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January 20, 2012

How connecting differs in person and on the web

In the space of a few hours earlier this week, I came upon two articles about human interaction that seemingly contradicted each other:

In the former, Lehrer explains a newly released study that found that college students at larger universities have less diverse social groups than those at smaller universities. The conclusion drawn is that a larger environment allows the natural tendency toward seeking relationships with similar people to play out more thoroughly. As the study's authors put it, "Our findings reveal an irony—greater human diversity within an environment leads to less personal diversity."

Meanwhile, many experts have assumed that the boundless environment of the internet has allowed this same dynamic to turn the net into an "echo chamber," leaving us all increasingly isolated from differing people and viewpoints. The Slate article, however, points out a massive study conducted on Facebook that suggests the opposite is true: social networks (or at least Facebook) expose users to a large amount of novel information (i.e., ideas you most likely wouldn't have found on your own), because the vast majority of online social connections are weak ties. Simply put, the echo chamber theory doesn't appear to be true.

So, in person, opposites don't attract, but seemingly opposites do attract in the internet. The important difference between these scenarios is strength of connections. The former study examined the diversity in close personal relationships, while the latter examined the diversity in weak connections. Very different scenarios, and the evidence from each supports a fairly simple (and perhaps obvious) conclusion: strong relationships arise naturally from compatibility, while weak connections require less compatibility and thus allow for greater diversity.

So why might any of this be relevant to you as an association executive? I see a few lessons to draw, and while none of them are new or novel, the studies serve as important reminders and reinformcements of the following ideas:

Weak ties are conduits for knowledge sharing. My colleague Mark Athitakis asked "What's a Weak Tie Worth?" a few weeks ago and suggested that it might be difficult to turn weak ties into strong ones. I think both of these studies confirm that, but the Facebook study in particular further proves the great value in a large network of weak ties. Working to grow that network—and to help your members grow their weak-tie networks with each other—is a valuable goal in itself.

Growing diversity is another case for online social networking within your membership. Another reason to count the Facebook study in the "pro" column for engaging members through private online community platforms and on external social networks. It's not just a greater volume of connections that can be made online than in person; the online environment allows for the diversity of those connections to be higher, too. And we know that greater diversity in ideas and information being exchanged leads to better decisions, more innovation, and so on.

But just creating a diverse environment isn't enough. Particularly when it comes to your staff or your volunteer leadership, where weak ties that might exist need to be built into strong ties for effective work to be done. Getting a diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints in a room together is the right start, but human nature (sadly) will still resist the forming of diverse relationships unless they're fostered intentionally. Cross-functional teams, task forces, and committees must be created with purpose.

I'm curious if these studies align with your experience with your relationships and networks and those you see in your associations.

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January 9, 2012

Reading between the lines on conflict and inclusion

The 2012 Associations Now Volunteer Leadership Issue includes a feature by Mark T. Engle, FASAE, CAE, titled "Balanced Conflict, Better Decisions," which presents research that Engle conducted on how associations can best handle conflict in decision making. One of Engle's key findings is that conflict is best handled at the committee level rather than at the board level, and I think this says a lot about the importance of creating open and inclusive governance models in associations, which we discussed here back in November.

[Engle's feature article isn't published online; see page 26 of your print edition. However, in October we published a short article based on an interview with Engle.]

In the feature, Engle stresses that the importance of the consensus approach at the association board level runs opposite to what other research says about decision making in for-profit boards, that conflict at the board level improves decision making. A quote from Steve Smith, CAE, executive director and CEO of the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, sums this up well:

"Fairness and due diligence are critical within [association] committee or board processes," says Smith. "If a process is seen as unfair, such as when all views are not heard, the focus is likely to be on personal issues or affective conflict."

In other words, in the association context, if the decision-making process is un-inclusive, conflict will arise precisely for that reason.

The association model is such that, by the time a decision reaches the board level, a strong consensus should already exist about the decision to be made. All the various stakeholders should already be on board because they should have already been asked for their input. If they weren't asked, they'll question the decision. In many cases, I suspect, conflict might present itself as healthy debate on the merits of the issue but in truth be rooted in personal or political conflict stemming from a sense of unfairness in the process.

This presents a deeper question: Is the decision-making process more important than the decision itself? For associations and their member-driven governance systems, the answer might be yes. The evidence in Engle's research on conflict and decision making suggests this, and it makes yet another case for more openness and inclusion in decision-making in associations. If you haven't read the comments from that post from November, go back now and read them. They offer some good ideas for meeting this challenge.

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November 8, 2011

The pursuit of openness and inclusivity

In the past couple of weeks, I've been working with colleagues to set up a new discussion forum in relation to ASAE's upcoming Volunteer Leadership Retreat. The goal is expanding the number and diversity of viewpoints contributing toward organizational planning.

That's no easy task, and it's one that I think many associations struggle with. By now associations are (or should be) well aware of the business cases for improving diversity and inclusion and allowing for more open, transparent ways of doing business. It's clear that these are worthy goals to pursue. But a lot of the challenge comes in the execution. Even if you're highly motivated, it turns out being more open and inclusive isn't necessarily easy.

Often, the argument goes that closed organizational structures come from those in power clinging to their power and control. In many cases, this may be true, but I don't think it fully explains the existence of closed systems. In the article that Jamie Notter wrote for Associations Now last month based on his and Maddie Grant's book Humanize, he did a nice job explaining another major cause (and staying power) of closed systems: they're incredibly efficient.

Thus, moving toward more openness and inclusivity in group action or decision making comes at the price of efficiency, and that's often enough to stop such efforts cold. The traditional model of decision making just doesn't scale upward very well. Three people can come to a decision fairly easily, but 30 people would take much longer, let alone 300 or 3,000.

In my mind, a more open organizational model can still have levels, but the levels must become flatter and wider—i.e., more people must be allowed to be involved in meaningful ways closer to the point where actual decisions are made. And hierarchy is still OK, too, but the flow of information up and down the levels must be freer. Designing a system that can do these effectively and efficiently is, again, not easy, but as Jamie and Maddie and others argue, technology and social media are making it more achievable (as well as more imperative).

I'm curious how other associations have tried to tackle this challenge. What methods have or haven't worked for you in trying to make your association's governance and planning processes more open and inclusive? If you've had any luck (or hard lessons learned), please share.

[Also, if you're interested in contributing your viewpoints on ASAE's strategic framework, please join the discussion at http://collaborate.asaecenter.org/leadASAE.]

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November 1, 2011

A Hard (Numbers) Thing to Talk About

When your copy of the November issue of Associations Now arrives in your mailbox this week, please do me a favor: Skip to the end. We've done some tweaking to our back-page feature, changing it from Back to You—a grab bag of statistics and anecdotes related to articles in that issue of the magazine—to Hard Numbers, a quick overview of statistics relating to a particular topic in association leadership. I'm eager to hear what you think. (Of course, once you're done with the back page, it'd be great if you could go back and read the rest of the articles too.)

The first topic I wanted to focus on in Hard Numbers is diversity, largely because it's a topic that doesn't get discussed often enough, be it in the pages of a magazine or in the larger association community. There are good reasons to keep bringing it up: One data point in Hard Numbers notes that just 14 percent of nonprofit board members are people of color.

That's a striking statistic, but what can organizations do about it? (That's the problem with just laying out numbers, of course; they can point out the urgency of something, but they do little good in terms of helping you design a strategy.) As it happens, over the weekend a former colleague of mine delivered some straight talk on the matter. Dylan Tweney, editor of the website VentureBeat, wrote a blog post titled "How to fix Silicon Valley's race problem: A 4-step program for white guys."

