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April 27, 2012

Curation, retail style

Do you need any further convincing that serving as the curator of knowledge for an industry is a valid and vital role for an association?

Would it help to know that one of the most successful retailers in the United States plays that role for its customers?

CNBC profiled bulk retailer Costco in a documentary that aired last night. If you missed it, check out this segment from NBC's Rock Center with Brian Williams (or read the transcript):

The point that caught my attention:

"Despite the idea that customers like more, Costco stocks surprisingly few items, only around 4,000. The lack of selection is deliberate. 'There's only one variety of ketchup,' [marketing consultant Pam] Danziger explains. 'You don't have to choose from a variety. They've edited it down for you. You've paid them to do it.'"

A big-box store that hasn't been performing so well lately is Best Buy. Slate tech writer Farhad Manjoo suggests that Best Buy's overwhelming selection is dragging it down, and he suggests an opposite approach to save the company:

"If Best Buy wants to survive, it's got to replace its hulking, teeming stores with smaller, less crowded, more intimate spaces. When you walk in to buy a 32-inch TV, the guy in the blue shirt shouldn't make you choose between a dozen nearly identical models. Instead, he should show you a single set, a TV that Best Buy's experts have determined offers the best features at the best price. The firm could do the same across its inventory, culling the tech universe down to a few essential, can't-beat products. In this way, Best Buy would transform itself from a supermarket into a boutique—a place with fewer things for sale and lots of friendly, sophisticated, helpful experts who'll save you the hassle of researching your next TV or PC purchase. They'll do all the work for you."

There it is again: curation. Note the similar language: "They've edited it down for you," and "They'll do all the work for you." Capturing, analyzing, evaluating, and organizing the overwhelming volume of choices in the world and presenting it to customers in a useful, manageable way. Making sense of the madness. Finding order from chaos. However you want to put it—in any context, both physical and online, both object and information—consumers derive value from and prove loyal to great curators.

I've written about curation before, and so have many others. I'll leave it here for a Friday afternoon, but I think I'll be revisiting this again soon, so stay tuned.

[Also, on a separate but still association-related note: Costco has 64 million members. At the end of the segment above, reporter Carl Quintanilla notes that "most of their profit is from the [membership] fees themselves" and that 90 percent of Costco members renew every year. Chalk one up for the membership model.]

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April 26, 2012

Quick clicks: April 26, 2012

Millennials. Jeff Hurt shares the highlights of McCann WorldGroup's "The Truth About Youth" study and what the findings mean for associations.

More millennials. Ryan Crowe is a graduate student and doesn't really know what associations do. You might think that's too bad for him, but he'd argue that that's bad news for you. (Be sure to check the discussion in the comments, too.)

Associations' role in society. Eric Lanke, CAE, just read Shelly and Mark Alcorn's report "The 2012 Association Forecast: Provocative Proposals for Future Change," (which you should probably do, too), and suggests that associations must both learn from the for-profit sector and also re-establish themselves as "a fundamental component of our functioning democracy."

Strategy. Andrea Pellegrino writes that associations should abandon their missions. "[I]n organizations that are struggling to keep members and customers, the organization's mission is often one of the main roadblocks to growth," she writes.

More strategy. Jamie Notter points to a blog post on Harvard Business Review about the downfall of Sony and draws some lessons on why strategies fail when the context around them changes (and how this might be happening to associations.)

Economy. Toronto-based AMC Zzeem conducted a survey of Canadian membership organizations and, similar to findings in a similar study of U.S. associations by ASAE, found that the economic recovery is proving to be a very slow one for associations.

Board size. Jan Masaoka at Blue Avocado answers the question, "what size should our board be?"

Embracing failure. Two weeks after NTEN's 2012 Nonprofit Technology Conference, Executive Director Holly Ross writes a blog post about lessons learned from eight failures at the event. Would your association CEO do that?

Questions. Greg Roth examines the lost art of asking questions.

Facebook Timeline. Maggie McGary says Facebook's Timeline page layout is bad for brand pages and explains why.

Organization. Cindy Butts, CAE, is cleaning up 24 years of clutter in her office and offers some tips for better office organization.

Twitter. Data collected by Dan Zarella shows that tweeting links generates more retweets than does tweeting replies. In other words, broadcasting beats conversation, at least if retweets is your measurement of success.

