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July 31, 2012

The Decision to Kick the Tires Before Joining

Tracie Powell's post yesterday at the journalism website Poynter.org is essential reading for any association executive who wants a better grasp on how potential members---especially younger potential members---decide to join.

Powell's story is a common one. When she started out as a reporter, her employer carried the freight of her dues and convention fees. But the recession whipsawed an already crippled journalism industry, so she had to decide which memberships were worth paying for. Where once she was a member of five organizations, now she's involved with just two. As she and her sources point out, joining an association is "a combination of head and heart"---the organization has to reflect the member's passion for the industry, but it also has to be more capable than ever at providing the tools to advance a member's career.

So far, so familiar. What's less talked about, I think, is Powell's observation that associations in similar industries may have a coordination problem. The variety of journalism associations means that there are lots of journalism-association meetings that risk overlapping. Do association leaders think about how their conference schedule effects members who might also attend a related organization's event? Or is it easier to think that you operate without competition? Powell notes that a couple of associations have joined forces in response, combining their conferences to share knowledge in similar industries, avoid gumming up member schedules, and increase their bargaining power with hotels.

The end of Powell's post includes a bullet list of recommendations for would-be association members, and it's interesting in that it assumes they'll be comparison shopping. Powell recommends members talk to association leaders, check to see how fresh the website content is, compare dues and fees to related organizations, and more. How prepared is your organization for that kind of scrutiny?

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July 26, 2012

Quick clicks: July 26, 2012

Business models.

Stifling innovation. Elizabeth Engel, CAE, channels The Buggles and laments that "Process Killed the Association Star."

Governance. Laura Otten draws four lessons for nonprofit boards to be learned from the mess at Penn State.

Conferences. Jeff Hurt writes that big conferences are sources of "big data" and explains the challenges associations must overcome to capture that data.

Personal development. In tribute to the late Stephen Covey, Jay Daughtry presents "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People People."

Pinterest. Maddie Grant, CAE, shares the questions and answers from a recent webinar on using Pinterest to advance your association.

Association careers. Stefanie Reeves, CAE, follows The Atlantic's cover story on women in high-powered careers by examining whether she can "have it all as a female lobbyist."

Social business. Rachel Happe says email is getting in the way of organizations becoming more social (internally) and offers eight ways to "change where information is consumed and interacted with and change conversational habits" among staff.

Human resources. Carl Greenberg recommends associations hire slower and fire faster. "Employers consistently want to hire someone to fill a position yesterday yet these same people spend months, if not years, tolerating poor performers before terminating them."

Fundraising games. Shari Ilsen highlights a few nonprofits that have turned online games into major fundraising campaigns.

Management. I'm a sucker for a baseball analogy, so I enjoyed Jamie Notter's post in which he applies lessons from Moneyball to organizational management. Much like the old scouts in the Oakland A's front office, "we're not seeing how the management game has changed," he writes.

Sponsorship. Jeffrey Cufaude points out the increasing difficulty to provide valuable sponsorships at associations and that quantity does not trump quality. "Since almost everything is sponsored, almost nothing gets noticed," he writes.

Networking. Some food (or drink) for thought before your next networking event: A new study shows evidence that "just holding an alcoholic beverage can change how others perceive you."

ASAE12. Finally, a housekeeping note: We're using Scoop.It again this year to track articles and blog posts about the ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo. The Scoop.It page for ASAE12 is up and running and will surely pick up speed as the meeting approaches, so make a point to bookmark it now. One early post that we've "scooped" onto the page is John Chen's "Five Tips for an ASAE Annual Conference First Timer."

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July 25, 2012

The 40-Year Lesson: Insights from a Retiring Association CEO

Caught in a deadline jam for Associations Now after a snafu that meant pulling several short articles, I was lucky enough to earn the sympathy and help of one of the great leadership icons of our community: CEO & President J. Clarke Price of the Ohio Society of CPAs.

Price is actually leaving us all after 40 years of service. He gave notice two years ago and will head out of the office in December to hopefully tee off on the golf courses of Hawaii and elsewhere, then delve into favorite cause-related activities. I had to cut a bunch of Clarke's comments because of space limitations in the magazine, so I want instead to share them here as advice and insights from one of our most admired colleagues.