As the title suggests, the focus is on high-tech entrepreneurship, but much of what he says applies to other arenas, and it's rare to see such an article explicitly directed to the white male leaders of organizations who are empowered to fix the problem. The whole post is worth reading, but I was particularly struck by what Tweney says about the transformative power of talking about race in the first place, and how silence doesn't fix the problem. "[W]hen you refuse to talk about racism and race, whether from fear of embarrassment or out of ignorance, you can't learn," he writes. "If you pretend that it's just a meritocracy, or that the problem is too mysterious to be addressed, or that you yourself are not racist, you can't learn."

Needless to say, some commenters on the post are questioning whether racism in the Valley exists to the degree Tweney says it does. That, at least, opens up the discussion. But what conversations work beyond just a blog post? What can associations do within their offices and among their members to bring the discussion about diversity—and especially diverse association leadership—out into the open, with a goal of making leadership more diverse?

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October 17, 2011

The catch-22 of volunteer recruitment

Reaching back a few weeks to a post by Shari Ilsen on the Engaging Volunteers blog, "Why I'm Not Going to Volunteer with Your Nonprofit." She adapts seven reasons people cite for not donating to a nonprofit and equates them to why they also don't volunteer. Great reading for anyone in the business of volunteer recruitment.

One of the reasons stuck out to me the most: "I don't know anyone else who volunteers with you." From a personal standpoint, this probably isn't the excuse I'd give out loud for declining a given volunteer opportunity, but it's the one I'd be feeling in my gut, most strongly influencing my decision. I'm an introvert, and I don't think I've joined or volunteered for anything in my life without doing so with a friend. That sounds sad to me now that I've typed it out on a screen, but I'm just being honest.

The truth is, though, that there are a lot of introverted people like me in the world, including in your membership or pool of potential volunteers. (The Decision to Volunteer supports this dynamic: "I was asked by another volunteer" was the third-ranked channel through which volunteers first learned about volunteering with an organization, while "I didn't know a current volunteer" was among the top reasons cited by nonvolunteers.) So it's clear that asking your current volunteers to recruit potential new volunteers through word of mouth is a method that must be employed to overcome the "I don't know anyone else who volunteers with you" hurdle.

But this presents another problem. Many associations lament that their volunteer leaders aren't diverse, and they struggle to find new potential leaders from beyond the networks of members who already participate. Asking your board to recruit people they know as new volunteers just gets you more people who look, think, and act the same as the leaders you already have.

So there's your catch-22:

  • Potential volunteers feel more comfortable volunteering when they know a current volunteer, but …
  • Potential volunteers who know a current volunteer are probably a lot like your current volunteers.

No one said volunteer recruitment was easy. I don't have a magic solution to offer for this dilemma, but I think the underlying strategy to break free of this problem focuses on fostering new connections. So, rather than asking volunteers to recruit a friend, challenge them each to make a new friend at your next event. Conversely, when you do identify strong potential volunteers, connect them with current volunteers as quickly as you can, so they can no longer say "I don't know anyone else who volunteers with you." Interested to hear your thoughts on volunteer recruitment. How have you tried to solve this problem?

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March 30, 2011

The Great Divide

I recently attended a presentation by Bob Wendover from the Center for Generational Studies on communicating between generations. It was a very odd experience, as the entire room was filled with "Generation Xers" (those born from the 1960s-1981) and "Baby Boomers" (those from 1940-1960). I was the only "Millenial" in the room, the group of people born between 1982 and 1999.

The presentation made me realize that we focus way too much on the generational "divides". Why? Because the presentation discussed how attention-deficit, impulsive, and unprofessional "Millenials" are. But really, I'm on the cusp, being born in 1982. I've been taught how to write a professional business letter. I remember life before the Internet. My See-N-Say had a string cord, my Slinky was metal, and my Easy-Bake Oven actually baked.

But yet formal "generational" divides lump me into a class with people such as my 14-year-old cousin, who despite living down the street from me only communicates with me via Facebook status messages and abbreviated chat-speak text messages. He asks his friends if they want to hang out.. and despite them living down the street, what he means is "let's play Xbox from our respective homes while talking on the phone". He and I have pretty much nothing in common at all.

The reason I share this is to warn you NOT to look too much into age or generation stereotyping. After all, our grandparents are joining Facebook, and my mom has an iPhone while my husband can hardly text message. Be sure you're communicating in every way with every member, instead of making generalizations based on age. You know what they say about assumptions.

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March 28, 2011

Geraldine Ferraro's Diversity Message Still Rings True

I was sorry to read about the death of former vice presidential candidate and longtime political activist Geraldine Ferraro this weekend. I recalled when she co-authored an article for GWSAE's Executive Update magazine back in July 2000, and oddly enough, I had just had it posted as a resource onto the ASAE Diversity & Inclusion Conference attendee site because its content remains relevant to today's discussions of the subject.

Titled "Reaping the Bottom Line Benefits of Diversity", the article is a warning by Ferraro (Democrat) and President George Bush's Secretary of Labor Lynn Martin (Republican), who jointly write that associations that ignore diversity risk extinction in the coming years. They urge ways that organizations can use training and leadership to leverage the business benefits of diversity and inclusiveness.

The article remains especially timely in light of last week's release of the 2010 U.S. Census results. Among its important findings are data showing that the numbers of Hispanics have grown by more than 43% since the year 2000, or 16% of the U.S. population. That increase means Hispanics have overtaking African-Americans or blacks (at 13% of the U.S. population) as the largest minority group in America. Will organizations or the business community be able to adapt to this level of change in their membership/consumer/worker bases?

Ferraro defined diversity broadly, although she often wrote about women leadership simply because that seemed to be what folks asked her about most. She had many friends within our sector, especially among women's organizations and political groups, and I often saw her on the speakers' lists of a range of nonprofit and association events, despite her battle against blood cancer.

Hopefully, the message she shared in Executive Update 11 years ago and throughout her 75 years of public service, along with new data confirming some of the trends she foresaw, will inspire association leaders to revisit her words and take action accordingly.

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Does charging for membership hurt diversity and inclusion?

Time for another wrinkle in the debate over the sustainability of the membership model. Associations Now has featured two associations in the past few months that have moved to a freemium membership model:

In both of these articles, the word "open" comes up in significant ways. For ADEA, the marketing campaign for the new model was titled "Open Wide," and internally they call the model "open membership." For AWM, Fuller makes a strong conclusion: "We believe this change makes us as open and inclusive as possible ... ."

In each case, an increase in perspectives, ideas, and knowledge sharing was a major goal the association sought to achieve by lowering the barrier to access to its community. By becoming more open, they've aimed to become more inclusive.

The underlying statement here is that the opposite—maintaining barriers to access—hurts an organization's level of diversity and inclusion, which suggests that the answer to the question in the title of this post would be "yes."

For whatever reason, I don't often see membership models and diversity and inclusion discussed at the same time, even though they're clearly intertwined in real life. We tend to have discussions about them in separate buckets. With membership models, we focus on hard results, namely revenue. With diversity and inclusion, we talk about soft results such as engagement, community, and leadership development.

Of course, generating revenue and increasing diversity are both positive goals with positive results, but the traditional behavior of associations would put them at odds: Preserving membership revenue hampers inclusion by limiting access; advancing inclusion by expanding access puts membership revenue at risk. That's a genuine dilemma, one that requires creative solutions.

The two associations highlighted above may have found a way to solve this problem, but a freemium model likely isn't feasible for every association. I'm curious about other potential solutions. Associations couldn't succeed if revenue and D&I were mutually exclusive, could they?

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March 8, 2011

International Women's Day: Celebrating Progress and Potential

In acknowledgement of International Women's Day today, quite a few associations are reporting about the progress or lack thereof of women in the industry or profession the organization represents. The news has been mixed, frankly.

The Society of Professional Journalists, for instance, bemoans the low number of women in leadership roles in the newsroom. The rapidly growing field of organic farming and product development, however, is celebrating the fact that women now top four leading associations in that arena--a first.

