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June 8, 2012

Is Polling Still Worth It?

I feel like I've been buried in poll numbers even more than usual, from Wisconsin governor recall results to public confidence in the economy to American Idol. But are polls really trustworthy anymore, when you have one-third of the public living cell-phone-only and most of the rest using caller ID on land-lines to help them avoid any surveys, even when they support the cause or campaign (guilty as charged!)?

Because so many associations poll members and potential members on everything from dues raises to advocacy positions, I turned to the man who knows more than almost anyone about the veracity and challenges of accurate polling: Bill McInturff, co-founder & partner, Public Opinion Strategies.

Bill, who is speaking today as part of the "Decision 2012" General Session at the ASAE Financial and Business Operations Conference, leads--along with partner Peter D. Hart--the largest polling company in the country, Public Opinion Strategies. The firm handles polling for NBC News/Wall Street Journal and works closely on polling challenges with the two primary industry associations, the Council of American Survey Research Organizations (CASR) and American Association of Public Opinion Research (AAPOR).

"You can believe poll results but still have dwindling confidence," he told me. "There's no question that with the glut of polling, credibility is a little lower, because people are hearing wider, more diverse results of what different polls are saying. And there's no question that the basic confidence they have in polling is very different than it was 20 to 40 years ago. They're certainly asking more questions about methodology.

Despite those troubles, "if it's done correctly, it's still broadly accurate," Bill says. "It's still the best way to collect customer and other information about public opinion, and people don't tire of needing that information."
It will cost them more, though, to get it. According to Bill, the price of polling has risen for three reasons: (1) "federal laws and mandates dictate that you cannot use auto-dialers for cell phone numbers--you have to call cell phones by hand; (2) cooperation rates are much lower, so you have to call more people to get a completed survey; and (3) you have to collect the data ... using increased labor costs."

To better ensure poll veracity, Bill--who was the lead pollster for John McCain during the latter's 2008 presidential bid--advises associations to "be good consumers and make sure you go through a discussion with the pollster about methodology," asking about compensation rates for cell-phone-only or other respondents, how the "convenience factor" of women answering the phone more than men is handled, and how the data have been weighted and by how much.

I'll be writing a second blog post shortly that shares Bill's responses on whether associations can trust that the viewpoints of respondents reflect those of non-respondents as well, the potential for social media to offer new surveying opportunities, and more. I invite comments about your own association's successes or challenges when polling. And maybe you can snag Bill after the session to get more of his input, too. Thanks, Bill, for sharing your insights so generously at this busy time!

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April 17, 2012

A Fine Point on Pricing

Behold the artisanally sharpened pencil.

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

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

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

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

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

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March 22, 2012

The Word on Associations and the Economy in 2012

Meh.

I don't like that word. Whenever somebody uses it to describe how they responded to a movie or TV show, I figure they're being a little too quick to dismiss something, or too timid to admit they enjoyed it. But for the past month or so I've been looking at some findings from two recent ASAE Foundation economy studies, and the strongest conclusion I can draw is that you---association members and staff alike---are feeling pretty meh about things.

You can read the PDF that the ASAE Foundation published last week on the findings from two surveys, one of association CEOs, another of members. (Previous studies and more resources are at www.asaecenter.org/economy.) I'll call out just a few details from the survey to show why I'm detecting some meh-ness going around:

  • A larger proportion of CEOs (39.9 percent) expect total revenue to increase in 2012, which is good news. But the uptick is only slight: 36.5 percent of CEOs felt that way looking ahead to 2011, after stronger growth in previous years.
  • Members are less worried about layoffs, about their employers not paying their dues, and about travel cutbacks. But they're also less likely to feel their association is responding effectively to a down economy, and less likely to feel that their association is providing them with tools to help weather it.
  • Attendance at multiday tradeshows is up, but attendance at all other association events is down compared to last year. For instance, the percentage of members who said they attended a program that was one day or shorter dropped from 62.6 percent to 56 percent.
  • Robust revenue growth in most categories has been hard to come by, and many association CEOs are banking on online education growth without much evidence that there's revenue to be had in that area. For instance, a majority of execs (56.8 percent) expect increased revenue from online education programs, but only 35.9 percent actually experienced increased revenue from them last year.

How does that jibe with what you're seeing? Are you feeling optimistic as we move deeper into 2012? Pessimistic? What bright spots are you seeing to counter a general mood of meh-ness?

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August 17, 2011

In times of financial distress, consider your talent

Over on David Patt's Association Executive Management blog, a recent post caught my attention: Positions not People. It's a short post, but to give the short overview anyway, he says in times of financial distress, you should rank the products and services in terms of importance to your organization and keep the people doing the most important work and lay off those doing less important work even if they may be strong employees.

It's rare that I have a completely opposite view from my association blogging brethren and sistern--usually differences are based on nuance, intensity level, or even just semantics. But I'm about 180 degrees from David on this one. Yes, use financial distress to your advantage by refocusing your organization on what really matters--but when it comes time to decide who is going to do the work that really matters, absolutely make those decisions based on the people rather than the work they are currently doing.

I think there are four kinds of employees:

1. Average or worse. Get rid of them, financial distress or not. They're not helping you. My opinion, as I've written before, is that associations do not use the hiring and firing tool to their advantage near enough. No one is striving for average; why would you tolerate average employees?

2. Good and have reached their potential. Strongly consider getting rid of them, financial distress or not. Certainly if you're laying off people, lay off these people right after the average people. In a few isolated cases, perhaps the staff person is good and has a specialized skill that would be very hard to teach or replace. Well, you have to keep that person for now, but I'd also be rethinking why I have a need for such a specialized skill and trying to develop systems, strategies, etc., to decrease my dependence on it. You know, the whole hit-by-a-bus theory and all.

3. Good and motivated to be exceptional. Keep these people.

4. Exceptional. Keep these people and, financial distress or not, push them into new areas and to try new things so they stay excited, stimulated, and motivated to continue their exceptional work for you.

Let's say you have to lay people off and you're following my advice to keep your best talent. Now let's say that some of the category 2 or 1 people are doing jobs that you've deemed essential. I say lay them off anyway. Skills can be taught. Attitude, enthusiasm, and motivation cannot be taught and in my opinion more than make up for the experience lost. The idea is take the staff in categories 3 and 4 from less essential functions and put them in more essential functions. Obviously you do this with an eye toward putting them in positions to be successful. My experience is that when you tell people with the right attitude, enthusiasm, and motivation that you need them in a certain area, that they see it as both a challenge and a vindication of the work they've previously done. It won't always work, but nothing ever does.

The way I read David's post is that he is saying don't let talent cloud your judgment about what is important to the organization. Amen. But I also think he is advocating being cavalier with that talent, maybe because of an equality ethic where all staff should be treated equally. Personally, I just think talent is too rare and I don't think the notion of equal treatment serves an organization well in this instance.

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June 27, 2011

Report highlights growing pains of association e-learning

ASAE's past economic surveys have shown that the difficulties for in-person meetings and educational programs in the past few years have led to high hopes for online education to fill the gap. A new report from association learning consultancy Tagoras shows that a high percentage of associations are indeed investing in technology-enabled learning, but they report mixed results in two key categories: overall usage and revenue production.

Among respondents to the Association Learning + Technology 2011: State of the Sector survey, slightly more said they were somewhat or very dissatisfied with course enrollment and revenue generation than those who said they were somewhat or very satisfied.