Information overload. Mark Golden, CAE, explains his mixed emotions about the rise of social media and the minute-by-minute news cycle. He writes that social media is "empowering, but it also creates an elevated need to take personal responsibility for exercising discipline and integrity in drawing your conclusions."

Learning. Kevin Makice at Wired's GeekDad blog takes a close look at the "flipped classroom" model. Lots of ideas here to rethink association learning methods.

Volunteer engagement. Speaking of flipping, Jeffrey Cufaude suggest a new way to approach working with association volunteers and calls it "Flipped Volunteering: The Better Way to Invite and Engage."

Online community. Joshua Paul recommends adopting a 24-hour rule to get a private online community up and running: "an organization must ensure that all discussions are responded to within 24-hours of the initial posting."

Meetings technology. We've come a long way. Corbin Ball documents the highlights of 30+ years of advancements in meetings and events technology.

Apps for lobbyists. Stefanie Reeves, CAE, recommends nine mobile apps for association GR pros.

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April 20, 2012

Professional comfort

Is there something wrong with all of us?

Harvard Business Review's resident nonprofit provocateur, Dan Pallotta, asks this question about the profession in his latest blog post, "Nonprofit Pathology." I urge you to read the whole post, but here's an excerpt:

"Maybe people get into the compassion business full-time not because they're more compassionate than others but because they're codependent. […] I see people who wear the debilitating lack of resources in their organization like a badge of honor, despite the fact that the deficiency undermines their ability to impact the community problem they are working on. I see people moving from one nonprofit to another, from one cause to another, seemingly more addicted to 'the struggle' than passionate about solving any particular social ill. […] And while they lament it, they have no commitment to doing anything about it. There's a sense of pathological contentment."

Ouch. That's a harsh diagnosis, but it rings true. When good intentions run aground time after time, frustration bleeds into martyrdom, and you can recognize it from a mile away. After hearing "we have to do more with less" enough, it begins to sound more like an excuse than a call to action. I don't think Pallotta means to indict an entire sector of professionals (well, maybe he does), but rather I think he means to point out that too many nonprofit professionals take the easy way out, lamenting the system rather than trying to fix it.

Philanthropic nonprofit work and association management have their similarities, of course, but the two attract a fundamentally different kind of worker that leads to a different strain of "pathology" in associations. Philanthropic organizations draw the bleeding hearts, workers who are stirred by the challenge of direct social or environmental change. Association work is more indirect; associations make the world a better place, too, but they do it by helping other people (doctors, builders, scientists, whoever) be better at what they do. And so association management is often less a profession that is sought out than one that people "fall into."

Meanwhile, associations have a steady pool of customers (members) to a degree that far exceeds any other type of business, for-profit or nonprofit. When you can rest easy in knowing that 80 percent of your customers will give you money every year, that's a comfortable, built-in audience.

What do you get when you put that together with a large pool of professionals who arrived in their jobs by chance? Instead of a workforce driven by a core purpose or an innate will to change the world, you get a workforce that discovers, likes, and comes to depend on the comfort of the status quo. And it goes without saying that comfort breeds complacency. That's the association pathology. We're codependent, too. We need members so we can feel needed.

I've read arguments that the struggle to change is magnified or somehow unique to associations, and generally I chalk that up more to overall human nature. We all hate change. But I can see how the nature of associations makes change an uphill battle. The chips are stacked against us by the inherent structure of the membership model, which is only reinforced by the workforce it engenders.

At the Great Ideas Conference last month, I listened to Shelly Alcorn's summary of her lengthy study of association executives' visions of the future. Her handout listed a series of "provocative proposals," phrased as "what if" questions, that emerged consistently in her study. More than one of them focused on transforming association management into a profession that is sought after rather than fallen into. If we're ever going to break our dependency on membership as we know it, that's going to be a key step.

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April 18, 2012

Earth Day Offers Visibility, Fun, Engagement

It's Earth Day this Sunday and National Volunteer Month for a few weeks more, so loads of associations and their member companies and professionals are organizing, educating, celebrating, volunteering, and just plain participating in this worldwide effort to bolster environmental conservation.

Here's a snapshot of what some are doing or already have done--and it's not too late to join in yourself!