There also has been growth in "best places for women to work"-type articles and rankings among business publications, women- or workforce-oriented websites, and even some associations. These include wherewomenwanttowork.com , which focuses on companies with "progressive and diverse work practices and environments), National Association of Female Executives and partner Working Mother magazine, and Fortune's Top 100: Women.

It's unfortunate that these lists are as popular as they are. It tells me that the business world still can be sliced and diced into "gets it" versus "doesn't get it." Are there really still such prevalent ambivalence about the ability of women to lead well?

But that's not all of the story. It can be too easy to point fingers at "the man," e.g., the established organization. In truth, too many women still harm their own chances at success, in part by refusing to accept some harsh workplace realities such as believing that hard work alone, rather than connections, will lead to success.

A new Harvard Business Review Research Report talks about the "Sponsor Effect," the fact that many high-performing women "don't have political allies to propel, inspire, and protect them through the perilous straits of upper management." This includes issues such as adjusting their work and personal styles, clothing, and "executive presence."

Sometimes the sponsorship problem is blamed on an age difference. Sixty-four percent of senior men acknowledge that they avoid sponsoring junior women because they fear gossip of a possible affair. That's just plain sad--and frustrating.

How can a young woman address that directly? Or is it the responsibility of the organization to establish formal mentoring systems that ensure senior-junior mixed-gender mentoring is just part of the professional development program overall, and indeed, male leaders would be held accountable in their reviews if they did not mentor younger professionals of either gender?

The latter seems to be a manageable approach, but that assumes the association actually has a formal mentoring system in place, which is a pretty big assumption!

And finally, in the totally-not-surprising part of the study, the report also found that men "cultivate more sponsors than women because they're less constrained by family and domestic responsibilities." The vast majority of working women studied are responsible for up to 75% of the housecleaning/maintenance and almost 60% of the childcare.

That said, women have come a long way, baby, and they can go further if they--and the associations they work in--desire. But it will take work on both sides. Meanwhile, celebrate the progress and the potential by skimming through the more than 1,000 events scheduled worldwide to celebrate the economic, political, and social achievements of women at www.internationalwomensday.com.

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February 25, 2011

How Would an Oscar Affect Your Organization?

Almost anyone who goes to the movies has probably seen the Oscar-nominated The King's Speech. The remarkable film captures the lifelong battle of the future King George against the serious stuttering that threatens to weaken his leadership at a time when he is ascending the throne and speaking out against the rise of Hitler.

It also shone an unprecedented spotlight on a personal and professional challenge faced by millions of adults and children worldwide.

"We've waited a lifetime to get this kind of interest in stuttering, so it's thrilling for us," said Jane Fraser, president of The Stuttering Foundation and vice president of the Association for Research into Stammering in Childhood, Michael Palin Centre, in London, when I gave her a call today for a pre-Oscars chat about the impact of the film on her organization.

"Our website hits have doubled," she added, noting that speech therapists across the country report a big jump in the number of inquiries from people who stutter and their families since the movie's Christmas Day 2010 release. "One of the therapists we refer to in Chicago said she had a 70-year-old man come in this week.... Across the board, that movie is so meaningful that anyone who has seen it will never laugh at stuttering again."

Maybe that's why one of the foundation's videos, Stuttering: For Kids, By Kids, has been viewed more than 50,000 times in the past week. The charity, which educates and refers stutters and specially trains speech therapists, also "whipped out a poster three weeks ago," Fraser laughs. "We designed ["Stuttering Gets the Royal Treatment] Friday morning, and on Monday at 5, it came off the press. The printer had never done that before. Everyone at the print house was excited." She had no problem securing permission from the independent film company, The Weinstein Company, to use photos from the film in the poster, which also directs viewers to the foundation website.

What have been the biggest impacts of the film on her group? "The exciting thing about The King's Speech is that people realize they can become fluent," Fraser enthuses. "... It's obvious in the movie that speaking is a lot of work, but ... some of the methods you see in the movie [such as learning to speak in phrases rather than entire sentences] are techniques that have been used over the years."

It also focuses on the "beautiful therapist-patient alliance. The king got to the point where the therapist was his close friend. Like all therapeutic situations, there are ups and down, but the beautiful way this relationship unwound is important.... You must have that total trust between the professional and the patient." She thinks film viewers will better understand how that deep relationship works.

You can join Fraser and her staff in rooting for the foundation and The King's Speech Sunday night during the 83th Annual Oscars Ceremony. Watch a trailer and learn more about this Best Picture Nominee here.

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Inclusion as culture

A final little digestible thought from the Diversity + Inclusion Conference: Diversity and inclusion is not a program. It's not project. It's not an initiative. If you're thinking about it in these terms, it's time to adjust your thinking. Diversity and inclusion is either part of your culture or it's not. It's either woven into the fabric of your staff, leadership, and membership or it's not. The good thing is, we are continually weaving the fabric of our organizations, the culture is always evlolving (for good or not). So we have to recognize that wherever we are in incorporating inclusivity into our organizations, it's ok, as long as we acknowledge the importance of it.

I know, I'm talking about semantics here. What is incorporating D&I into your organizational culture if it's not by means of D&I initiatives or programs? What's important is the end game, or perhaps better stated as the lack of end game. Stressing the importance of D&I during planning does not make it part of the fabric. Having leaders say it is vital to the future does not make it part of the culture. So, yes, have the conversations about what inititatives/programs/products your organization can do around D&I issues, but be sure the conversations about how these things are intended to affect the culture of your organization in the future.

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Capitializing on a critical event

Another small idea that was the topic of a lively discussion, is capitalizing on an event to forward a D&I agenda or otherwise create a teachable moment. There was general agreement that working to create such an event is resource intensive and leads to only limited opportunity for success, especially for an organization that has embraced the ideas of diversity and inclusion, but struggle to find ways to apply it.

There are two keys I got from the discussion. The first is bide your time while you're waiting for the event wisely. Work on incremental progress, plant seeds of ideas, and be prepared so that when a critical event does arise you can quickly begin to capitalize on it.

Second, be selective. Don't try to make everything into a critical event--there's a bit of crying wolf in that scenario because when a truly teachable moment comes along, you will struggle to get people to listen to you. This is the art part of being a D&I leader, recognizing the right critical event.

So what do we mean by critical event? There's no simple answer. Court cases that make the news could be one--particularly if it strikes close to home. A staff or volunteer incident; a planning process that calls for D&I focus; national or international events - say racial tensions or drastically changing demographics in the city that will host your next annual meeting. It could be anything, really, the key is being able to recognize it and prepared to capitalize on it.

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Who is responsible for diversity and inclusion

As I reflected on the first day of the Diversity + Inclusion Conference, and how to write something for Acronym, I found myself falling back on a few small, digestible things - in contrast to what I thought would resonate with me, which would be deep, hard, sometimes messy thoughts and ideas. So here is one of those small chunks, and I'll write up a couple more.

Once D&I becomes a strategic priority for an organization, to the point that there is an identified staff person or department responsible for the D&I agenda of an organization, that person or department should establish protocols that are similar to other departments that serve internal customers.

For example, if you're the champion of or have responsibility for the D&I role in your organization, you are not tasked with writing the plan of ensuring your organization's marketing materials reach a diverse audience any more than a CFO is tasked with developing the marketing budget. Your role is to be a resource for the various departments to help them think about how they can be inclusive in the programs they manage, and your role is to look at the big picture of D&I in the organization. As one manager of multicultural affairs talked about this idea, he was clear that there is a great temptation to be sucked into being responsible for the success or failure of D&I initiatives on a programmatic level. But just as the CFO is generally not held responsible for a program that fails to make budget, the D&I leader needs to resist the temptation, and ensure success and failure is a shared by all the leaders in the organization.

