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March 11, 2011

Lessons from geocaching

My personal hobbies don't often intersect with my professional duties, but since it's Friday I'll make an exception and introduce you to geocaching. It's a fairly new hobby with a growing community facilitated mainly by a single for-profit company, which offers some interesting lessons for associations.

But first, some background. All over the world, people have hidden small containers and posted their geographic coordinates online. Anyone with a GPS device can find a cache and sign the log inside. The fun is in the hunt and in feeling a bit like a secret agent. I once found a cache inside a hollowed-out bolt on a street sign; others might be hidden in stumps or rock walls deep in the woods. It's also a great excuse to get outside, and the barrier to entry is low. All you need is web access and a GPS device, which these days includes most smartphones.

The geocaching community is an active one, with a few million people that participate, ranging from novices to highly engaged enthusiasts who blog about geocaching, discuss it in forums, and hide caches for others to find. Does that engagement curve sound familiar?

The geocaching community's leading facilitator is a for-profit company, Groundspeak, Inc., which operates geocaching.com, by far the largest repository of cache locations. The people who founded Groundspeak a little more than 10 years ago could have established a nonprofit to oversee the activity, and, in fact, there are competing geocaching sites run by nonprofits, such as Navicache.com and Opencaching.us, but the one run by the for-profit has been the most successful.

So what can association professionals learn from Groundspeak's success in fostering the geocaching community? Here are a few thoughts:

Get out of the way. On the geocaching.com homepage, Groundspeak isn't mentioned once "above the fold," which is a sign that the good of the geocaching community is the company's primary goal in managing the site. Of course, Groundspeak sells its geocaching gear and accessories below and alongside the functional areas of the site, but none of those offers are pushy or in your face. This allows the community and hobby to thrive without overt interference.

Freemium and products. That's the business model for Groundspeak. Access to the hobby and the community is free, and I'd bet that the majority of geocachers in the world have never spent a dime with Groundspeak. But the ones who are enthusiastic can opt for a Premium Membership or can purchase geocaching gear that Groundspeak sells. By aggressively and skillfully facilitating access to the hobby, Groundspeak grows the geocaching community and, thus, its pool of potential customers. It's important to note, though, that this approach takes a great amount of faith in the "get out of the way" philosophy.

Smart, useful tech. Geocaching.com is a powerful but easy-to-use site. The tools and info geocachers need is front and center and easy to find, which is why users keep coming back and why, in turn, it's the dominant site in the community. Meanwhile, Groundspeak hasn't built everything from scratch. Its cache locator map is a Google Maps mashup, its videos are all posted via YouTube, and its forums run on a licensed platform. Once again, this all arises from a dedication to providing what the geocaching community finds most useful, not what might benefit Groundspeak most directly.

We often hear that "associations need to behave more like businesses." I'd argue Groundspeak's model and methods are the type of business behaviors associations should emulate.

Anyone out there a geocacher? Know of other examples of communities fostered by for-profits that associations can learn from? Please share.

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August 31, 2010

Rebranding: Lessons for the Rest of Us

I remember when March of Dimes kicked off its new branding several years ago, so it was interesting to read the terrific article in this month's Chronicle of Philanthropy that shows which media vehicles worked and which failed in terms of accomplishing the organization's many specific goals for the campaign. You can read more about the following three lessons learned in "March of Dimes' Evolution in Online Fundraising:"
1) The vetting and targeting of influential and "advocate bloggers" was worth it.
2) The purchase of online ads placed near popular search engine words and terms took creativity and smarts, in my opinion.
3) The failure of a popular web video that was "cool" but didn't get the right job done shows that tracking and reflection can reveal false assumptions and prevent future marketing mistakes.

Kudos to the organization for their candor about the campaign. We all benefit from sharing such insider information.

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March 24, 2010

Fight, Flight, or Freeze?

When faced with a threat or an environmental stressor, animals have been known to engage in a fight, flight, or freeze response. The human brain reacts similarly in a crisis situation, and because organizations are essentially people, our human instincts and reactions affect our associations.