Start by downloading the free Earth Day 2012 Toolkit , where you can also learn about and be inspired by "A Billion Acts of Green," the world's largest environmental service campaign. And if you're in DC, you may want to check out the massive party scene happening at the National Mall rally and concerts either in person or online (live-streaming at www.earthday.org)

Sounds like some more partying will go on over at the 2012 Mighty Kindness Earth Day Hootenanny on April 22 organized by the Kentucky Chiropractic Association. The fun is combined with a more serious purpose: promoting a new state license "Go Green with Chiropractic" plate that aims "to elevate the chiropractic industry and its environmentally friendly nature in Kentucky" and raise some money as well.

The Eco-Dentistry Association will host its first tweetchat for dental industry professionals and consumers worldwide "to discuss the essentials of a high-tech, wellness based, and successful green dental practice."

The American Bar Association's Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources (SEER) in sponsoring the One Million Trees Project-Right Tree for the Right Place at the Right Time nationwide public service project. Started in March 2009, the project "calls on ABA members to contribute to the goal of planting one million trees across the United States by 2014 - both by planting trees themselves and by contributing to the partnering tree organizations." It also is promoting nominations for the 2012 ABA Award for Excellence in Environmental, Energy, and Resources Stewardship.

Entertainment Cruises is partnering with the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) has partnered with Entertainment Cruises to offer an Earth Day brunch cruise to enjoy Washington, DC, views while learning from the NAAEE about green energy, environmental initiatives and its upcoming conference.

More than 1,000 volunteers of the Student Conservation Association (SCA) are engaging in 10 signature Earth Day projects from prairie re-vegetation to exotic plant species removal on public lands across the U.S. on April 14 and 21. These events have some powerful sponsors, including American Eagle Outfitters, ARAMARK, Dr Pepper Snapple Group, Exelon Foundation, Johnson Controls, Sony, and Southwest Airlines.

The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) has released the First Annual Report of the eCycling Leadership Initiative, which details how the consumer electronics industry has dramatically increased its recycling in 2011 and advanced the goals set by the eCycling Leadership Initiative (also called the Billion Pound Challenge). For instance, participants of the initiative arranged for the responsible recycling of 460 million pounds of consumer electronics, a 53% increase over the 300 million pounds recycled in 2010. The number of recycling drop-off locations for consumers also was bolstered from to nearly 7,500 from just over 5,000 a year ago. And CEA launched GreenerGadgets.org to educate consumers about eCycling and energy consumption. By entering a ZIP code, anyone can locate the closest responsible recycling opportunity sponsored by the CE industry and/or third-party certified recycler. The initiative aims to increase electronics recycling to one billion pounds annually by 2016 and providing transparent metrics on eCycling efforts. A billion pounds of unrecycled waste electronics would fill a 71,000-seat NFL stadium.

The American Medical Student Association and Medical Alumni Association at Temple University are planting seeds and preparing a "Medicinal and Edible Learning Garden" and education event to discuss natural medicinal remedies.

The National Parks and Recreation Association is urging people to take advantage of waived entrance fees at U.S. national parks from April 21 to April 29 during National Park Week. Download your free Owner's Guide to America's National Parks. I know a few associations that are planning staff picnics and hikes at local parks and Great Falls National Park in sync with this promotional event.

The New York City Association of Hotel Concierges (NYCAHC) and its affiliate members will celebrate MillionTreesNYC at a "Dig In for Earth Day" tree-planting event May 5 in partnership with Mayor Bloomberg and NYC Parks and New York Restoration Project. Since the program's inception in 2007, thousands of New Yorkers have helped plant over 400,000 trees, with NYCAHC planting more than 2,000 of them.

American Forests' easy online calculator and offsetting options make it easy to offset your home or car pollution (I offset my minivan's emissions for about $17 last year through AF). Earth Day Network also offers an eco-calculator.

Whatever you do, just consider doing something green this weekend and join your colleagues in making the planet a bit healthier for us all!

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April 17, 2012

A Fine Point on Pricing

Behold the artisanally sharpened pencil.

For $15, cartoonist and artisanal pencil sharpener David Rees will select a pencil for you; sharpen it, lovingly; package it in a handsome protective tube; and send it to you along with a certificate of authenticity and a bag of the shavings.