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February 24, 2011

Three thoughts from the Diversity + Inclusion Conference

At the morning sessions at ASAE's 2011 Diversity + Inclusion Conference, there were three sound bite moments that resonated with me that I want to share.

The first came from Peter O'Neil, CAE, CEO of the American Industrial Hygiene Association who is serving as the MC at the general sessions. As part of the discussion on whether or not D&I initiatives are deliberate shows of favoritism, he said: "Fair is not equal. Being fair equalizes the playing field." When you use that as a frame, the debate changes. You're no longer talking about whether or not one group is favored, you're talking about whether or not the playing field starts off level. There will still be opinions on both sides, but I think that frame encourages a healthier debate.

I didn't catch the name of the person who said the second one (if you read this, let me know and I'll make an edit to give you credit). When you're hiring someone, you're not comparing John v. Mary. You're comparing how you think the team will function with John in it v. how the team will function with Mary in it. I think that happens at least in part intuitively, but I think it's an interesting lens to apply, and it's one I plan to use in the future.

Finally, there was a notion brought up by Jeffrey Cufuade from Idea Architects about how to accurately think about the long-term nature of a D&I culture. His analogy was to think about it like you do retirement planning. You make small investments how and when you can as often as you can. The short-term result is not likely to be impressive. Your reward is compounding interest, which becomes amazing over time.

As a quick aside: for those who have not thought about the miracle of compounding interest recently here are two examples. You start with $1,000 and invest $1,000 per year for 35 years and it grows at 5 percent per year. You contribute a total of $35,000, but your savings after 35 will be more than $175,000. Now, change it and start with $5,000. Your total contribution then is $39,000. With the 5 percent interest, you're going to end up with $212,000.

I'll follow up with more later from the conference.

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February 23, 2011

Managing Court-ordered Volunteers

There's a fascinating article in this month's BlueAvocado.org about how and whether nonprofits should agree to use "volunteers" that are court-ordered to do a certain number of community service hours as their punishment. These folks are often first-time offenders for things like driving under the influence or petty theft.

I've never read an article about this before, so leave it to the always-terrific Susan Ellis, president of the volunteer management consulting and training firm Energize, to take on this thorny issue.

Especially helpful is the way she frames the conversation needed by any nonprofit considering a court-ordered volunteer policy. Ellis lists questions such as whether "mandatory volunteers" should be assigned the same type of service as traditional volunteers, how volunteer management systems may need adapting for this particular population (for instance, nonprofits generally must complete a weekly report about the volunteer), and the attitudes of staff about working with court-ordered volunteers.

She also is clear about potential biases and benefits, such as data showing that many of these volunteers end up serving their organizations far longer than legally required because they enjoy the work and/or believe in the mission. And who doesn't need passionate volunteers?

For leaders unfamiliar with the 11 types of alternative sentences, Ellis suggests skimming a free online resource that defines them and identifies which ones might apply to nonprofits.

I'd be interested to hear whether and how associations as well as charities are addressing this in our community. Please post your comments here.

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February 4, 2011

Crafting Bold Conversations

For the third time in as many days I've heard of an organization holding a forum about "civil discourse" or "Communicating with Candor but Respect."

Obviously, the recent shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Giffords and fears that it resulted in part from enflamed political emotions and extreme partisanship have rippled across our association community as it has the political playing fields.

It only takes a nanosecond for most of us to recall an instance when heated talk created high drama and hurt or angry feelings at our board meetings, in education sessions, on our list servs, or in committee gatherings. Why else are the decisions about meeting facilitators or list serv monitors and guidelines so vital? Even those efforts are not always adequate at preventing open hostilities versus candid debate.

So what else can associations be doing to build an inclusive, open, and frank environment for the exchange of opinions, ideas, and knowledge? More training of board members, staff, and others? Stronger rules of engagement? Adoption of a tweaked version of Google's "Do no evil," e.g., "speak no evil?" An organizational Debate Team?

The issue is important as we evolve into an increasingly diverse workforce that can either divide us or boost us. Has your organization used this momentary political time-out to check the volume and "vitriol" level of the conversations around and within the membership and staff? I've read numerous appeal letters, for example, that would be worth a harder look in a calmer time. And we all know how quickly blog post comments can ratchet up emotions.

Yes, we want engagement, but do we want all-out war within the ranks or with our current "enemies"--the same ones who may well be future political allies.

I've suggested to several people that they read or re-read Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenney, and Al Switzler to generate some ideas about raising the quality, not the volume, of your organization's conversations. If you haven't read it already, here is the first chapter.

And keep a watch out for an article I'll be writing after I interview Saj-nicole Joni, co-author of The Right Fight: How Great Leaders Use Healthy Conflict to Drive Performance, Innovation, and Value. The book describes ways that leaders at all levels can create, nurture, and manage the "productive dissent essential for achieving peak performance." It seems especially timely now. Click here for a video on the book.

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January 7, 2011

What Leading a Girl Scout Troop Taught Me About Blind Spots

Following is a guest post from Carolyn C. Lanham, CAE, senior director of executive operations at the American Institute of Architects in Washington, DC, and a member of ASAE's 2010-2011 Executive Management Section Council.

Have you ever had a moment when you realize that you had an incorrect impression or opinion? Did you ignore that thought in support of your current thinking, or did you seriously recheck your thoughts? How often do you consciously evaluate your inclusiveness when exploring possibilities or seeking solutions? Do you personally seek other opinions from diverse populations?

Joe Gerstandt's article, "Check Your Diversity Blind Spots," in the January 2011 Associations Now Volunteer Leadership Issue, reminded me of one of my blind spots. Gerstandt states that diversity is a catalyst. "It drives change because it always brings tension, and when you introduce tension into a social group … you change some of the patterns of behavior within that social group," he writes.

Four years ago I took on the responsibility to lead a new Girl Scout troop. These twelve girls were from three different schools. They collectively represented two age groups, four religions, and seven nationalities. It took several meetings before I realized that, while there were differences in demographics, there was little difference among their opinions, thoughts, and preferences.

The Girl Scout mission is to build girls of courage, confidence, and character who make the world a better place. If these girls are going to make the world a better place, then they need the courage and confidence to voice unique perspectives and ideas. Was peer pressure and groupthink holding them back, or was it something else? My assessment uncovered a likely reason. We had stumbled into a culture of conformity. As the leader, I was contributing to this culture by not proactively soliciting and incorporating different ideas. I praised the girls for the quick decisions and for getting along so well. But without challenging them in any way, I was inhibiting the girls' ability to engage in healthy disagreement and to value differences.

I now challenge the girls to identify or express other possibilities. I ask each girl to help the group understand why she offers a particular thought or suggestion. I look for opportunities to stretch their imaginations and to think outside the box. I proactively connect the value of the diverse thought with improved decision making. As a result, the girls are more confident to share unconventional ideas. They understand that those with different opinions or approaches are not "against them" but simply looking at the situation through a different lens.

As it turns out, the troop does possess the power of diversity. I was the one with the blind spot. However, once recognized this, I was able to tap into a wealth of creative thoughts and ideas that are often quite different one from the other—now that is sweet!

As association leaders, we know that innovation comes from disruption, change, and new ways of thinking, sometimes purposeful and sometimes by happenstance. Innovation is more likely to happen when like-minded individuals purposely seek others with differing views or ideas and integrate those ideas to create new or improved products and services. Therefore, an organization that intentionally creates and maintains a culture of diversity and inclusion will reap greater benefits than those who do not. And just like I learned in leading the Girl Scout troop, the leader's role is to make sure that culture happens.

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November 9, 2010

White Like Me

We talk a lot about America and its businesses being world leaders, but I have to say that I am extremely disappointed that, as a result of elections last week, the U.S. Senate will include not a single African-American member. That should be of major concern no matter what party you prefer.