My boss and I discussed the fight, flight, or freeze concept as it relates to association work during our "Making Lemonade Out of Lemons in a Sour Industry" presentation at the Great Ideas Conference earlier this month. We presented a situation analysis of our association and explored the decision-making process and the tactics we employed to survive one of the most tumultuous economic environments our members had ever experienced.

In early 2008, our leadership team presented our board with a market analysis that resulted in five core strategies, and when the recession set in later that year our board had to decide: fight, flight, or freeze?

In other words, do we run to safer ground by launching new initiatives and targeting new markets, even if they're outside the scope of our mission? Do we freeze in our tracks, hunker down with our members, and wait for the storm to blow over? Or do we focus on what's in front of us, continue with our strategies, and fight through it?

These all are natural responses and there is no right answer. Experience, instinct, collaboration, and leadership play a role in making the best decision for the association. When evaluating our own options, we challenged the board with three questions: what is our focus, who do we serve, and what's in it for them?

Having just developed a strong mission statement for the association, our board was able to answer those questions without hesitation: we are a credentialing organization, we serve advanced investment consulting and wealth management professionals, and the value we provide is world-class educational content.

Ultimately, the board's decision was to continue with what we already had set in motion. The board and staff were confident that the five core strategies were in alignment with our mission and that we had developed the resources and infrastructure needed to meet those strategic goals. And with the help of volunteer and staff discipline, the avoidance of mission-creep, conservative budgeting, and serendipitous timing, we were fortunate to experience growth (albeit small) and increased member satisfaction in 2008 and 2009.

So what is your focus, who do you serve, and what's in it for them? Those three questions seem so simple, but if you presented them to your board today would you receive clear, consistent answers? It can be a helpful exercise for simplifying what is often an overwhelming array of member types, benefits, and initiatives, and can help you determine your association's own path when it comes to fight, flight, or freeze moments.


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September 2, 2009

Associations Now September Case Study: Walking Away

Imagine what it would have taken 50 years ago to break away from your professional association and launch a new organization: You'd have to find like-minded members, communicate with them via phone or mail, organize in-person meetings. It would certainly take both passion and commitment to sign on for that kind of work.

Today, that kind of passion and commitment have an easier outlet: Find those like-minded members online. Create an email list, or start a blog. You can pull together a group through Ning or a similar platform within days, if there's enough interest.

This month's Associations Now case study examines just such a situation. A special interest group feels underserved, and one of the group's most impassioned leaders decides to head out on his own. What should the CEO and board chair of the original association do in response?

Jay Karen and KiKi L'Italien both offered their take--my thanks to them both for commenting on the action! (You can read their commentary, and the case study scenario, online.) What are your thoughts on what could be done to salvage such a breakaway situation, or prevent it in the first place?

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August 3, 2009

August Associations Now Case Study: Is It Really Antitrust?

This month's Associations Now case study, "Boiling Point" (published online as "Is It Really Antitrust?") explores a scenario from the perspective of Megan, a relatively new and inexperienced staff person. She's seeing something that she perceives as shady, and a potential antitrust concern. But is she drawing conclusions that are unsupported by the facts?

Jerry Jacobs, author of the Association Law Handbook and the forthcoming Association Law Update, and Christine Giordano, CAE, executive director of the Society for Biomolecular Sciences, took a close look at the case study and offered their takes on the evidence and the main character's actions. My thanks to both of them for serving as commentators!

What's your take on the scenario? Is Megan on to something, or is she overreacting? (The full text of the case study and commentary are available online.)

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July 1, 2009

Associations Now case study: When a sponsor cuts back

This month's Associations Now case study looks at a situation that seems to be more common this year, for obvious reasons: An association has a long-standing relationship with a major sponsor. Unexpectedly, the sponsor tells the association it has to cut its level of sponsorship significantly--a scenario with major budget implications for the association. What should a CEO in this position do?

Thanks are due in particular to David Patt, CAE, who co-authored this month's case study and consistently helped to ground the article by providing his perspective on what a real CEO would think and do when faced with similar circumstances. Thanks also to Scott Oser and Oliver Yandle, who provided no-holds-barred commentary.

What do you think of the situation presented in this month's case study (available online here)? Did you agree or disagree with the commentators? If you were suddenly faced with the loss of a significant part of your association's sponsorship revenue, how would you respond?