Usage and Revenue Satisfaction Chart
Source: Association Learning + Technology 2011: State of the Sector. Click to enlarge.
Images republished with permission.

The good news is that 63.5 percent of the survey respondents said they rate their associations' overall use of e-learning as "somewhat successful," and 15 percent call it "very successful." Authors Jeff Cobb and Celisa Steele offer some insight into the practices that are common among that 15 percent:

"We found that organizations that consider themselves to be very successful were significantly more likely than average to do the following:

  • View revenue generation as a key benefit.
  • Make use of professional instructional design.
  • Have a formal, documented e-learning strategy.
  • Have a formal, documented product development process.
  • Embrace more interactive forms of e-learning (e.g., facilitated and blended offerings, use of discussion boards, games, and simulations)."

As Cobb and Steele put it, "E-learning has arrived in the association sector but remains far from mature." Surely complicating that maturation process is that the growth in options for learning technology has coincided with difficult financial times for the associations that are hopeful about their potential.

The practices of the ones that are making it work, though, aren't revolutionary, but surprisingly few are deploying those practices: "[R]elatively few organizations with active e-learning programs have developed a formal [e-learning] strategy (22.0 percent) [or] created a product development process (22.9 percent)," according to the report.

I'm curious if this lack of thorough development for e-learning strategy and process is the standard byproduct of the overworked and underresourced association or if the relative youth of e-learning as a discipline makes plotting out a strategy more difficult.

Interested to hear your thoughts. And keep an eye on the Tagoras blog, where Cobb says he plans to explore the report in more detail in coming weeks.

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June 21, 2011

Doom, gloom, and a dash of hope

Jeff Rubin is a man with a message. For 20 years he was chief economist and managing director for CIBC World Markets. He quit that job, though, to put full-time effort into spreading his message. And his message is somber, downright gloomy even. His message is that triple-digit oil prices are here to stay, and that for at least a generation we will have no viable alternative power options.

And Rubin delivers this message with a very cheery disposition. It's okay, his comments and mannerisms seem to radiate out while he talks, because we'll adapt. Yes, he says, gasoline will be $8 a gallon, but we'll adapt: we'll drive less in less powerful cars. We'll do so, he says cheerily, because we'll have no choice. Get ready to see more bicycles on our streets.

Another important part of his message: all that stuff we used to make but no longer make because it's cheaper to have it made in Asia and shipped back... it will no longer be cheaper to make the stuff there because it will cost too much to ship it back. Get ready manufacturing, there's going to be a new North American industrial boon. Human capital in manufacturing may not be as pricey as it had gotten before we started shifting manufacturing overseas, but it will be a lot more expensive here than there, meaning all those manufactured things we love will have significantly higher price tags. That's ok, Rubin says, we'll make do with less stuff, and like our parents (or grandparents for a lot of readers), we'll fix the things that break rather than throw them out and buy new.

One more thought to really pile on the gloom, because why not? Rubin is happy to share it--and here's a bone for all those who consider China the boogey man. There's a reason China has chosen to purchase so much U.S. debt. As Rubin says, "it's not out of benevolence." They are betting that in any foreseeable future the U.S. economy will still be the dominant economy. The financing of our debt acts as an oil insurance policy. You see, China knows that triple-digit oil is the single greatest threat to its continued economic rise. What Rubin predicts is that at some point in the future, China will allow its currency to float instead of being artificially pegged to the dollar. At nearly the same time, they will begin selling the U.S. Treasuries they own. The result will be a Chinese yuan that increases in value rapidly against the dollar, which will itself decrease in value. And this matters because... the price of oil on international markets is in U.S. dollars. The effect will be even bigger spikes in oil prices, and China will get a steep discount with the increased buying power of its yuan.

At the risk of being a commercial for an ASAE product, I'm going to say this is why I love the Invitational Forum on Leadership & Management, where Rubin spoke. What does any of this have to do with association management? Other than a few affected industries, not much directly. Indirectly? Everything.

Again, to quote Rubin: "There's not an airline operating today that's profitable with $100 oil." You know how you feel when you find a good airfare, say New York to Chicago for $150? What's it going to mean for your conferences, events, and even board or other volunteer group meetings that require travel when you're positively giddy at finding New York to Chicago for $650?

Another example: produce markets and supermarkets are byproducts of the industrial revolution. Still it was only 20 or 30 years ago that you started seeing fruit from halfway around the world showing up in February. Would you pay $10 for a single Chilean orange? Me neither, so we'll likely revert to the way it used to be just a generation ago: your fresh produce is going to mirror your local seasons. Not only did the price tag for getting there get ugly, the cost to feed meeting goers spikes, too. And as a special kick in the teeth, you'll have fewer options for the additional money.

Beyond meetings and capital T travel, it will affect how associations are staffed. Will the trend be more remote work or locating in high population density areas? (Probably both.)

And of course, there is how such changes will affect your members in their industries and professions.

According to Rubin we're facing a new economic reality. It's easy to see the logic. Supply is finite, and production is either topping off, or has already topped off. Demand is also increasing rapidly, and alternatives are expensive or need years of development. What can you do with this information? Admittedly, probably not much right now or in the planning for next year even. What can you do is be wary, keep an eye out, and spend some of whatever thinking time you have thinking about what triple-digit oil will mean for your association.

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June 7, 2011

Does anything trump the economy?

For those of you not already counting down, the 2011 ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo in St. Louis is 60 days away. That means it's the time of year when we start to look ahead to the topics, ideas, and discussions that will be shared at the meeting and examine them here on Acronym.

What better place to start off than the opening general session? This year, the Sunday morning keynote will feature Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough of MSNBCs Morning Joe, who will "dissect the events that are transforming our world."

I'm looking forward to their perspectives, as I enjoyed the global trends expertise shared by Fareed Zakaria at the 2009 Annual Meeting. It's good for association leaders to get some insight on how major political, societal, and economic trends are affecting their work.

This brings me to a big question, though:

Even with a long list of major national and global trends shaping our present and future, does anything but the current state of the economy come close to the top of the list of concerns for an association executive?

Of course, it would be foolish to simply ignore macro trends and events—the rise of the BRIC nations, conflicts in the Middle East, and changing demographics in the United States being just a few examples—but I'd think an association struggling to get attendees for a conference because its members are cutting expenses, for instance, would be more concerned about, well, finding ways to drive attendance at its conference.

So I'll be curious to hear what association execs at Annual say are the most pressing trends facing their organizations and how many of those are related to the economy. For now, I'm curious for your thoughts on the question above. Does anything trump the economy on your list of challenges? Either way, what other macro trends are the most pressing for your association when its leaders discuss strategy?

As August approaches, we'll continue with this format here on Acronym, focusing on important questions related to topics to be discussed at Annual. Sometimes we'll reach out to speakers and presenters to offer their answers, and other times we'll just keep questions open-ended. In any case, your thoughts are welcomed.

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April 22, 2011

Do less, achieve more

In my January 14 post, "Do association CEOs have what it takes to lead in the reset economy?," I identified three themes that emerged from a candid discussion among chief staff officers at the 2010 ASAE Annual Meeting. Perhaps the most challenging of these can be summarized by this question:

How do CEOs exert even more future-focused leadership while not being perceived as controlling or overly directive?