The three African-American candidates--all of which happened to be Democrats this time--lost, and the single black incumbent is retiring. According to CNN, "only six black senators have ever served in the U.S. Senate: three Republicans and three Democrats, including President Barack Obama." That raises a mighty serious question about how we as Americans view leaders from minority populations.

And sadly, this problem extends to the power positions within associations and nonprofits as well. I try not to roll my eyes when I hear someone say, "We can't find any minority members willing (or qualified or whatever) to run for the board," or "we don't have many minority members, so our board tends to stay white." Really? I don't see recruitment problems at associations whose names depict a certain race, gender, or other defining demographic--those leadership pipelines appear to operate quite well.

Minorities exist in every field and profession, but maybe they haven't heard about your association, or feel welcome there, or feel like it is relevant enough. Or maybe not enough effort has been made to focus in on tracking down these types of perhaps behind-the-scene members or nonmembers and finding methods to help them engage in ways that they find valuable.

Like the federal face we are now showing the world, we have failed to reflect the true diversity of our nation and our business community. As both parties gear up for the 2012 presidential race, which will again feature wonk talks about the tipping-point capability of voting minority citizens, I hope discussions about current leadership pipelines (or lack thereof) for African Americans and minorities will become much messier and disruptive. And I'm hoping that discussion carries over into the association community because we must take this issue more seriously.

Census data show that an estimated 14% of our population is Black, and that number is growing. We must purge the old excuses about minorities' "apathy toward associations" and try new thinking, new models, new outreach efforts. The world is predominantly nonwhite, and they are watching--both our country and its business community.

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November 4, 2010

Minding the Gap

Next week the Greater Washington Network of ASAE will be holding its "In Honor of Women Program." It seems timely to note there are some women's professional organizations that are doing some very heavy lifting in the transition from aspiring to advance women in the professions to quantifying and measuring real progress. It's heartening to observe that within one adult lifetime, we have gone from watching the first women enter prominent and formerly all-male colleges and universities to seeing 50%( and over) female graduating classes. We've gone from petitioning to get women in the door to getting increasing numbers seated at the board tables and heading corporations. Now, studies indicate we're stuck in a place that needs some different thinking, and associations - as usual - are rising to the occasion.

My personal new favorite is the teaming up of the American Society of Women Accountants and the American Women's Society of Certified Public Accountants with research firm Wilson-Taylor Associates for their MOVE Project. One would think these number crunchers would have long had all these figures down, but they are about to launch their second year of the project to gauge progress from their 2010 results. The key driver? Firms know that women have strengths needed in obtaining and retaining clients. For transportation, what better acronym than MOVE? So my current organization is working to launch a similar project.

Women in Cable Telecommunications launched its benchmarking PAR program in 2003 with membership and program growth and development that can be linked directly to their research. The Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology found that "Women comprise an increasingly smaller proportion of the workforce at each successive level (from entry to mid to high)" in its research "Climbing the Technical Ladder: Obstacles and Solutions for Mid-Level Women in Technology." Delve into any and all of these studies, and the results are predictably similar: women opt out/are discouraged from/find barriers to success in the top echelons of organizations.

Aside from numerical equity, a pronounced gap appears to be in the view of whether the disparity matters. In a study of corporate boards conducted by Heidrick and Struggles, only 56% of male directors felt women brought a unique perspective to the table, while 90% of women thought female board directors provided something distinctly different. Also evident were gender differences regarding the effects of diversity on board behaviors such as trust and transparency.

Once we successfully knock down obvious barriers to entry, the challenge for women changes from addressing diversity issues as a minority group to much more complex issues of organizational behavior and innovation in order to remove barriers to equity. Solutions are starting to surface based on the science: moving from mentors to sponsors who invest in success of their colleagues; changing evaluation criteria; recruiting women specifically for P&L oversight; evaluating flexibility options; and targeting mid-level women to move upward. I suspect my colleagues who are addressing other diversity issues in their organizations find comparable challenges. This is a true opportunity for associations ...and who better?

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May 7, 2010

A diverse idea

At a session on nondues revenue at ASAE & The Center's Financial & Business Operations Symposium, one of the suggestions offered by an attendee was to have younger staff purposefully engage members in dialog about the work that they do. They had done this at their association (they called them the Mod Squad), and, he said, you'd be amazed at how different the the young people's perceptions are, and how different the conversations they have with members are.

This shouldn't be surprising. Age is one component of diversity. My bet is, you can do the same thing with people of different experiences and backgrounds and the results would be just as amazing--and beneficial. This is the point of diversity--to examine issues, problems, opportunities, and experiences from a variety of perspectives yields a richer experience and more informed, better decisions..

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May 6, 2010

Quick clicks: Thursdays with zombies

Good morning, and welcome to this week's Quick Clicks!

- Quite possibly the best thing I've ever seen: David Gammel unveils a wonderful cartoon on the Orgpreneur blog. Go see it. Don't worry, we'll wait.

- Laura Otten at the Nonprofit University Blog has a beautiful post on the many people who looked to her father as a mentor.

- A challenging post from Joe Gerstandt on what inclusion really looks like ("Inclusion is not giving everyone a trophy.")

- Shelly Alcorn has strong feelings about the importance of net neutrality for associations and nonprofits.

- Chris Bonney argues that the power of free is in the mind of the giver, not the recipient.

- Carol-Anne Moutinho at the Association Resource Centre blog considers what reverse innovation might look like in nonprofits.

- Jamie Notter is thinking through some very interesting ideas about cultivating strategy without traditional strategic planning.

- Eric Lanke at the Hourglass Blog ponders some potential implications of corporate social responsibility for the association sector.

- I continue to love Jeffrey Cufaude's "Wednesday What If" posts. This week, he encourages us to consider what our members would miss the most if it were eliminated.

- Peggy Hoffman considers ways to make chapters and components more effective.

- Jeff Hurt has a few suggestions for ways to encourage active attendee participation in learning sessions--even from folks who might not initially love the idea.

- Some helpful case study posts: Scott Billey at Associations Live on lessons learned from their first webinar, and Maggie McGary on what she learned on the way to 20,000 Facebook fans. (I guess technically now they're "likers," but as an editor I oppose that word.)

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March 3, 2010

Engaging Young Professionals

Thanks for that wonderful introduction, Lisa. I look forward to interacting with the other Acronym readers.

I'm excited to begin this foray into the association blogosphere and hope that my contributions to Acronym help articulate the value that young professionals (YPs) can bring to an association. However, I certainly can't speak on behalf of an entire generation so much of what I write will be based on issues relevant to the broader association community.

That being said, I do want to use this opportunity to discuss some considerations for engaging YPs within your association. Too often we categorize people by characteristics that they embody: age, skills, knowledge, or other demographics. And while these identifiers can play an important role in building camaraderie, they can also be harmful and lead to broad generalizations and prejudice.

Rather than resorting to sweeping statements (I cringe whenever I hear "Entitlement Generation"), it's important to treat YPs just like you would any other members. What does that mean? It means that associations have to demonstrate value and provide relevant benefits to YP members. More often than not, YPs want the same things that more seasoned professionals desire: access to expert content, advocacy, a gathering place for like-minded individuals, and the ability to make a difference. To successfully engage your associations' YPs, you need to show that you understand their needs, that their opinions matter, and that you value their support and contributions.

At the same time, YPs have an obligation to prove that our contributions can go beyond "knowledge of social media". We have to be able to express our feedback positively and respectfully. Believe it or not, YPs are capable of providing constructive criticism. But we won't be taken seriously if we don't approach situations with good intent, or if we don't step up to leadership roles when opportunities arise. If we assert ourselves and prove that we are willing to do the work to make valid contributions, we should trust that our associations will continue to provide benefits and services to meet our needs.