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June 1, 2009

How to Lose a Volunteer in 3 Months or Less

Have you ever tried to get involved with an organization and felt like you just couldn't break through? This month's Associations Now case study explores the perspective of an association member having just that experience.

What went wrong, and what could her association have done differently to retain her as an engaged volunteer? Sharon Kneebone and Deirdre Reid do a great job of answering those very questions in their commentary. Thanks to both of them for taking the time to review and comment on this month's scenario.

The full case study and commentary are available online. What are your thoughts on this fictional volunteer's experience? What lessons can associations learn from her to help retain their own potential superstars?

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April 3, 2009

April Associations Now Case Study: Awards Program Gone Wrong

As even my eight-year-old could probably tell you, awards programs are all about fairness. If your members feel like awards are given based on favoritism rather than merit, they're not going to respect--or, most likely, participate in--your awards program. And while I imagine most associations go out of their way to ensure fairness, it's possible for one unfortunate situation to create a bad impression that lasts for years.

This month's Associations Now case study, "Can't Win for Losing," explores a fictional CEO's attempts to get to the bottom of things when her awards committee seems to be making its decisions based on sentiment rather than the official rules of the awards program. Amy Lestition and John Crosby both provided excellent comments on how associations can avoid similar problems (or deal with them when they happen).

The April case study, along with John and Amy's comments, is available online. What would you have done differently if you were faced with a similar situation?

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March 2, 2009

March Associations Now case study: Starting from scratch

For those of you in the East who might be snowed in today, it's the perfect time to discuss a case study! This month, Associations Now explored a situation where a small-staff CEO is left to pick up the pieces when a long-time volunteer suddenly departs. Did the CEO handle the volunteer poorly? Should the association have either rotated volunteers more often or created a more formal succession plan for such an important volunteer role? How should staff move forward when a volunteer possessed of important institutional knowledge is no longer available (for whatever reason)?

Peggy Hoffman kindly provided some thought provoking commentary on this month's case study. The scenario, and her comments, are available here. I look forward to your thoughts as well!

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February 6, 2009

February Associations Now case study: Strategy session

I'm sure I'm not the only one going over my budget with a fine-toothed comb right now; we're all keeping a close eye on revenue and expenses in the current economic climate. But some associations have been hit harder than others.

This month's Associations Now case study (available online) takes a look at this issue from the perspective of three small, local philanthropic groups, all of which are partially funded by their local government due to the nature of their work in the community. When their local government is considering major funding cuts to balance the budget, how should they respond?

Thanks are due to Barbara Bingham and Catherine Brown, both of whom provided insightful commentary from their perspectives as philanthropic executives.

What do you think associations and nonprofits facing budget shortfalls should be doing? What do you agree with or disagree with in this case study?

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January 5, 2009

January Associations Now Case Study: Facing a PR Nightmare

I once worked for someone who told me that, for him, the hardest thing about PR was its unpredictability; you could spend months pitching stories and not get a nibble, but then come in one day and have an urgent call from a major media outlet while you're still drinking your coffee.

That kind of unexpectedness is part of what the characters in the January Associations Now case study are dealing with (although, as the excellent commentators pointed out, perhaps the situation should have been less unexpected than the characters found it to be). In this month's article, a CEO, a PR manager, and a certification manager are working together to face a crisis--an ethical accusation being made against a certificant, and by extension against their organization, in the media.

Thanks are due to the excellent commentators I mentioned above--Joan Knapp of Knapp & Associates International and Melissa Hurley Alves of the American Industrial Hygiene Association. Both of them have great ideas and insights into the case study.

What do you think? What could have been done to prevent the situation the characters are facing--and what can they do to resolve it now?

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December 1, 2008

December Associations Now case study: Good person, bad employee

The decision to fire an employee is one of the toughest decisions a manager ever has to make. The decision becomes significantly harder when the employee in question used to do great work--but doesn't any more. The December Associations Now case study explores this dilemma from a manager's point of view.

Thanks are due to Peter Sursi, who developed a detailed and thought-provoking case study for us, and to Dale Silverman and Betsy Davis, who provided great insights in their commentaries.

What should Parvati do about the problem of Phyllis? Read the case study and commentary, and then share your thoughts here.