The premise, which we've discussed in previous posts, is that we have pretty much exhausted our options on the expense side, and now boards, realizing that hanging on until the upturn happens isn't the best strategy, are expecting that we grow our way out of our problems while pushing toward the desired future state. At the risk of oversimplifying the challenge, let me propose a possible approach to get the conversation going:

  • Do less, achieve more. Listening to Matthew May at Great Ideas really clarified, for me, the power of simplicity and focus. Many of our colleagues in the for-profit sector have learned this lesson the hard way, and "taking on too much" is considered a good predictor of failure. I realize that we've been saying this to ourselves for years, but given the above imperative, is there really any other way to move forward?
  • Push the partnership. We can't sustain progress toward big goals if we do not maintain the support of our elected leadership. Neither can we afford to be perceived as controlling or directive or worse. What we can do, however, is to intensify our promotion and facilitation of the board-CEO partnership (e.g. "We need to do this together").
  • Keep things in perspective. Finally, we all need to remember that we are helping an industry, profession, interest, or cause navigate a small part of its journey toward greater relevance. Great progress was made before us and will continue after we are gone. It is a privilege to have the opportunity to help lead an organization through times like these, and the learning experience will be priceless regardless of the quantitative outcomes, some of which will be beyond our control.

What are your thoughts on how we CEOs can become the leaders we need to be in these remarkable times?

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March 9, 2011

Why don't we think it's getting better?

Finally had a moment to look through the ASAE Foundation's new economy study: Associations After the Recession: Attitudes and Beliefs Among CEOs and Members, and one of the things that strikes me is how little confidence association CEOs have that 2011 is going to be better than 2010.

Here are a couple of charts from the report:

Pub sales expectations.jpg

Sponsorship revenue expectations.jpg

There's a definite upward trend, but I'm surprised the slope of that line is not even steeper. We're coming out of the worst recession in 90 years and only a third of association executives are expecting increased revenue from publications sales or sponsorship revenue? Put another way, two-thirds of execs have no expectation that 2011 will be the year in which they start to climb out of the recessional trough. Is this the new consumerism model? Where consumers and businesses who for the last two decades (longer than that, but excessively so in the last 20 years) overextended to have more are now content to consume less?

I'm not saying execs are wrong to think this way and to have low expectations. Here's another chart from the same report, but it reports a different study. Rather than surveying association CEOs, this study went to people who belong to associations:

Association member company actions.jpg

As a trend, yes, it's better -- association members think their employers are going to cut back less than they did 18 months ago. But I'm kind of alarmed by a third saying association meeting attendance will be curtailed. Think about that for a second. It's already low. The economy hit rock bottom a little while ago. And a third of these people are saying they expect their companies to cut back even more. And staff travel cuts, at 43 percent, is a really big number. Again, you'd think nonessential travel would have already been trimmed.

One kind of nuts-and-bolts observation about the studies is that participation across the last three years has consistently dropped off. Clearly it's not a topic that is as top-of-mind as it was. But I'm hoping we can do another study in a year or maybe a little bit longer. Maybe after there is a little doubt there is a good recovery underway. We don't really have baselines for this study. Maybe the answers to these questions hit low barriers. Maybe, for example, at any given time regardless of the economy, there's going to be 25 percent of people saying that they expect funding for staff to attend professional development meetings is going to be curtailed. It will make interesting studies if we can hold people's interest long enough.

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March 4, 2011

Lessons Learned on Sustaining Momentum and Navigating Change in Times of Transition

Given the ups and downs in the economy in recent years, many philanthropic and charitable organizations changed their funding priorities, reflecting the world's changing landscape. Small organizations, particularly nonprofits, have been forced into a Darwinian competition of sorts, fighting to survive on scarce resources and sustain programs with limited assets and investment.

As a young professional working on a grant-funded program in a small nonprofit, my experience has been filled with challenges. One of the toughest things in my career was receiving news that we wouldn't have follow-on funding to continue the implementation of our planning efforts. When a colleague at the start of a newly funded grant project asked me for advice—not only on secrets to our successes but tales of our failures—I was compelled to share a few nuggets and lessons learned with others.

Here are a few tips to guide those struggling to maintain morale and momentum in times of transition. Consider the following:

  • Keep expectations realistic. Keep in mind that funding priorities and organizational goals change. Some of the best planning goes without full consideration of circumstance. While contingency and sustainability planning are always included in the thinking and strategic process, know that surprises are possible.
  • Communicate. It is important to maintain a dialogue with any funders, but make sure that the project staff, partners, and stakeholders are talking with each other. Communication is essential to creating a healthy environment. It allows for all parties to build trust and create a neutral, trusted atmosphere for idea exchange. It is also helpful to converse with others working in your particular space. Be willing to ask questions and share information. The key to your success and avoiding common mistakes lies in the lessons learned from others. This has become positively encouraged and simple in the era of social networking. Tap into your network and get support from others.
  • Be flexible. When change happens, embrace it and adapt with it. You've become adept at clearly articulating programmatic/organizational needs, strategies, and demand for why the project will make a difference. Using this model, make this case for yourself as a valuable team member and contributor. As the business strategy changes, consider your own growth and expand your perspectives; this is an opportunity for you to become an active change agent and a catalyst for innovation.  
  • Maintain balance. It may be a natural inclination to fully immerse yourself in the job and lose focus of you. While it is important to work harder in such circumstances, it is not necessary to work longer. You may be forced to make some sacrifices, but keep in mind that your personal development is just as important as your professional development. Keep your interpersonal relationships on track by alerting people of your situation. They may be a valuable resource and able to offer advice or ideas. Put an emphasis on achieving success not only on the job but in your personal life as well.

Tia Abner is program coordinator, global health informatics partnership for American Medical Informatics Association in Bethesda, Maryland. She serves on ASAE's Young Association Executives Committee.

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January 14, 2011

Do association CEOs have what it takes to lead in the reset economy?

Let's face it: none of us have really been here before. Yes, we've all navigated tough times, but not like this. The foundations of our economy have fundamentally changed, and things may never be exactly as they were.

A while back, Paul Pomerantz, worldwide executive director of the Drug Information Association, shared with me a Business Week article titled "Is your CEO recession capable?" It suggested that many for-profit executives weren't equipped to lead in these times and that a rethink of competencies and behaviors is essential. While the U.S. economy is now growing, it's clear that things are very different—and difficult.

It struck me—and a number of my CEO colleagues—that we need to start a new conversation about what's really different and how we may need to grow and develop to ensure that we're able to help our organizations fulfill missions and goals and realize personal fulfillment.

After initiating the conversation with the ASAE Fellows group, Paul, Henry Chamberlain (president and CEO of BOMA International), Pamela Kaul (president and founder of Association Strategies) and I joined about 50 CEOs at the 2010 ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo in Los Angeles for a conversation on what it takes to lead in these crazy times. It was a beginning. First, a couple of assumptions that framed our conversation:

  • This isn't like any other downturn we've ever seen, and reprising past practices won't be enough.
  • Nobody is perfectly equipped to lead now based purely on experience in tough times.
  • A new mix of competencies and behaviors will be necessary to lead effectively.
  • It's time for CEOs to grow.

Rather than list all the takeaway points from our conversation, I'd like to share three key themes that emerged. Your thoughts are welcomed.