Each one of us has the ability to positively impact an organization. We should always remember that, despite generational or other differences, we're all on the same team and we all want to see our associations succeed.

If you're interested in more insight on engaging YPs, I recommend checking out the "Make Room for Us" article on page 36 of the January 2010 Associations Now supplement, The Volunteer Leadership Issue. In the interest of full disclosure I will tell you that I'm one of the YPs interviewed, but I think the questions raised by the editor and the answers given by YP volunteers offer some unique perspectives. And if your association is interested in ramping up your recruitment efforts of YP members, you should check out Avenue M Group's just-released benchmarking study, "Attracting Young Professionals to Your Organization," which can be downloaded from their Web site.

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February 8, 2010

Quick clicks: Snowy day edition

This is a bit of a catch-up edition of Quick Clicks, so it's a little longer than usual. But if you're in the DC area (or elsewhere) and snowed in, what better time to catch up on your reading?

First, I'd like to welcome to several new association blogs:

- Aaron Wolowiec, a former Acronym blogger, has launched his own blog at AaronWolowiec.com. An early standout post: Exposing the silo effect.

- Karen Tucker Thomas recently began the CEO Solutions blog. Early standout: Board orientation or board development.

- Management Solutions Plus brings us The Common Thread blog, featuring a number of staff, including well-known association blogger Jamie Notter. Early standout: Enquiring minds want to know how and why, by Angela Pike.

- If you follow any of the ASAE & The Center listservers, you're surely familiar with Vinay Kumar; he now has a blog of his own, too. Early standout: The Ferrari, the race, the pit-stop.

- If you have an interest in legal issues related to associations, check out Mark Alcon's new Association Law Blog. An early standout post: top 10 signs of a dysfunctional board.


Several existing blogs and bloggers are putting together interesting new series:

- The Vanguard Technology blog has begun a new "5 Questions" series, where they'll be asking five questions of an association professional doing innovative things with technology. This first interview (presented primarily in podcast form) focuses on why email marketing matters more than ever.

- DelCor has begun a weekly "Social Media Sweet Spot" show on Ustream, hosted by KiKi L'Italien.

- The SocialFish blog is hosting a series of interviews with association social media managers.


Many other association bloggers have had interesting things to say in recent weeks:

- Maddie Grant shared a thought-provoking post from Bruce Butterfield on lessons associations can learn from the struggles of the newspaper industry. Kevin Holland responded with his thoughts on what is missing from that comparison. Both posts inspired very interesting comment discussions.

- Elsewhere, Kevin Holland had a great discussion with Matt Baehr about aggregation as a value proposition for associations.

- Shelly Alcorn shares her take on the Supreme Court's ruling in the Citizens United case.

- Joe Gerstandt has a thoughtful post on opportunities he sees for local SHRM chapters to advance the cause of diversity and inclusion. I think his ideas could be applicable to a lot of other associations, too.

- Jeff Hurt shares a meeting planner's perspective on conference housing and attrition.

- Jeff De Cagna shares his five key words for 2010.

- Ellen Behrens argues that many of our current work practices are unhealthy for both ourselves and our organizations.

- Judith Lindenau shares her "A list" advice for association membership recruitment and retention.

- Maggie McGary is starting a list of association and nonprofit community managers.

- Eric Lanke at the Hourglass Blog shares a first draft of principles of innovation for the association community.

- Sue Pelletier responds to one possible model for the future of work and speculates on how associations might fit in.

- Tony Rossell has a simple method you can use to calculate where your membership numbers are headed.

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October 14, 2009

Why stereotypes are good

I admit it, the title is a bit of a bait-and-switch, because I hate stereotypes. I think they are dangerous abominations that breed hatred and contempt between people far, far more often than they lead to understanding and respect between people. I also know that they are absolutely inevitable and that our brains are wired to form them and act on them.

I’ve spent a good amount of energy trying to confront and overcome the stereotypes I believe, and arguing with people about the usefulness of stereotypes. And then I read a fascinating book: Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You by Sam Gosling, Ph.D. Chapter 7 is titled “In Defense of Stereotypes.” I think the book and the chapter provide a good and accurate picture, but they did not change my view of stereotypes. It did change, or at least sharpen, the arguments I use when thinking about stereotypes, however. Here’s Gosling:

“…we use stereotypes to fill in the gaps when we are unable to gather all the information. And most everyday opportunities for perception are riddled with gaps. If you didn’t use stereotypes, you would be overwhelmed, because every item, person, and experience in life would have to be treated as though it were a totally new experience, not part of a broader class.”

There’s a key phrase in there: “unable to gather all the information.” So, stereotypes are good. You need them to function in society. But there are two important points. First, believe what you see more than the stereotype, and, second, distrust stereotypes and seek more information to sharpen the image forming in your head.

The danger of stereotypes and limited information is that they become blinders. Gosling related one study where students were describing people based on a few minutes looking at their dorm rooms. In one room, a pair of women’s shoes in the middle of floor was an obvious first visible clue. There were many other clues that the occupant was, in fact, a man and that the shoes must have belonged to a friend. These clues were ignored or, worse, misinterpreted—warped to fit the first assumption.

I get irked in conversations where broad generalizations are made, most recently that means the conversations around how Boomers compare with Gen Y compare with whomever in the workplace. It’s not that I think the generalizations are bogus—if you’re dealing with intelligent people then there’s data to back up what they’re saying. But I don’t think we put anywhere near enough emphasis that as a population becomes a group becomes a bunch becomes a few becomes an individual, those generalizations become less and less useful to the point that they are useless and only get in the way.

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September 25, 2009

Quick clicks: My favorite things

- Jeff Hurt shares his favorite "event planning things," to the tune of "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music. Click at your own risk--it's possible you'll end up with the tune stuck in your head for the rest of the day ...

- Rebecca Leaman at the SmartBlog Insights blog shares a cautionary tale of what can happen when your budget cuts make your members' and supporters' lives more difficult.

- In a somewhat related post, the NTEN blog talks about why online donors leave and how you can bring them back.

- The Plexus Consulting Group blog says that there's no such thing as a business or management objective that can't be measured. (This post particularly resonated with me today, as I'm struggling to determine what metrics can measure my department's objectives for the year.)

- During Hispanic Heritage Month, Rosetta Thurman is profiling Hispanic nonprofit leaders whose accomplishments she particularly admires (here's an introductory post, and the first profile).

- Judith Lindenau at the Off Stage blog is posting a series of seven steps to building an association online community (steps one, two, three, and four have been posted so far).

- Elisa Ortiz at the Onward and Upward blog lists 7 habits of highly annoying coworkers. (I'm sure no Acronym reader does any of these things!)

- Jamie Notter is thinking about complaining.

- Acronym blogger Brian Birch isn't the only person thinking about volunteers and creativity this week; the CMI Observations on Association Management blog has some insights.

- Aptify's CEO Blog discusses predictive analysis and how associations can use it to improve member retention.

- Stephanie Vance muses about whether success in advocacy can blunt future advocacy effectiveness.

- At The Forum Effect, Jackie Eder-Van Hook has advice for associations on how to work with their attorneys.

- Jeffrey Cufaude has a great list of ideas on how you can be a more "sustainable you."

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August 16, 2009

Talent goes where it is welcome

One of the best quotes currently making its way around the #asae09 twitterverse is “Talent goes where it is welcome,” as heard in today’s diversity session. I wasn't able to sit in on this particular session due to a conflicting presentation of my own, but was able to hit the high points thanks to Twitter (isn’t social media great?). The quote resonated with me because it indirectly references so many of the themes we’ve been discussing at the conference—how to encourage innovation, how to make our associations truly collaborative, and how to make it easy for volunteers and staff to do their very best work every day. So much of it starts with a commitment to nurture and support talent in our organizations (and the belief that talent can and should be everywhere, and is not a designation reserved for just a select few “rock stars”).