Put-on? Capitalism at its finest? In an entertaining (and occasionally profane) interview with GQ, Rees insists that what he's doing is more the latter than the former:

It's a real thing! I've sharpened like, getting up on 475 [pencils]. I've made money doing this. It's not just like a silly--it's not like I built the website and then didn't build up the business. I did it, and I invested in my tools, and I learned a [remarkable amount] about pencils. ... I did my research. I learned a lot about pencils. So it's not a goof. It's a real thing.

Yes, its a real thing---further proof that, as they say, the appropriate price for something is what somebody is willing to pay for it. It reminds me of a familiar conversation in association circles about pricing: As a 2010 Associations Now feature pointed out, industry-specific goods and services can be sold at a premium because there's nowhere else to get them.

But are you sure that what you're selling is so special? I don't think any reader of this blog needs another lecture about how the internet has upended meetings, education, membership, and more, but Rees' enterprise has left me wondering how many associations have taken the uncomfortable but necessary step to study what those shifts have meant for their pricing. It may be that a lot of those comfortable revenue drivers are slowly but surely becoming the equivalent of artisanally sharpened pencils---nice enough for what they are, and the result of lots of careful effort to be sure, but easily found at a much lower cost elsewhere.

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April 12, 2012

Forward thinking from a century-old shipwreck

ballard3.pngThis Sunday will mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Like a lot of people, I've always been fascinated by the stories of both the sinking of the ship and the discovery of the wreck in 1985, so I jumped at the chance to attend a presentation by Dr. Robert Ballard, the man who found it, at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, DC, Tuesday night.

Ballard is a gifted storyteller and an ardent preservationist, and he argues that instead of removing artifacts from the Titanic wreckage to bring to museums for people to see, people should be taken to the Titanic to see it—but not how you might think. He showed a slide depicting his vision for building a permanent support structure for remote-operated camera equipment around the wreck, enabling visitors at museums on land to view and explore the wreck in real time from thousands of miles away, and he says this "telepresence" technology isn't that far off.

As he talked about the idea, it became clear that we're all fortunate the Titanic was found such a forward thinker. He mentioned the explorers who found the tomb of King Tut in Egypt and said that, if they'd had the foresight to know that the masses might one day be able to easily visit the sites in ancient Egypt—this was before widespread use of airplanes and automobiles—they might not have packed up all the artifacts and sent them to a museum in London. In the same way, thinking about how the world could be brought to the Titanic through technology could help preserve it.

It struck me that that kind of thinking is just what an association needs from its CEO and board of directors: the ability to imagine and plan for not just what is possible now but also what could be possible in the future. When it comes time for long-term planning and developing strategy, an association CEO should guide the board to embrace the anything-is-possible perspective, and it's also a good reason for a nominating committee to seek potential board members who demonstrate that mindset.

The evening spurred a couple other association-related thoughts, as well:

  • National Geographic's package for the Titanic anniversary is an example for associations to follow for creating a multifaceted experience around a story or education. The package has included two magazine features, an interactive iPad app, a museum exhibit, a live expert presentation, and two television specials. The question of money and resources is always a challenge, but most associations engage in all of these types of platforms (or similar ones). Few, however, are so skilled at coordinating a package of resources and events across all of them at once.
  • If Ballard's vision of a telepresence Titanic museum experience ever comes to life, that will remove just about any excuse associations would have for not creating virtual and hybrid event experiences. If live, interactive video of a shipwreck 12,000 feet below the surface of the ocean could be brought to your computer screen, then surely a presentation in a convention hall could be, as well.

The event was filmed, so keep an eye on the National Geographic Events video library if you're interested. I'll come back and embed or post a link to video once it's up.

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Quick clicks: April 12, 2012

The value of meetings. I could link to a slew of articles and viewpoints on the conference debacle at the U.S. General Services Administration, but Sue Pelletier did a great job of this yesterday, so I'll just encourage you to read her post to get all the info you need on what it means for the meetings industry.

The value of volunteering. Robert Rosenthal at the Engaging Volunteers blog highlights Independent Sector's 2011 estimate of the monetary value of an hour of volunteer work ($21.79). There's a lot of debate over that number or whether it's fair or even possible to try to measure it. But it poses an important question to association executives: what are your volunteers worth to you?