  • We need to rethink our teams and how we function. We must become effective at getting more minds with diverse skill sets into the game and encourage them (and ourselves) to "challenge authority" in a constructive and effective way. The consensus was that we need to encourage and support our teams by promoting development and sharing authority and visibility.
  • We need to rethink how we develop ourselves and spend our time. According the Business Week article I referenced above, the optimal "recession CEO" time allocation may be 20 percent CEO, 40 percent COO, and 40 percent CFO. Given that many of our groups have enjoyed the fruits of long, continuous growth, I wonder if many of us have grown to become strategic thinkers and visionaries who are less connected to operational realities. Is it time to get back to basics and all the development or choices that come with it?
  • We need to exert even more future-focused leadership while not being perceived as controlling or overly directive. Now that boards are expecting more than ever before—while sometimes, paradoxically, being more risk averse—successful CEOs will need to deliver more creative and practical approaches to vexing problems than ever before. Many of us have done as much as possible on the expense side, and the expectation is that we will need to grow our way out. One participant suggested that, in order to succeed, we need to demonstrate "vulnerability to our boards and staff while at the same time exuding confidence." Like I said, we need to grow.

In a future post, I'd like to share some thoughts that emerged about the concept of "fail fast, fail small, learn, and adapt."

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January 3, 2011

What will 2011 bring?

My personal and mostly unqualified perspective of the current state of the economy is that we're now in the "Waiting for a Sign" stage.

We know the economy is cyclical, so we know the economy has to get better someday. We just aren't sure when. Maybe this year will be the year.

(What has always fascinated me about economics is not the numbers but rather the psychology. If enough people think the economy will get better soon, they'll start acting like the economy will get better soon, and those actions will cause the economy to get better soon.)

A handful of new reports make me think 2011 might be a good year.

First, in a short survey of nonprofit executives conducted by financial consulting and search firm Beyond The Bottom Line, about two thirds of respondents (68 percent) say they expect economic growth in 2011. While most say they expect "slow growth" (1-9 percent), the total expecting growth at any rate is up from 58 percent in BTBL's 2010 survey.

That trend is similar to what ASAE found in its Winter 2010 Economic Impact Study. That study showed that the revenue outlook of association executives improved from 2009 to 2010:

econscreenshot.png

The BTBL and ASAE studies aren't apples to apples, but they do indicate a sense of improvement. ASAE is conducting another follow-up survey to its Economic Impact Study reports, and results are expected to be available next month. I'll be interested to see if association executives' outlook improves again in the ASAE study, as well.

Taking a broader look:

I'm no economist, but the first business day of 2011 seemed like a good day to take a look at what the economy might bring us in the coming year. My sense is that each of us is just waiting for some signs that everyone else is feeling better about the economy. Maybe some of these notes above fit the bill. I'm curious what your association is expecting in 2011. Please share in the comments.

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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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March 5, 2010

New study on exec attitudes about the economy


ASAE & The Center just released its latest economic study, this one features results of a survey that generated 960 responses, each from a different association, conducted earlier this year. The survey form duplicated the questions asked in the Spring of 2009, providing a nice comparison and benchmarking tool. A few of the things that interested me:

  • It's interesting that in a lot of areas in 2009, execs thought the economic climate would have a worse affect than it actually did have. These areas include sponsorship, fundraising, and annual meeting-type events.
  • Where execs were most wrong, though, was predicted in the first economic study we did after the economy soured in early 2009, when we got responses from 8,500 members of 97 diverse associations. The data from that study suggested that there would not be a mass movement from face-to-face meetings to online events. This was contrary to the expectations of association execs, 61% of whom were expecting revenue from online education to increase. In actuality, only 33% reported in 2010 that such revenue had increased.
  • There's a striking dichotomy in the 2010 data: 62% of execs think overall revenue will stay the same or increase in the next 12 months. However, only 48 % think revenue from membership will stay the same or increase. It's worth watching if execs think there is a fundamental shift away from membership as a revenue stream.
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January 15, 2010

My half-baked bubble thought

I'm not even sure I agree with this post, but I'll throw it out there and see if it sticks.

When talking economics or markets, everyone thinks bubbles are bad. It's hard to argue that here on this side of the summer of 2008. But go back to early 2008 or 2007 when personal and organizational wealth was expanding, and the bubble doesn't look so bad (setting aside for a moment that we all foolishly didn't think we were in a bubble). I don't know the numbers, but let's say that 50% of those in subprime mortgages have not and are not in danger of defaulting—the bubble worked pretty good for them, enabling them to obtain a mortgage that they may not have been able to get without a bubble.

But I guess the general consensus is that a striaght line, rising slowly but steadily, would be much preferred to the up and down rough and tumble that actually exists.

So here's my half-baked theory: One overly simplistic definition of a bubble is an increase in mass consumption of risk that reaches a point where risk becomes too great, an event happens, and then there is widespread retreat from risk.

I think in general, associations try to run like that straight line--willing only to take the risks necessary for slow, steady growth. As a result, I think our organizations never realize the full benefits of a bubble. But when it pops, we feel just as much pain as the rest of the world.

If the rest of the world suddenly acted like that straight line, then maybe our measured approach to risk would be ok. But let's face it, when times are good, we always think we've found our straight line, but going back at least several hundred years, that hasn't been the case. As a result, I think, we need to take on more of a bubble mentality. We need to push risky endeavors. Some will fail, and it will hurt. Some will succeed, probably better than they should. And the rest will be somewhere in the middle. I understand it's a yo-yo that might be distasteful, and would require associations to be more flexible in organization and more efficient in decision making than they are. But if the bubble are going to come, then we've got to find a way to get more benefit out of them before they pop.

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November 3, 2009

Gearing Up for the Season of (Mobile) Giving

The Halloween candy hasn’t even been eaten yet, and I’m already seeing what I think will be a tidal wave of holiday-season community service outreach and philanthropic activities by a wide range of associations and nonprofits. In the spirit of the upcoming season and because everyone likes to know what their colleagues are up to, I’m going to make an effort to post occasional short lists with links to more details of some of the most creative or highest impact projects and partnerships.

For now, I’ll just share what one nonprofit is doing to address a fundraising issue that becomes especially crucial during the end-of-year giving cycle—enabling trusted, simple, and convenient donations directly from mobile phones. The Mobile Giving Foundation (MGF) has just announced a partnership with major mobile providers such as Verizon Wireless and AT&T to assist 350-plus charities with mobile giving campaigns. The program has generated more than $1 million in 18 months and is expected to grow rapidly, according to the foundation. A Canadian version of the initiative also has launched.

The foundation also has gone the next step: developing a broader partnership strategy to create a "mobile giving channel, whereby consumers can text a keyword that corresponds to a specific nonprofit or charitable cause to a designated short code. Afterward, a micro-donation of $5 or $10 is made and processed.” The wireless service companies tally donations via their regular monthly billing process and forward the funds to MGF, which passes 100% of them to the designated charities.

MGF has worked with almost every U.S. and Canadian wireless service provider to design “clear standards” that “provide a quality user experience and a trusted source of donor engagement for nonprofits." That experience includes offering donors various “information opt-in-based text alert packages … to help the donor maintain visibility to the causes they support.”

Thanks to a process redesign and technology innovations that dramatically accelerated campaign launch processes, the foundation now launches 20 campaigns per week and is currently supporting more than 400 campaigns with price points of either $5 or $10.

Response rates vary wildly from 1.5% to 63%, depending on “the cause, celebrity endorsement, co-branding affiliations, and related marketing efforts,” says the foundation.

Here’s a list of current charity partners and the Standards for Participation in case your organization would like to participate.