In this morning’s opening keynote, Gary Hamel talked a lot about innovation and the structures that will support it (and in some cases, the lack of structures). I’m lucky to work for an organization that does support talent and innovation, and is willing to recognize those things with enough room to pursue the next great idea. Even still, we grapple with creating the right systems and structures to both attract and retain talent, and also encourage the innovative thinking required to be a world-class organization.

Today at lunch, several of us from my organization were discussing the nuts and bolts of setting up an innovation fund. Who would make the decisions about how to use the money? How would we be accountable to the bigger picture? What would prompt us to stop doing certain things (sometimes even good things) to make room for the great things? Ultimately, the right answer may emerge as a combination of best thinking, and trial and error. But the important thing is the commitment to talent development, at all levels of the association.

How do you welcome and support talent in your organization? And what have you done to make it feel at home? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

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January 30, 2009

Super Bowl Is Super Time for Associations to Show They’ve Got Game

Only days away, the Super Bowl match-up between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals has provided a welcome chance for an eclectic assortment of associations and nonprofits to rack up some big points with the public. You wouldn’t think a football game would have impact much beyond sports associations and maybe some snack-food, pizza-making, beer-selling trade organizations, but here are just a few of the creative activities and news related to Super Sunday that I’ve seen, starting with the most obvious:

--It’s all about the ads, really, isn’t it? You’ve probably heard, read, and laughed about the big PepsiCo commercial, which has garnered rave reviews from countless associations involved in representing people with disabilities, such as the National Association of the Deaf. For those few who don’t know what I’m talking about despite extensive press coverage, PepsiCo has created a funny 60-second ad called “Bob’s House” that is based on a longtime joke amongst the hearing-impaired. I won’t ruin the punch line, but you can already watch it on Pepsi’s “Ads” section on its Web site. Apparently, while most companies keep Bowl ads top secret, Pepsi—whose employee network EnAble created the silent, captioned ad—decided a pre-release was well worth the fabulous publicity. Look for the ad to air in the pre-game coverage.

--And who will be critiquing these $2-million pitches? Aside from you, of course. The San Francisco Chapter of the American Marketing Association continues its tradition of hosting an animated panel session of ad experts for a post-game thumbs up-down session to determine “which ads made an impact on our national psyche.” This year’s melee is titled “Super Bowl XLIII—Buzz or Bust in a Down Economy.”

--And what about the food? Myriad trade associations are tying in their products and services, ranging from the National Pasta Association with its Game Day manicotti enchilada recipe to the National Retailers Association, whose annual survey determines the estimated viewership (167 million adults or 73.3% this year) and its impressive monetary outlay ($57.27 each on food, merchandise, team apparel, electronics, and even furniture).

--And don’t forget the halftime possibility of getting off that couch and actually tossing a ball. The National Football League and the American Heart Association have teamed up for “NFL Play 60,” a “Super Bowl Challenge to inspire Tampa Bay students to get the recommended 60 minutes of daily physical activity — in school and at home — and help middle schools become places that encourage physically active lifestyles year-round.” The campaign provided curriculum resources and materials to teachers to promote the program during the pre-game hysteria. You also might recall that AHA ran an amusing 30-second Super Bowl ad in 2007 called “You Gotta Have Heart”. The ad is running online now as part of Spike TV’s “Top 25 Super Bowl Ads” feature.

--But did ya have to bring in the lawyers? Apparently. Members of the Christian Law Association were involved in that messy business of the past few years in which the NFL threatened to prosecute churches that used the event for fellowship purposes by showing the big game in their facilities, rather than in a personal home. This year, though, the NFL relented and created special regulations around such events, which are shared in a video on the CLA site.

Now let’s kick off!

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January 13, 2009

Breaking Through

Jason's observation of a small slice of the association leadership landscape--Old White Dudes--is more than a little terrifying. Stale and pale, I expected, but cloned?

His back-of-the-envelope stats, though, sound like the U-curve of association demographics for race, gender, and age. Changing that mix requires more than board policy or an enlightened nominating committee. It requires a much larger scale response.

Associations are reflections of those we serve. The most successful tend to join associations and those they are willing follow, rise to the top. As Malcolm Gladwell points out in his new book, Outliers, those who succeed benefit from a 'web of advantages and inheritances,' not available to all, but possible for associations to replicate.

That's what is being attempted in commercial real estate, and a dozen associations serving that industry are trying to build a new leadership pipeline. Their story is in the new Volunteer Leadership Issue of Associations Now, that I wrote entitled "Breaking Through."

I point it out here because other bastions of old white dudes are being forced out into the open. Last Friday, the New York Times reported on the NAACP's focus on Madison Avenue and the lack of diversity in the advertising business. The agencies' associations mobilized a response to this opening salvo of media attention, but high visibility lawsuits and pressure on advertisers are sure to follow. Stay tuned.


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January 12, 2009

Old White Dudes

Just finished up the first day of the Symposium for Chief Staff Executives and Chief Elected Officers. Overall good stuff, forcing you to think more deliberately about org leadership, board/staff relations, etc.

Aside from the program itself, one key observation was a severe lack of (obvious) diversity in the room. It was mostly a bunch of old white dudes (no disrespect). Of the approx. 150 attendees, I'd guesstimate 15% were women and 2-3% were African-American (as the easy ones to identify). I was probably the only one in the room under 35 years of age - and certainly the only one wearing jeans and comfortable running shoes...

More interestingly, we did a rushed form a quasi Myers-Briggs personality testing. When asked how many chair/CEO "couples" had 75% or more overlap in their scoring, a strong majority of the attendees got up. The summation being that we will likely get along nicely, but will have to work extra hard to incorporate alternate perspectives into our thinking and decision making.

So, not just a complete lack of diversity on obvious stuff like race, gender and age - but critical in ways of thinking and leading. Admittedly, this was somewhat surprising to me because I've always been amazed at the (obvious) diversity of the multitude of attendees at events like the ASAE's Annual Meeting. Hmm...

BTW, a wicked awesome book that provides the strongest case for diversity (across all/any factors) is Medici Effect - Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts & Cultures. I highly recommend it - was the most insightful/inspiring book I've read in a long time!

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August 17, 2008

Honest Words about Diversity--for a Change

I've lost count of how many diversity programs I've attended in my career, but I thought this morning's General Session on "Looking Through the Lens of Others" was especially terrific. Here are some samples I valued:

--Nadira Hira, the impressive 20-something journalist for Fortune, is an articulate mouthpiece for young and younger workers. Her advice: "Be authentic. Don't try to pretend you're diverse when you're not." In other words, forget the BS.

--Doug Klein, executive director of the Association for Conflict Resolution, noted that the reason race or ethnic-based professional and trade organizations still exist is "because there's a need not being met" by the broader association in that profession or trade.

I immediately recalled a conversation I had with--of all people--actor Louis Gossett Jr. backstage at the last Nation’s Capital Distinguished Speakers Series. He had told me about the evolution of racism from a black professional's perspective, and I had asked him if the time had finally come for the association community to make a commitment to facilitate mergers of broad-based associations with similar niche groups grounded in race or gender as well as the profession or trade, such as the Society of Professional Journalists with the National Association of Black Journalists.

The actor, who founded and actively guides a New Orleans-based foundation to help at-risk youths, said no. He urged associations to instead focus on youth--the next generation of workers--rather than try to overcome the prejudices of the current workforce, which he said was essentially fruitless. Klein's comment today seemed to reiterate those conclusions on an organizational level.