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October 2, 2008

October Associations Now Case Study: All Out of Tune

Have you ever felt the push-and-pull between the desires of contributors, advertisers, or sponsors and the strategic needs of your organization? The October case study in Associations Now takes a look at just that kind of situation. In the story, a COO is trying to balance between a sponsor who feels strongly that his products should be spotlighted during a conference to which his company has made a significant financial contribution--and a special guest who is critical to the success of the conference, but who has no interest in using the sponsor's products.

"All Out of Tune" is available online, with insightful commentary by Wendy Kavanagh, CAE, and Jack Hansen. What comments do you have about how the characters in this scenario could resolve the problems at hand?

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September 2, 2008

Associations Now September case study: Compensation conundrum

This month's Associations Now case study, "Compensation Conundrum," was actually inspired by a discussion on ASAE & The Center's Executive Section listserver. As the members of that list were debating back and forth about how confidential salaries should be (and how confidential, in practice, they actually are, especially with the recent changes to the Form 990), Jay Karen of the Professional Association of Innkeepers International kindly sent me an e-mail to recommend that Associations Now cover these issues in some way. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed a case study could work well.

As commentators, David Patt of the Association of Running Event Directors and Dinah Adkins of the National Business Incubation Association break down the issues surrounding compensation from their perspectives as CEOs. I greatly appreciate both of their insights.

For those of you who have read the case study, and those who haven't, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the many touchy issues surrounding compensation. Should salaries be confidential? Should the board be involved in setting staff salaries in any way? If you discover your salary isn't what you think is equitable, is it ever a good idea to ask for an increase--and if you do, what's the right way to go about it?

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August 20, 2008

Frank Fortin Talks Social Technographics for Associations

Following up on a post I did on the Association Marketing Springboard, here is a short video from the Annual Meeting of Frank Fortin, communications director for the Massachusetts Medical Society, explaining how he is using Forrester's Social Technographic Survey to better understand his association's social media successes and failures. Over the next six months, Frank and his team intend to apply the lessons they've learned from Groundswell and their own experience to transform the Massachusetts Medical Society's social spaces online.

Trouble viewing the video? Click here.

Here's one interesting point Frank made that didn't make it into the video. It's not just the question, it's how you ask it. For example, Some of your members might not be familiar with RSS, but they might be using it on sites like iGoogle, Google Reader, Bloglines, NetNewsWire or some other aggregator. Are we making assumptions about our members' social media aptitude simply because we're asking the wrong questions--or the right questions in the wrong way? It's something to think about.

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August 12, 2008

Do associations overreact to criticism?

The August Associations Now case study has sparked some interesting discussion here on Acronym. Thanks to everyone who's shared their thoughts on the scenario presented in the article!

I was particularly struck by comments by several commenters: Kevin Whorton noted that "many times in organizations we dedicate excessive resources to micro-focusing on board perceptions; to me addressing Ed the negative blogger's comments in a very serious way is focusing on something that is one step more removed from the mission critical functions of the association." Later, "The Other Kevin" (Kevin Holland) commented that "On the whole, I felt this particular case study was about people expending a lot of energy worrying about something that ultimately wasn't very important." And Maggie McGary compared the flurry of negative blog comments depicted in the case study as similar to a negative conversation you might overhear in the hall at your annual conference: "While obviously Lynn, Bryan, and Stewart wouldn't have been pleased to overhear this same conversation, would it really have been taken as seriously as the same comments expressed on a blog?"

I found all of these comments to be fascinating, because they're so different than my own experience in the associations where I've worked prior to coming to ASAE & The Center. I've seen a single letter from a member become the basis for a year-long task force examining problems with a product. I've seen five negative messages on a member listserver lead to board calls, senior staff meetings, and communications plans. I'm not saying that these were proportional responses, but those and similar experiences led me to expect most associations to be fairly sensitive to a few critical letters, e-mails, or blog posts from members.

Is my experience out of the ordinary, or are other associations likely to react strongly to a relatively small number of complaints from members about a particular issue? If you have worked at an association that had thicker skin, how did you handle member complaints when they arose? I'm really curious to hear what others have seen in their own organizations.