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October 13, 2009

Tough economy prompts nonprofit to try weird-but-wow raffle

Whoa—just when you think you’ve heard of almost every type of fundraiser in the world, something comes along that gives you pause. This time it’s by a youth service nonprofit called World Youth Empowerment, which has created what it calls a “Mega House Raffle.” Winner of its grand prize can select “any property for sale within the state of California up to a value of $3 million.” Oh, and it includes $200,000 in furnishings and a new Bentley Continental GT car.

“But what about gift taxes?” you might sigh. Nada. The prize is tax-free, resulting in a total prize package worth more than $4 million. No need for a West Coast home? Take $2 mil instead. Yeah, that’s what makes this raffle fundraiser the largest in America to date, according to WYE. And just to keep it more exciting, only 60,000 tickets at $150 each will be sold, starting October 15.

According to WYE Executive Director Charlie Smith, the poor economy with its deep funding cuts in the public sector and drop in private giving is forcing nonprofits to seek “non-traditional means of fundraising. We chose a charitable raffle, but needed to make it large, unique and exceptional to distinguish it from other raffles. With valuable assistance from our private benefactors, we created the Mega House Raffle that certainly qualifies in all respects." He hopes to raise $9 million from ticket sales.

The prize drawing is on March 22, 2010, but WYE is giving away hundreds of smaller prizes in 16 early-bird drawings. I’ll be interested to hear whether Smith meets his fundraising goal, but in the meantime, I’d also like to hear what other out-there types of fundraising is going on in the nonprofit community. Any original twists on long-time favorites such as auctions, raffles, cause marketing, events, whatever?

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September 3, 2009

Nonprofits Unite for Census Accuracy

I’m reading a lot of anxious press releases and articles within the association/nonprofit communities about boosting participation in the U.S. 2010 census process, as fiscally stressed organizations unite to battle perception hurdles that could depress census tallies and lead to fewer federal funds for states and their social programs. Currently, the federal government distributes almost $400 billion annually to states and localities.

In Illinois, for instance, an alliance of 60 nonprofits and 10 state foundations has formed the nation’s largest response to date--a $1.2-million “Count Me In” campaign to improve participation in the tallies of often-missed populations, such as immigrants, minorities, and low-income residents. The coalition has determined that for each person not counted in Illinois, the state loses $12,000 during the next decade.

Organizers are using a wide variety of new and traditional engagement and education tools to convince people to complete their census document. Among them are celebrity text messages for Latino youth, door-knocking brigades to immigrant communities, social media strategies, special events, and outreach materials for churches, barber shops, and beauty salons in heavily African-American neighborhoods.

If you’re interested in learning more about or joining the efforts, go to the U.S. Census Bureau site for National Partners; you can also find a massive list of associations and nonprofits already signed up (PDF).

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August 13, 2009

Free Guide Available on "Making Work Work"

Despite two phone calls from newly laid off association professionals this morning, I’m encouraged to read that the nonprofit Families and Work Institute’s free, downloadable 2009 Guide to Bold New Ideas for Making Work Work concludes that 81% of U.S. employers are maintaining and 13% are increasing the work flexibility they offer employees. Only 6% acknowledge reduced flexibility.

"In fact, many report they are using flexibility as a tool to manage through the recession," according to FWI.

How? You’ll find an easy-to-search summary of 260 of the creative programs and policies of 260 employers organized by geography, industry, and innovative practice—each of whom a 2008 Alfred P. Sloan Award for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility.

Aside from a steady expansion of telecommuting-telework programs to help employees reduce commuting costs, other recession-friendly practices are

- Giving employees four Fridays off in the summer in lieu of raises the organization cannot afford
- Creating funds to support their own employees or others in the community who are suffering during the recession
- Giving employees the option to take unlimited, unpaid personal time off during the downturn, while keeping full medical benefits and the right to return to their jobs
- Allowing employees greater scheduling flexibility if their spouse has lost a job or seen their hours reduced and the family needs to make changes
- Creating flex year and flex career programs
- Creating workflow coordinators to monitor overwork and developing wellness scorecards to promote wellness

"The employers in Bold New Ideas present a roadmap to creating successful workplaces in a down economy," says Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of FWI and lead editor of the guide. "We hope these examples will provide ideas to employers around the country for their own programs, and help employees identify progressive organizations in their region -- or become internal advocates for change."

The new guide also shares insights from the latest annual National Study of the Changing Workforce, which includes shifting attitudes toward work and lifestyle choices. Basically, we workers continue to feel "deprived," especially of time to spend with important people in our lives. Three-fourths of responding employees say they don’t have enough time for their children--a 9% increase since 1992. Spouses don’t fare much better; 61% of workers (up 11% in 15 years) complain about the lack of time for significant others.

Thus, few would be surprised to read that 39% of employees report that flexibility is extremely or very important in their decision to accept a job or not. However, even to those currently employed, 86% rank flexibility as extremely or very important.

That is overwhelming. So why then, do only half of U.S. employees "strongly agree" that they currently have the flexibility needed to manage work and personal life successfully? Read the guide for clues and to learn more about how and whether organizations are including workers in questions around flexible workplaces.

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August 11, 2009

NCSEA Shares Bankruptcy Story

For a moving account of the bankruptcy filing and revitalization plan of the National Child Support Enforcement Association (NCSEA), visit Meetingsnet.com’s article, “Tales from the Downturn: Meeting Cancellation Leads to Bankruptcy.” Kudos to Executive Director Colleen Eubanks for sharing tough lessons with her peers.

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August 6, 2009

Fundraising in a “Flatter World”

Joanne Fritz, who writes for the nonprofit section of About.com, expresses enthusiasm for a new book of interest to associations and nonprofits that are re-examining fundraising techniques in the new economy.

Building on Thomas Friedman’s best-selling book, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, author Jon Duschinsky explores the effect of such increased global connectedness on philanthropy in his new book, Philanthropy in a Flat World: Inspiration Through Globalization (Wiley, 2009). His four-step process for how nonprofits should adjust to a flatter world economy is succinctly summarized in the Fritz review.

“Nonprofits have been slow to catch on to the survival techniques of a flat world,” she writes. “Philanthropy in a Flat World is a quick read that might just help your organization transition from a 20th-century organization to one that can flourish in the 21st century.“

Friedman, by the way, is essentially crowdsourcing “Chapter 18” of his next version of The World Is Flat. You can watch the experiment in action—and even participate—on his site.

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July 30, 2009

Communicating No Salary Increases to Staff

It’s one of the more difficult and unpleasant conversations you have with staff. When and how do you communicate the news?

The “when” is easy: Don’t wait until December 1st to tell staff. Keep staff informed earlier, perhaps as early as mid-summer (assuming you are on a calendar year and typically award increases at the end of each year). Nobody likes bad news dropped on them at the last minute, especially when it has to do with their paycheck. And, if there are other benefit cutbacks likely, tell them sooner rather than later.

Now, the “how” part:

1. Tell everyone at a staff meeting so everyone hears the exact same message at the same time. Be compassionate in your delivery. Acknowledge that you are sharing in the pain. No one is exempt.

2. Give yourself some “wiggle” room. You may decide to phrase the news in terms of “it is very likely that…” or “although circumstances may change, my sense is that…” It is always better to under-promise and over-deliver. Especially when it comes to salary.

3. If possible, mention other perks that will be explored as compensation. Things such as extra vacation time, free lunches, or other perks can go a long way in sustaining morale.

4. Invite staff to meet with you one-on-one after the meeting should they have further questions or want to voice individual concerns. An open door policy is critical to maintaining your role as leader.

