign called "Remember Through Service" to mark the day by highlighting the service of Michigan Muslims to the nation and to "provide an accurate depiction of how Muslims contribute to the broader society." Individuals highlighted include a doctor who was a first responder to Ground Zero, a Detroit police officer, an assistant prosecuting attorney, an assistant principal in an Ohio public school, a Vietnam veteran, and a volunteer doctor at a free medical clinic. You can see the billboards here[LINK TO http://www.4shared.com/photo/BMwnt-sz/CAIR-rev.html] and related YouTube videos[LINK TO http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XCC1mg8Guw8].

Volunteered like crazy. The goal is more than 50 million--that's the magic number for how many volunteers the government, community partners, and others hope to engage in community service projects such as park cleanups, mentoring, and food drives. Any organization still interested in community service projects can go to www.911day.org for a list of opportunities.

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September 2, 2011

Quick clicks: So long, summer edition

Hard to believe it's Labor Day weekend already. Another set of excellent posts and articles for you to read before you head out for the long weekend. Enjoy.

Social media policies. Heather Bussing at HR Examiner says they're a bad idea, and offers eight reasons why they tend to backfire.

Fundraising. Deirdre Reid likens fundraising to dating: it's all about donors and organizations getting to know each other.

Ideas vs. execution. Tom Morrison asks who you should take advice from: people on Twitter, or people doing actual work?

Hype vs. reality. Ellen Behrens warns against overpromising and asks, if there were a site like Yelp where your members posted ratings and reviews of your association, what would they have to say?

Audits. Is your association getting the most value out of its financial audit each year? At Blue Avocado, Dennis Walsh, CPA, offers two checklists that assess the "qualities inherent in a well-functioning audit relationship."

Member needs. Anna Caravelli highlights one membership organization that is winning in its marketplace because it immerses itself in its members' world and has moved from "nice to have" to "imperative to have."

Private online communities. Maggie McGary says too many associations that are building private online member communities are failing to plan for the level of staff resources required to make those communities thrive.

Innovation. What makes a great innovator? According to Steve Tobak at The Corner Office blog, "More often than not, they stand on the shoulders of giants, see things a little bit differently, or benefit from timing, opportunity, or luck."

Online learning. How do you decide which webinars to offer for free and which ones to charge for? Jeff Cobb at Tagoras suggests a simple dichotomy to guide you.

#asae11. Finally, believe it or not, recaps and thoughts from the Annual Meeting are still trickling in, which you can find over at the #asae11 Scoop It page. One of the new items is a video with dogs, just FYI.

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September 1, 2011

Deconstructing lovable losers

This was originally meant to be a comment on Joe's post yesterday on "lovable loser" programs, those programs that lose money but are too important to kill. The comment seemed too important, so I'm making it a post on its own.

What Joe makes me think about as he coins a new term, is that organizations are what they measure. Dollars is obviously a basic measurement of a program/product/service. I'm not saying we shouldn't measure financials; you obviously have to. But so often that's where the measurement stops - or maybe you measure a few other things (you know the list, recite it with me: butts in seats, total members, member retention, etc.).

I've never seen an association mission statement that mentions the profitability of the organization itself, so it's a shame when so many of our programs and products use that as the primary measuring stick. Most mission statements talk about making a profession or trade stronger, or helping those in a profession or trade be better at it. Finances and the other measurements (cue the chorus: butts in seats...) are at best distant measurements of such missions.

We could easily get one step closer by figuring out how to measure engagement. Even developing some rudimentary metrics around engagement would go a long way to killing Joe's new term - and that's my goal with this post. I think he's right, where associations are right now is calling such programs losers. But start measuring engagement and I'm guessing those lovable loser programs are actually winners, maybe big winners, in the metric that gets closer to telling you if you're being successful in working on your mission.

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