1. Association CEOs must stop complaining about time pressures and embrace the huge responsibility they bear for the success of their association's social media strategy. "Social media is one of the differentiators today," says Clarke, who has been called a "Technology Superstar" by one of his industry's trade publications. "Too many CEOs--and occasionally myself included--dismiss social media by rationalizing 'I don't have time for that' when we really do need to be spending time in the social media universe. Whether it's blogging, Facebook, Twitter, or any of the social platforms, the CEO needs to be vocal as one of the loudest and clearest voices of the association and the profession or industry. I'm critical of myself, because I don't spend enough time being part of the social atmosphere."

2. Being an early adopter of technology tools and applications is essential, too. "It's been fun moving from a two-way pager in the early days to the earliest Blackberry to the Palm Treo to the next gizmo iteration and then to the iPhone and iPad that I use today," Clarke says. "And I still carry an old Motorola Razor that I use just because I'm just more comfortable with that sort of phone, and the battery life is great."

3. In the big, long scheme of things, people mean the most. "As a career accomplishment, being featured in ASAE's 7 Measures [of Success] book was a pretty big deal for the organization and me. But I'm proudest when I think about the people I've hired, some who are still here and some who've moved on to bigger roles in other associations and industries or professions," he says.

4. You never forget some of your earliest CEO mistakes--and what you learned from them. It's apparently a long story, but Clarke says one of his most memorable mistakes involved a simple proofreading gaff. "Proofread carefully," he warns. "... I was almost fired in 1975 because of a very sloppy proofreading job on a bylaws ballot sent to every member!"

5. Have leadership role models--a lot of them. "I don't have just one," Clarke says. "I've learned a lot from colleagues in other organizations (particularly the Ohio State Bar Association, Ohio State Medical Association, and Maryland Institute of CPAs)....[and] just observing and working with John Graham the year I was ASAE chair."

And finally--because who doesn't always want to know this when they talk one of the association world's wise elders--what's Clarke's favorite board management tip after 40 years in the trenches?

"Plan! Think through the likely avenues of discussion and be prepared for the unexpected."

I hope retirement brings you expected and unscripted joys, Clarke. Thanks again for sharing not only your thoughts with me but with so many of us over the years in the association community. I'd love to hear what others have to say about Clarke's tips and observations.

You also can wish him well and hear about the books and information sources that have influenced his past and current thinking as a leader if you join us for the education session "Conversations That Matter: What We Learn From What We Read" Tuesday morning, Aug. 14 in Dallas at our Annual Meeting & Expo. I'll be joining Clarke and another longtime industry leader, Gary LaBranche, to lead a rowdy, fun, and very practical (if last year's version is any indication) discussion of the books, blogs, Twitterstreams, and whatever other info sources (okay, the emphasis is often on books) that have jazzed your thinking in the past year. Leave room in your totebag for at least one free book from our giveaway table!


An Olympic Celebration of Excellence

Happy Olympics, everyone! With the U.S. Women's Soccer Team kicking off the whole darn sportsapalooza this morning against France, the 2012 Olympics and the world's witness of performance excellence and resilience begins.

I just love the Olympics--the athletes and their gritty stories of perseverance, pain, and triumph; the cultural insights into the host country; the anxious coaches and families who sacrificed so much to enable their athletes just to be there; and the overall national pride that buzzes through America and around the planet when we see the best-of-the-best give it their all.

I've been fortunate to interview a few Olympians from figure skater Michael Weiss, who practices at the same ice rink that my family goes for a laugh and a tumble, to speed skater Apolo Ohno, who told me that his favorite inspirational book is In Pursuit of Excellence.

Both of these medalists have now joined our own ranks, leading active foundations to help next-generation athletes rise within their sport, set aggressive goals, and make healthy life choices. They are passionate about their nonprofits and causes, just as we are. They are committed to creatively communicating positive messages to their target audiences, just as we are. They do not fear the sheer scale of the social and economic problems they are tackling, whether reversing obesity trends, convincing under-age teens to avoid alcohol, or urging students to stay in school so they can secure a stronger spot in America's workforce. We don't back down, either.