5. End on a supportive note. Acknowledge the hard work everyone is doing. And remind folks that the economy will improve.

If there is any way to squeeze merit bonuses out of your budget in lieu of salary adjustments, make this happen. Rewarding folks based on their accomplishments, and not waiting to the end of the year to do it, helps soften the bad news, and further reinforces staff’s commitment to excellence.

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July 27, 2009

Encapsulating Economic News for Members

Like many associations, the International Association of Fire Fighters has developed a “Surviving the Economic Crisis” Toolkit for members, and this one includes a nice, easy-to-use page summarizing news articles and links related to “cuts in state and local budgets, fire fighter staffing, health care benefits, compensation, pension plans, and other areas as a result of the downturn.” A brief archive organized by month at the bottom provides a simple way to access and identify trends.

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July 17, 2009

A $12-Billion Partnership Opportunity?

I’ve been monitoring what appears to be a steady increase in the number, scope, and creativity of partnerships between associations/nonprofits and academia in the past five years. In some cases, the alliances aim to provide more meat and accessibility to association certifications; others want to co-brand their education programs with the prestige of universities or research institutions. Still more are trying to pilot new relationships and share both risk and resources with academics of similar mindset and goals.

While aligning with the likes of Penn State University and the University of Michigan is wonderful for some associations, I’ve seen far fewer partnerships with community colleges, despite their massive jump in popularity in recent years. After the announcement this week of President Obama’s new American Graduation Initiative, however, it may be just the right time for that to change.

The underlying goal of this $12-billion, 10-year investment is to educate, retrain, and graduate five million adults and young adults with “the skills and knowledge necessary to compete for the jobs of the future,” say Obama. Federal research has already estimated that “one-third of the fastest-growing occupations will require an associate's degree or a postsecondary vocational certificate.”

Obama’s announcement names community colleges as a primary vehicle toward accomplishing such a goal, noting the colleges “could build partnerships with businesses and the workforce investment system to create career pathways where workers can earn new credentials and promotions step-by-step, worksite education programs [that] build basic skills,” and internships and job placements that are “curriculum-coordinated.”

Couldn’t you envision how associations might help with these three areas? Professional and trade organizations know first-hand what skills and knowledge are needed to build the most successful careers within their sectors; why not offer to help shape the new curricula that must emerge? Why not offer as part of students’ coursework, or even as a graduation requirement, the new-economy-oriented professional certifications already developed (or underway) by an association? That’s what the National Association of Home Builders and Perdue University have done with NAHB’s Green Builder certification, for instance.

And couldn’t you see how associations and a community college could jointly target the largest companies in their fields to host onsite training of employees, as continuing education credit or for certification points?

And what of internships and job placements? Might associations find a new role as a clearinghouse for internships in their fields, a one-stop-shop for community college students and others seeking a foothold in the sector? A possible author of internship best practices designed to create positive learning experiences that build genuine enthusiasm in students and retrained adults for a career in that field or trade?

Finally, the new initiative also enables development of an “online skills laboratory” that relies on educational software to help “students learn more in less time than they would with traditional classroom instruction alone” and to extend “learning opportunities to rural areas or working adults who need to fit their coursework around families and jobs.” Obama envisions “open online courses … developed by teams of experts in content knowledge, pedagogy, and technology and made available for modification, adaptation, and sharing.” Government agencies, including the Departments of Defense, Education, and Labor, would work with each other and others to develop such courses and “rigorously analyze” the quality of their results as well.

Continue reading "A $12-Billion Partnership Opportunity? " »

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July 16, 2009

Free Good Governance Workbook Available

A free downloadable workbook, “The Principles Workbook: Steering Your Board toward Good Governance and Ethical Practice,” is now available from coauthors BoardSource and Independent Sector. The publication aims to “help the nonprofit community meet its commitment to upholding the highest standards of accountability -- and do so in a cost-effective way.”

The workbook enables nonprofit boards and staff to “evaluate themselves on key principles of legal compliance and public disclosure, effective governance, and strong financial oversight and then develop action plans based on those evaluations.”

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July 10, 2009

Difficulties in Managing Web-based Seminars

With the weakened economy, and its dampening effect on member travel, we are all looking for alternative sources of non-dues revenue. Web-based seminars (webinars) have become a ubiquitous presence on the educational front. However, the challenges of hosting value-added programming that actually make money are real.

First, you need to research compelling topics.So you survey the membership and find a few ideas. Then you need to find the speaker. You approach one of the better-known experts in your field and, happily, she agrees.

With your webinar provider already in place, you spend time training the speaker on how to administer her presentation during the actual webinar. You set a price point (deciding on per-site pricing instead of per-person, to encourage broader participation and add value). And as with live events, you spend time managing registrations (even with online credit card purchases, there are always questions) and even more time promoting, promoting, and promoting.

Two days out, you only have two people registered to attend. What went wrong? What could be done to help ensure a win-win webinar experience for associations and their members and customers?

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July 9, 2009

Steve Anderson on effectively managing change

Steve Anderson, a long-time association veteran currently leading the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, says the current economic environment is as tough as any he has seen. Associations across the spectrum are having to lead change in a crush of financial hardship and uncertainty.

As we launch into the first of several posts this month on change management, watch this short video and listen for his simple (but incredibly hard -- especially for associations) solution: at any time -- and especially tough economic times -- associations need to simplify and focus.

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July 7, 2009

The Economy: Yes, A Laughing Matter

I know everyone is dragging around right now, even though it’s only Tuesday, but with so many folks on vacation already, and the sun shining brightly (at least here in Virginia), I thought it a good time to pass along 5 minutes of humor for your day. Yes, it has an association hook, and it’s even about the economy, so you can tell your boss you’re “doing an environmental scan.”

However, I guarantee you haven’t heard economics explained in these kinds of concepts, even though this hilarious YouTube video is by Yoram Bauman, a self-named “stand-up economist” at the American Economic Association conference in January.

Major kudos to the AEC for having the guts and grace during a dismal financial year to insert its first “humor session” at a conference, which actually garnered it a nice blog post in The New York Times and apparently standing-room-only attendance that day.

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June 22, 2009

9,000 E-mails? Association E-Marketers Face Tough Competition

E-mail marketing has never been so popular, thanks to the weak economy and increased use of the Internet by consumers and members. What stopped me cold as I skimmed a press release about a new report from Forrester Research Inc. was the company’s prediction that “in five years, consumers will be deluged with more than 9,000 email marketing messages annually.”

More broadly, the report predicts spending on e-mail marketing will jump by almost 11% annually to $2 billion by 2014.

But gosh, am I seriously going to have to delete or respond to 9,000 e-mail pitches a year? The vision of my graying self, hips wider than a boat from camping out in my desk chair trying to empty an in-box exploding with don’t-ya-want-it e-mails, is very depressing. Life is too short.

And that’s just the receiver’s viewpoint. What about us as the senders? Many associations are already taxed with complaints from members about sending them too many e-mails. How will we compete against 8,900-odd other messages?

“By 2014, direct marketers will waste $144 million on e-mails that never reach their primary target,” says Forrester Research Vice President and Principal Analyst David Daniels. “Successful direct marketing pros will alter their tactics to overcome inbox clutter and increase relevancy.”

So there’s the challenge. It’s not a new one, but now it seems more urgent than ever. Association marketers, not to mention the entire staff, must explore new ways to showcase our products and services through memorable, persuasive language and vehicles that make clear their true value.