Meeting registration models. Mariela McIlwraith shares the story of the American Institute of Steel Construction, which boosted overall meeting attendance and advance registrations by instituting a plan in which registration fees increased by $10 every week. Oh, and it has also gone from about 1,200 members to 25,000 in three years.

Future of associations. Shelly Alcorn, CAE, spent a year interviewing association CEOs about their visions of the future of associations, and the results of her research are finally ready for prime time. Check out her preview of the report on the Affiniscape Blog.

Chapter challenges. Elizabeth Weaver Engel, CAE, shares a story of a national association and one of its chapters that don't see eye to eye, and she has some good suggestions for how to fix that. There's some good conversation in the comments, as well.

Chapters and membership marketing. Tony Rossell offers an early peek at some data from Marketing General Inc.'s 2012 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, which shows that associations without chapters have performed better in membership numbers in recent years. Tony started a discussion on the data in ASAE's LinkedIn group, with 13 responses so far.

Young professionals. Rosetta Thurman suggests five ways to support your young professional staff in their early stages of career development.

Volunteer engagement. Eric Lanke, CAE, points to an interesting data point in McKinley Advisors' 2012 Economic Impact on Associations that shows volunteer participation is an increasing concern for association executives as the economy recovers. Eric postulates that, as companies have learned to do more with less, there are simply fewer people—with less time to spare—to fill volunteer roles. Concerning, indeed.

Honkers vs. helpers. Steve Drake shares a short anecdote about complaining versus helping and asks if your association board and staff culture encourages people to just complain (honking) or to step in and help.

Community management. The discipline of online community management is a growing one for association professionals. Maddie Grant, CAE, summarizes some key points from Community Roundtable's 2012 State of Community Management Report, including "Technology enables community, but doesn't create it."

Great Ideas recaps. I posted the last edition Quick clicks too early to catch these recaps from the Great Ideas conference, so be sure to check them out:

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April 4, 2012

Every Innovative Team Needs a Conformist

I'm trying to recall how many times in my professional life I've sat in a meeting and heard an exchange like this one:

Person 1: "[Explanation of a brilliant, innovative idea.]"

Person 2: "That's a great idea! I'll make sure it gets implemented!"

Well, I know how many times I've heard that: Never. Usually the response is a little more like this:

Person 2: "That's a great idea! [Person 3, not sitting in the room] would be a perfect person to do it!"

I'm not immune; I'm much more likely to be Person 2 than Person 1. It's not that we're slackers, really. It's just that the business of giving ideas a real-world shape---the un-fun part, the implementation piece, the piece that happens well before we get to congratulate ourselves about a job well done---can be a lot harder than the idea-generation piece. I have this on my mind having read Jamie Notter's smart, provocative post, "The Down-Side of Great Ideas," which lays out this frustration in unmissable bold type: "We are stuck because we assume that we can separate thought from action and still manage to make change."

So what gets us unstuck? There's no easy answer to that, but there's something to be said for two things: First, tamping down our enthusiasm for thinking that innovation and ideation are the be-all-end-all of what teamwork is, and second, intentionally building teams that are a smart mix of thinkers and doers.

That's the message of an article titled "Conformists Boost Creativity," (subscription req'd) published in the Spring 2012 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review. The article discusses research by a group of scholars that suggests there are three distinct cognitive styles: creative, conformist, and attentive to detail. That third style can stifle innovation, the researchers argue, because attentive-to-detail types are overly concerned with picayune matters and are easily frustrated by ambiguity. (I'm guessing the researchers, were they feeling less diplomatic, would've called this style "anal-retentive fussbudgetry.") Conformists are conformists because they're more concerned with how the work gets done than brainstorming, but that's a valuable role when a team is stuck, or just too in love with their brilliance to actually act on their ideas.

"Managers should look not just at what they need and what this person knows [when assembling teams], but also how this person's personality can affect the dynamic on the team," says one of the researchers, Ella Miron-Spektor. "The ideal team should include a relatively large proportion of creative members, a lower proportion of conformists, and not more than one or two members who pay attention to detail."

You're probably thinking the same thing I did: I'm a mix of cognitive types, and I can't be pigeonholed as a creative, conformist, or whatever. But there's an easy way to tell, isn't there? We just have to listen to ourselves in those meetings. When do we step up to do something? When do we punt it to Person 3?

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