As we unite around the world for the next few weeks to cheer the titans of sport, give yourself and your colleagues an extra yell as well. While we carry no ribbons with gold around our necks, we too have much to celebrate and strive for in the ongoing competition of association life. Happy Olympics!


July 24, 2012

Walls and Fences Can Lock In Associations Unnecessarily

In reading Robert Frisch's new book, Who's In the Room, about effective use of senior management teams, I was especially interested in the author's section on so-called walls versus fences within organizations.

"The idea is there is a set of things we understand that form boundaries of what our options are around what we can do to grow, for example," Frisch said in an interview with me for Associations Now. "They define the borderlines of what we do.... What happens is that when people get into positions of responsibility in associations, [they] get an understanding of the way 'things are done around here.' There's even more of a reluctance to challenge conventional wisdom, because [they may be ] serving an elected term for two years" or not be at the top of the staff totem pole.

Associations are not alone in mistakenly thinking that staff members, leaders, and others usually understand the difference between a fact (a wall such as an understanding that "you cannot do X because of X") and an assumption (a fence such as "you could not do X at that time but things changed, so now it's okay").
"If those walls and fences aren't placed accurately, then you're going to have people making bad decisions," Frisch told me. "It's really a question of, 'What are the very fundamentals of our business model?' It's a critical conversation that most organizations never have."

In fact, I don't recall have too many of those myself. Bits and pieces maybe, but not an overall look at solid versus picket fence stuff.

Frisch says these things are no secret. "People who are asked generally can tell you their organization's walls and fences," he said. "It's the job of the senior management team to go up to those walls and give them a good shake, asking, 'Is this a valid limit to who we are and what we can do, or is this a fence that can be moved? If we move it, can we open up new opportunities for growth and expansion?'"

He recommended questions like 'What business are we in? Who is our customer? What products can we offer? How do we go about conducting our business?'
And it's not just the staff who may build or break down these walls and fences. Most of us probably can think of a time when board members--or perhaps the minutes of their meeting--established a wall when a fence was the intention. Frisch warns that board directives and statements often are not re-evaluated enough, and that trickles to staff both new and seasoned who are heavily influenced by board comments.

"We have to be careful that they won't over-interpret what's being said, and that's why the walls and fences exercises are useful," he explains. "Let's make it very clear--this is what we do, this is what we don't do, this is who we serve, this is who we don't serve, these are the programs we fund, these are the programs we don't fund. How often do a board and senior management team actually walk the boundaries of the organization and explicitly talk about what we do and don't do? That's a very important but rare conversation."

Look for the full interview with Frisch in an upcoming Associations Now.

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July 12, 2012

Quick clicks: July 12, 2012

Member engagement. KiKi L'Italien suggests a new label for your most engaged members—"fierce members"—and shares three steps for turning fierce members into your best volunteers.

Networking. While most associations cite networking as a benefit of attending a conference, Jeffrey Cufaude says most of them don't put much effort into developing effective networking opportunities. So, he offers more than a dozen simple tactics for better networking at meetings.

Strategic planning. Jeff De Cagna, FASAE, says "millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of hours of staff and voluntary leader time" spent on strategic planning in the association industry has all been a waste of time.

Workforce equality. Laura Otten digs into a variety of research on workforce demographics in the corporate and nonprofit sectors and finds that some disappointing biases against women still persist. Example: "In the 20 most common occupations for women … men out-earned women in all but two."

Leadership. Kerry Stackpole, FASAE, CAE, examines massive projects like highway construction and healthcare reform to show what association executives can learn about what he calls "mega-leadership."

Change management. Eric Lanke, CAE, says his association has too many choices on its "menu" of programs and services, so it's cutting back. No easy task, and he offers some advice on how they'll manage the discontinuations.

Blogging. Rosetta Thurman points to three nonprofits that are establishing themselves as thought leaders in their communities through blogging.


Volunteer management. Lowell Aplebaum, CAE, tells the story of one of his chapters that created a "chief innovator" position for a volunteer with more ideas than the chapter could handle.

Association mascots. Jodie Slaughter, FASAE, shares a funny example of an association with a donkey for a mascot, though the association has nothing to do with donkeys or other animals.