And it’s not a one-step process. The Forrester report also predicts that so-called “retention emails”—those that consumers have agreed to receive—“will account for more than a one-third of all marketing messages in consumers’ inboxes by 2014, representing increased competition for marketers.” That means we have to first keep ourselves on the permissions list of our people and stop annoying them with e-blasts in which they have no stake or interest.

And we have to be more assertive about training our staffs in the art of using social media as a legitimate business tool. Several recent conversations I had with members reminded me how tentative our sector can be, even about piloting something such as a conference Twitter stream, a CEO blog, or an education session held in Second Life.

According to Daniels, “The use of e-mail in social networks will be one of the biggest challenges for direct marketers. Over the next five years, marketers must bridge the gap between social and traditional inboxes with social sharing tools.”

So let’s keep the conversation flowing about how to ensure that our members keep us on their “permissions” list for our marketing materials—and then act accordingly. Ideas?

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June 19, 2009

The cost of free

Free is an attractive word; it gets attention. But it can also be a dangerous word; one that should probably be avoided much more often than it is.

Researchers led by Michael A. Kamins (Stony Brook University-SUNY), recently published an academic article on the effects of bundling products together and calling one of them free. (You can access a press release or purchase the article here.) The basic findings: consumers devalue anything that is labeled free. They found that if you bundled two products together without using the word "free," then any devaluation is significantly less.

Something to think about as associations bundle products and services together as a revenue-generating tactic in a tough a economy.

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June 9, 2009

Wishing the time away...or not

As we gaze into the tea leaves to see when this “Great Recession” is going to fade into history, you might find yourself wishing, as I do on occasion, that time pass by more quickly so that we can get this disagreeable period behind us sooner rather than later…..

But before we push the “fast forward” button maybe we should reflect a little on what we might be missing by leapfrogging the next six months or twelve or eighteen months—depending on which economist you are listening to.

What I have found in my own firm as well as with many of the clients we are helping these days, is that this recession has stripped away veneers that had been comfortably hiding certain structural and strategic weaknesses that could once be ignored but now can’t. These weaknesses in fact are the real sources of our pain and need to be corrected—why wait, why not now? Once we have staunched the bleeding the best we can, perhaps a useful investment of time is to examine how these once ignored weaknesses can be addressed so that we emerge from this trial stronger for having undergone it.

I know, I know, this is easier to say than to do. It is like building a plane while flying it. So, is there anything easier to do? Well maybe.

The principal strength of the nonprofit community is its rootedness in issues and purposes that are intended to better society as a whole. Look around; society’s needs are crying out. If organizations that were created to help better society cannot now rise to the occasion when there is so much need, then who can? It seems to me that now more than ever could be the time for the nonprofit community to shine. This may mean looking at your mission in a new way…aiming higher, thinking differently and coming up with strategies and programs that make a difference for society and for yourselves.

Well, what are you waiting for?

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May 13, 2009

Antitrust back in the spotlight

It took three weeks for the newly confirmed Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division Christine Varney to note a major federal policy shift. In remarks on Monday and Tuesday, she left little doubt that the Obama Administration will actively pursue possible antitrust violations. As if right on cue, the European Union on Tuesday smacked Intel with a record antitrust fine, all of which presents the perfect opportunity for associations to take a look at their own antitrust risks and practices. I talked with Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman attorney Jeff Glassie about what this means for associations.

"I think you have to look at the new assistant district attorney's remarks and you have to look at the consent order the FTC issued to settle charges against the National Association of Music Manufacturers issued in March as evidence of how this administration is going to focus on antitrust issues," says Glassie.

The NAMM case is notable because there was not an allegation of an anticompetitive agreement being reached by means of NAMM, only that NAMM facilitated an exchange of information. Agreements can be per se antitrust violations, information exchanges by themselves are not. Still, the FTC pursued NAMM because it said the way they actively sought to exchange information could lead to anticompetitive practices. (Read the FTC's take.)

Varney's remarks, on the other hand, were aimed more at monopolisitic parts of antitrust law, which are not an area where associations face a great deal of risk. Still, Glassie warns that her remarks are not insignificant to associations.

In a poor economy, there might be some expectation of deference to business to ensure that they remain or regain profitability and avoid bankruptcy or closure. But "she pretty clearly laid out that protecting consumer welfare cannot take a backseat in a challenging economy," he says. "She didn't use the word 'associations,' but she did say that there is no adequate substitute for a competitive market, particularly in times of economic stress. In terms of antitrust enforcement, the administration has signaled it intends to play a vigorous roles, which is a sharp contrast to the last eight years."

So what should associations do about it?

First, "Don't look at this as some kind of black cloud," says Glassie. "When I make presentations to associations on antitrust, I'm sure to say that our country is founded on a free market system. What keeps it a free market and not one subject to collusion or to the dominance of a very few, very large players, is antitrust law."

As for due diligence, this is what Glassie recommends:

- Dust off the antitrust policy and make sure that it's updated and applied. It should be part of board books and any relevant committee meetings as part of the agenda and minutes.

- Be especially diligent that any surveys or research on prices, fees, salaries, or other sensitive areas are performed and released appropriately. (See Statement 5 in "Statements of Antitrust Enforcement Policy in Health Care.")

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May 12, 2009

Cherry-picking Relevant Journal Articles Adds Value to Membership

Plenty of conversation is occurring about how to add value to association memberships, with much discussion focusing on delivering more knowledge and further developing members’ skills.

One added benefit I like was announced recently by the Web Analytics Association. Its Research Committee has arranged access to four online peer-reviewed journals that may interest its members. To “bridge the gap between industry research and the research conducted within the academic communities,” a project team of the committee reviews and summarizes selected articles to keep WAA members apprised of the latest research and offers an archive of issues as well. The committee also is recruiting members to write reviews.

This example reflects aspects of chatter I’ve heard lately about the need for associations to “get over” their “territorial attitudes” regarding their publications and instead focus on finding and delivering access to the best range of knowledge for their respective professions or trades—and that may mean outside of the hallowed halls of the association. Indeed, it may mean reaching out to peripheral organizations that aren’t a perfect match to all members but may hold attractive information to members involved or interested in cross-disciplinary knowledge exchanges.

A more open attitude also may prompt more association journal/magazine exchanges and wider tapping of for-profit publications and knowledge products.

Frankly, associations aren’t always good at that type of strategy, but if we want to retain the value of our reputations as comprehensive repositories and leaders in relevant knowledge delivery, then we need to re-examine what types of knowledge our members truly need in this changing economy—and whether we have to be the ones to create it from scratch.

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April 28, 2009

The Power of A

Many of you know about ASAE & The Center's public awareness campaign, "The Power of A." (If not, see the release and the website.)

What I'm curious to hear from Acronym readers is -- how important do you think public awareness of the association community really is? While it's part of our core cause, it's never ranked particularly high in importance by ASAE & The Center members in our assessment surveys. At a recent session devoted to teaching young association professionals how to enhance their networking skills, one of the tactics offered was not even referring to the association part in introductory conversations. Rather, talk about the mission of your organization, particularly if you can relate it in some way to something that affects your new contact directly.

Internally, we routinely have conversations that at least touch on whether or not the size and scope of association management rises to the level of being a profession. Certainly the CAE puts a professional stamp on it, as do the many dedicated people in the field. But there's preciously little in the way of university programs or research (outside of ASAE & The Center and a few other institutions) specifically on association management. It starts with defining what a profession is, and association management falls into a murky area.