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August 1, 2008

Associations Now August Case Study: Blog Brushfire

Those of you who read this blog and others are probably already aware of how fast bad news can travel on the internet. (For that matter, those of you whose associations have listservers probably knew that long before the first association blog was launched.) But when your association is the target of that negative blogger reaction, what’s the best way to handle it?

This month’s Associations Now case study, "Blog Brushfire," looks at a fictional association facing a wave of criticism online. Commentators Maddie Grant and Barbara Hyde did a fantastic job of peeling away the layers of the issue and looking at the many factors involved in responding to a communications crisis of this sort. What do you think? Has your association ever dealt with a similar situation—and if you have, what advice would you share?

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July 1, 2008

Associations Now July Case Study: Caught in the Gears

One of the biggest challenges in beginning a new job as a manager is getting to know your new team. Sometimes your management style is very different from what they're used to--and sometimes their work styles are very different than what you're used to. It can be a great learning experience for all concerned, or it can lead to a lot of frustration.

In this month's Associations Now case study, "Caught in the Gears," a new CEO is struggling to find the best approach to working with a management team and staff that appear to be caught in a culture of conflict. But is his approach making things better or worse? (And is conflict in the workplace really a problem?)

Cedric Calhoun, executive director of the Academy of Certified Hazardous Materials Managers, and Jamie Notter, a conflict resolution expert (and blogger), kindly shared their thoughts in two commentaries on the case study. I learned a lot from both of them.

What do you think? Should the CEO in this case study continue down the path he's started, or is he headed for disaster? The full text of the article and Jamie and Cedric's commentaries is available online, as well as in the print edition of this month's Associations Now.

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June 2, 2008

Associations Now June Case Study: Deadline Pressure

When I first started writing the June 2008 Associations Now case study, I wanted to explore a situation I've personally seen multiple times in my career: the issue of the "difficult" volunteer. I know it's a truism of association management that you should never say anything negative about a member, but in the day-to-day reality of member service, there are some members who can drive you crazy--whether through the best of intentions or just because they're not particularly nice people. (That's my experience, anyway.)

Dalia, the main character in this month's case study, is dealing with one of those members. But is she doing everything she can to manage the situation properly? Some of the people who read the article for me before publication think she is, but this month's excellent commentators, Cynthia D'Amour and Lisa Sidletsky, don't necessarily agree. They both have a lot of suggestions for ways the situation can be improved.

This month's case study, "Deadline Pressure," is now online. What do you think about Dalia's situation? How have you handled similar issues in your own work? Do you agree with Cynthia and Lisa's commentary? Let us know!

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May 7, 2008

Associations Now May Case Study: When the Chips Are Down

The May issue of Associations Now featured the first article in our case study series to be written by a volunteer author; thank you to Jeff De Cagna for bravely taking the plunge!

Jeff's case study focuses on an association (the National Association of Chief Happiness Officers, or NACHO) facing many challenges: a strategic plan that doesn’t address the important issues facing his association, a board that voted down his best ideas, and a competitor eagerly gobbling up market share.

What should he and his association do to face down these problems? Virgil Carter and Nancy Green provided some great commentary from their perspectives as CEOs; I'd be very interested in Acronym readers' thoughts as well. Can NACHO be saved?

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April 1, 2008

"Breaking Up Is Hard to Do" case study discussion

In the April 2008 issue of Associations Now, the case study "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do" focuses on the stresses and strains that can develop in an association/vendor relationship. I'd like to express my gratitude to Kerry Stackpole, CAE, and James Maloney, CAE, for providing clear-eyed commentary to be published along with the article.

For those of you who have experienced situations like these before--and those who have managed to avoid them--what are your thoughts? What could the characters in "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do" have done differently to avoid the difficulties they're facing now--and what steps can they take now to change things for the better?

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March 15, 2008

“Blown Away” case study discussion

Those of you who have seen the March Associations Now may have noticed several new columns and departments making their debut. One of those departments will be directly connected to Acronym: a series of Associations Now case studies.

Click below to discuss the March case study, “Blown Away," where an association wrestles with what to do when its annual meeting is threatened by a hurricane.

Continue reading "“Blown Away” case study discussion" »

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