July 5, 2012

New Form 990, Same Old Behavior

In 2009, a wave of low-grade anxiety swept across the association community about the Internal Revenue Service's revisions to the Form 990. For the first time, nonprofits were asked to disclose whether they had policies in place regarding (among other things) conflicts of interest on boards, whistleblowers, and document retention. In an Acronym post at the time, Larry Sloan summed up the general feeling that the IRS was delivering a strong hint about what would happen if associations didn't establish those polices: "associations should answer affirmatively [to those questions] to minimize the chance of the dreaded IRS audit," he wrote.

The ASAE Foundation has been collecting data from the Form 990 for the past few years, and it's now clear that, however anxious those questions made associations at the time, they haven't produced any substantive overall behavioral change in the industry. I could plot all the data in a pretty chart, but that'd be a lot of effort to show you what would essentially be three horizontal lines. Here's what we know:

  • Between the tax years of 2008 and 2010, the percentage of associations* with a written conflict of interest policy increased slightly, from 54 to 57 percent.
  • The percentage of associations with a written whistleblower policy nudged up from 34 to 38 percent.
  • The percentage of associations with a written document-retention policy ticked up from 43 to 45 percent.

What to make of this? I'm eager to read your thoughts in the comments (or in my inbox for a potential future story), but a few interpretations seem safe to make. A polite nudge about best practices from the IRS clearly isn't enough to move the needle---there's nothing illegal about lacking those policies, so associations may just be waiting to see if anybody actually does get audited as a result of ticking "no" on those boxes. Moreover, there may be some anxiety about what these policies should look like. It's one thing to get in hot water over how you filled out a tax form, yet another to get in hot water over some ancillary materials around which no firm best practices exist. You can't screw up the contents of a document you never wrote in the first place.

But I wonder if these horizontal lines also reflect something deeper about the culture of associations---a resistance to say more about themselves, financially speaking, than they absolutely need to. That may be reasonable advice from an accountant's perspective, but is it in the overall best interest of your association? In a roundtable on legal issues that ran last fall in Associations Now, Jerald A. Jacobs argued that associations should think of the 990 as an opportunity for self-promotion. "The next wave is considering and using the Form 990 as a marketing tool for the organization in your legislative and advocacy or regulatory goals, in selling memberships or sponsorships or exhibit booths or the public on what your organization does. It's a wonderful opportunity to tell your story... Within a relatively short time I'm going to be able to sit across a lunch table from you with my PDA, and if you're an association executive I'm going to know if you have an employer-paid cellphone. That's how detailed the information is going to be, and that's how easy it's going to be to access."

If this is the information people will want to instantly access in the coming years, why not get ahead of the curve?

* For the purposes of its 990 analysis, the ASAE Foundation defines an association as a nonprofit organization reporting a minimum of $200 in membership dues and at least one paid employee.


July 3, 2012

What conference planners can learn from bike-sharing programs

As technology has emerged that allows high-quality online broadcasts of conference presentations at a reasonable cost, some associations have embraced it while others have hesitated, concerned that "giving away our meetings" online would give people a reason to not attend in person.

Bike-shop owners in Washington, DC, can tell these associations not to worry. They, too, were concerned that the advent of bike-sharing service Capital Bikeshare would cut into bike sales by giving people a more affordable option to owning a bicycle. But the Transportation Nation blog reports this week that much the opposite has happened:

"It turns out their fears were for naught. Bike store owners say bike sharing is actually helping their businesses by fueling an explosion in bicycling enthusiasm. Moreover, bike shops say they are witnessing a culture change in their neighborhoods as more people leave their cars at home and hop on two-wheelers.

… Annah Walters, 25, says she wanted her own bicycle only after trying Bikeshare first. 'One of the great things about Bikeshare is it's sort of a gateway drug to biking. You don't have to make a several hundred dollar investment,' says Walters."

As successful as Capital Bikeshare has been, it doesn't match the freedom of owning a bike yourself. Likewise, as great as virtual-event technology is, it doesn't fully replace an in-person meeting. But it does serve as a low-barrier entry point, a "gateway drug" to the full conference experience. If you craft your online conference elements in that model, you can expand your audience and get people hooked. And then you can reap the benefits of that enthusiasm down the road, just like the bike-shop owners in DC.