--The always-blunt, always-superb Patti Digh laments that "people aren't focused on retention at all. They just want to 'get 'em in the door.' This lack of "diversity succession planning" was raised at ASAE & The Center's last diversity forum. Basically, no one knows how to do it or even what such a plan looks like. Perhaps that's a project or research idea for our Diversity Committee or for a select task force.

--Co-moderator Cokie Roberts noted, "At some point we have to be the token," but then that representative should "bring others in." That implies a responsibility, not a choice, on the part of the, say, female executive about actively attracting other smart, accomplished women into the organization.

I have mixed feelings on that. I think we should do what we can to attract all smart, accomplished people to our association IF that organization is best set up to leverage their talents and knowledge for the benefit of the members. I'm uncomfortable screening candidates primarily because they look like me or share a cultural commonality. That said, I'm likely to be a more successful recruiter within those desired demographics because of that reality. Comments? I need to think about this more.

A "Say what?" moment: Patti was called by a company that said its white employees were putting nooses on the lockers of black employees. Patti said she could design an intervention, etc. The response? "We're thinking of a two-hour training session."

Quotables from the General Session:

"We talk about diversity as an end in itself, not what that brings us.... Diversity is not a problem to be fixed.... We've damned ourselves in this country by being too PC [politically correct]. You can't know if you're talking to yourself only." --Patti Digh

"We're afraid of [diversity], even though we know it's good for us."--consultant Steve Hanamura

"Powerful" and "moving"--just some of the high praise I heard about the "Peer Perspectives" video clips of diverse association executives.


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Change the Structure of the Land

In today’s opening general session, I mentioned a concept that holds a lot of meaning for the diversity work I do. Because the panel format allowed for only brief mentions of concepts such as this—and because a good number of people asked me about it afterwards—I’ll say a bit more about it here:

We know for a fact that water follows the structure of the land. If you go to any valley and look at the way a river winds through it, you’ll see that the water must follow that structure.

Behavior, like water, follows the structure of the land.
So while we spend millions of dollars in this country on diversity training, the vast majority of that work is focused on behavior, not the structure of the land.

So while I can make a group aware of diversity issues and provide them with some tools for navigating difference, once I put them back into an organization whose structure hasn’t changed, it won’t take long for that behavior to start following the structure of the land again.

The real work of diversity is to look at that structure of the land. That’s the work of second-order change. That’s the work of dissembling power inside organizations. That—for most people in the dominant culture—is fearful work.

Continue reading "Change the Structure of the Land" »

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November 9, 2007

Accessibility and Web 2.0

The recent ruling in the California class action suit against Target Corp., in which individuals claimed the discount retailer's website was inaccessible to the blind, has me wondering what accessibility looks like in a 2.0 world. Does this imply that podcasts should come with a transcript? What about the potential unintended consequences of super-cool AJAX on accessibility? Do we not make pages as user friendly for wider population because it can cause problems for a few? Weren’t we moving towards the accessible web just a second ago? Did that train take a left turn I managed to miss?

In my quest for more information, I came across an article from the American Foundation for the Blind which deals with whether or not the big social networking sites are accessible to the visually impaired. The article finds that most of the sites do a fair job of presenting content and functionality in an accessible format—with the exception of CAPTCHAs (Completely Automated Turing Test To Tell Computers and Humans Apart; in other words, the annoying letter sequences you have to retype to create accounts, post comments, buy tickets, etc.).

The article found that most of the big social networking sites, with the exception of Linked In, use these when having new accounts created. This, as the article points out, prevents those using screen readers from creating accounts without assistance.

Honestly, it never occurred to me how inaccessible CAPTCHAs are. I saw them as a great way to reduce fake accounts and prevent spam from getting posted to the web.

It makes me wonder what other accessibility roadblocks are right in front of us that we might not be seeing in web 2.0 sites and applications.

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June 28, 2007

Research on political attitudes of young people

Just a warning, this post is based on a political poll, though Acronym remains an apolitical blog. I ran across the survey and thought other organizations who have as part of their missions the influence of policy would be interested in how 17-29 year olds answer several dozen political and policy questions. A PDF of the full results of the study conducted for The New York Times, CBS News, and MTV are available on the New York Times site, as well as other places.

Here are some of the results I found most interesting or are different than what I would have thought they'd be:

• 50 percent say their job opportunities are excellent or pretty good -- more than 15 percent more than three years ago.

• 56 percent say "the government in Washington cares about people of your generation" either a lot or some. Cynical me, I thought that number would be much lower.

• 58 percent say they have paid a lot or some attention to the 2008 presidential campaign. I realize the campaigns are in full swing and its great to be a political racehorse junkie right about now, but I didn't think anybody else was paying very much attention at this point.

• 48 percent say they expect to be worse off than their parents' generation -- 25 percent say they will be better off and 25 percent say they'll be the same. I'm just surprised the outlook is that pessimistic.

• 23 percent say the economy will be most important in determining who they vote for; only 20 percent say Iraq.

Another series of questions asked if government policies on specific issues were important. The issue with the most "very important" answers was trying "to reduce gas and oil use by consumers." The issue beat out such notable issues as "job training and job opportunities for younger workers" (a no-brainer high score based on who was being surveyed), "provide insurance coverage to people who don't have it," and "loans, grants, and student aid that helps pay for college."

Finally, since I am a bit of a political racehorse junkie, I have to slip in one political observation. It would appear that younger democrat-leaning people are more passionate about the leading presidential candidates than their republican-leaning counterparts. When asked if they are likely to vote for a Republican or Democratic candidate, they lean democratic 54 to 32 percent (that's a bit more left-leaning than all adults, which are split 49 to 33 percent according to a different recent survey). But when asked if they were enthusiastic about any of the candidates now running for president, Obama leads the list with 18 percent, followed by Clinton at 17 percent. The next name on the list is Giuliani, who is only backed enthusiastically by 4 percent.

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May 31, 2007

A variety of voices

The May issue of Associations Now featured a column from Bruce Butterfield and Susan Fox urging readers to educate themselves about the perspectives and needs of the millennial generation. We received an interesting e-mail in response from Brynn Grumstrup Slate, which I’m posting here with Brynn’s permission:

As an engaged ASAE member and a member of the Millennial generation, I appreciated the column “Preparing for the Millennial Tsunami” in the May issue of Associations Now. The article would have been even more effective, however, if it had integrated the voice of a Millennial in addition to the experienced views of Bruce Butterfield and Susan Fox and shared a first person perspective on the work habits and career goals of this emerging group.

Although much of our generation is still in school, a sizeable number have already joined the workforce and are striving to make a difference as members of association staffs. One third of the staff at my AMC is made up of Millennials and we are hardworking, dedicated, and keenly interested in both learning from more experienced peers and sharing our own ideas and strategies.

To truly keep abreast of the evolving association workforce,
Associations Now needs to feature articles not just about Millennials, but by them. As Butterfield and Fox mention in their column, Millennials are eager to connect and to collaborate. I urge you to feature voices from across generations, allowing association professionals of all ages the opportunity to be enriched by one another.

I certainly agree with Brynn that Associations Now (and other ASAE & The Center publications) should feature writers from all generations. As an editor, I want to encourage a richness of dialogue and content that’s only possible when writers come from all walks of life. Dominance by a few generational groups (or ethnic groups, or socioeconomic groups …) immediately dilutes that richness, and keeps us from hearing things we need to hear to keep the association community cutting edge and relevant.

But at the same time, I always get nervous about the possibility of tokenism—picking authors like ingredients in a recipe, focusing more on who they are than what they have to say.

Clearly there’s a balance here, and it’s one that any editor is used to aiming for. But I’d be curious to hear what Acronym readers think. What ideas would you suggest for increasing the diversity of authors in an association publication (not just at ASAE & The Center, but at any association)? What about increasing the diversity of involvement in all decisions an association makes?

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