To me there's not much of a question of the fact of "the power of A" -- associations do affect the world in many, many ways. How important is it that those outside the association sector realize the cumulative effects? And even if it is important, how likely is the widespread understanding of what associations do and why they are important?

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April 20, 2009

Didn't you hear? The recession is over

I am concerned. Had the occasion to speak with some association folks recently, and I was surprised at the optimism level. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for optimism, but my cause for concern is that this is false optimism.

After hitting it's recent low about a month ago, the Dow trickled back upwards for a while before flattening out for a few weeks. There were a couple positive economic indicators (and a few not-so-positive) and some encouraging words from the president and the Federal Reserve. And then there's the backbreaker: people are just tired of the economic reality, the endless news cycle, the bad news, the scandals. I think all of this has given people -- or at least some of the people I've talked to recently -- a notion that the worst is over.

I don't believe it. Keep a thimble full of optimism if it helps you get through the day, but don't close your eyes to reality. Associations traditionally are lagging indicators on the economy, meaning all the layoffs and bad news and such that we read about in the last six months, will begin to affect our bottom lines in the next six or nine months. A few months after it bottoms out for our members is when it will bottom out for us.

How fast will it bounce back? Anyone who thinks they can answer that is fooling themselves.

For more on what associations are doing and need to think about in this economy, see Economic Resources Online.

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April 16, 2009

Association meetings and the economy

No one doubts the economy is affecting association meetings, but if anybody doubted that we are just at the starting line of the meetings distress, all one needed to do was have a few conversations on the show floor.

“Things were going well, I wasn’t experiencing hardly any affect—until January, then it start hitting pretty hard,” says Joanne Melser, who sells to the association market for Keystone Resort and Conference Center.

“We’re doing great in 09,” says Ross Mirmelstein, a meeting planner with the National Sheriffs’ Association. “We’re two months out and we’re tracking ahead of the last few years. What I’m worried about is 2010. It’s an election year, it’s on the West Coast, and I’m worried about what kinds of cutbacks localities are going to have to make. 2010 is a little scary for me.”

Of course, the economy is affecting associations right now, too.

“I’m not booking anything new,” says one hotel rep. "All we’re doing is rewriting existing bookings.”

A meetings consultant who requested her name be withheld says, “It’s the worst I’ve seen it in 20 years. I’m seeing budgets freezing, and lots of regional and small meetings just being cancelled.”

There is some good news, though. As in down economic cycles of the past, its associations that are keeping the entire sector afloat. With a few exceptions here and there, they are not cancelling their biggest meetings. There’s a general appreciation for association sector business during soft economic times. Hotels and destinations report not just a willingness, but an eagerness to work with associations to be sure the meetings are as financially successful as they can be.

As reported by Nancy Halsey and Dawn Smith of the Air Line Pilots Association International, associations are making nips and tucks where they can.

“Maybe you cut a reception, or you limit the open bar to an hour,” Halsey says. “You make your bookings for smaller groups, replace full meals with hors d’oeuvres.”

Smith adds: “We’re not hearing complaints. Our members understand what’s going on.”

Scott Williamson with ConferenceDirect says he’s seen the same things. “You’re going for fewer days and fewer room nights,” he says. “They’re being smarter about sponsorships and really watching costs, but the bottom line is associations in general have to have their meetings.”

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April 15, 2009

Clean tech association creates innovative membership category

You would think that a nonprofit named the Clean Technology and Sustainable Industries Organization would have it made, considering all of the federal attention on these types of businesses in the new stimulus legislation. However, CTSI is hardly sitting around helping members complete bank deposit slips.

Instead, it appears to have recognized a tremendous opportunity for itself that will help members in the short term and the entire industry in the future. Its just-launched program, cleanConnect, aims specifically at helping the thousands of new clean-technology entrepreneurs create small businesses properly and then execute the really hard stuff—e.g., survive for the long-term despite the weak economy. The program has been carefully crafted around the basics: “partnership building, policy advocacy, resources & information, and financial support.”

The nonprofit also has partnered with the Nano Science and Technology Institute to cosponsor 2,700 presentations, industrial workshops, and issue-specific “short courses” at the upcoming TechConnect World conference in May.

In addition, the nonprofit has established a unique style of “in-kind” (free) membership, with benefits focused primarily on CEO professional development/engagement and concerns. In return for the free benefits, cleanConnect membership participants must “contribute to the building of the CTSI clean technology community,” which might run from serving on industry action committees to passing resources to other members to writing articles—anything that “will benefit the community.”

“Whether it takes one year or three, the public markets will come back, credit will become available, and companies will begin thriving again,” the organization writes on its Web site. “By joining forces and working together as a community, clean technology companies will be well positioned to take advantage of the comeback. By building a strong resource network, sharing our collective knowledge, and unifying our political voices, we will continue to drive innovation in energy and environmental technologies forward.”

I love that CTSI is building in value to itself and the wider community as it simultaneously targets valuable resources at what some might consider a niche element of the industry. I'm also curious whether many other associations permit members to "work off" their dues payments. Anyone?

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April 13, 2009

Are free events ever really free?

I have noticed that recently I am being bombarded with the offer to attend free education (webinars, seminars, audioseminars, etc.). I have always known that these types of things were available but there seem to be a lot more of them lately or groups are just promoting them more aggressively. This got me thinking about the following.

1. The free education I have heard of is typically given by a vendor. Do vendor-offered free events pose a risk to attendance levels at the association’s (ASAE in this case) own fee-based educational events? In some way are the vendors that are “members” of the association biting the hand that feeds them? Or is this just the price of doing business and is beneficial to everyone involved? Normally I would say that having free education doesn’t really affect the association much, but when money is tight like today, I am curious if the potential impact is much larger.

2. Are free events actually educational or are they just a disguised sales pitch? We all know that nothing in life is free. Have vendors realized that a sales pitch disguised as education is still a turn off even if it is free (I hope so)? Or are we as attendees so in need of education that does not hit our budget that we are willing to take a flier on an educational event that we know may be part sales pitch just with the hope that there is enough diamonds among the you-know-what that it ends up being worth our time?

3. For those of you who are members of other associations, is free education as prevalent in those associations as it seems to be within ASAE lately? I am a member of DMAW (Direct Marketing Association of Washington) and these types of things don’t seem to be offered at all. I was also a member of AFP (fundraising professionals) for a while, and, again, I rarely heard about things like this. Is the association community unique, and if we are unique why is this only happening here?

I am curious to know what this trend is telling us and how it will impact associations today, and in the future, as technology makes it easier and easier to provide educate as well as let potential attendees know all about it. I await your thoughts.

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March 28, 2009

A Mentor Remembered

One of my longtime mentors and former nonprofit bosses, Jack Lorenz, will be buried In 12 hours, dead at the too-young age of 69. He was executive director of the conservation organization Izaak Walton League of America for 18 years before retiring, and he hired me as a magazine editor and media manager way back in the late 1980s after I moved to Washington, DC. I stayed there for more than six years, learning and erring as all overworked young professionals do in this sector.

Jack was not organized or formal when it came to mentoring staff. As the "Ikes'" former magazine editor himself, he did a remarkable job of not micromanaging me in his old role. Like IWLA's members, he was of salt-of-the-earth stock, rarely losing his temper and always operating with an open-door, excuse-the-mess style. He wasn't perfect, and he let me be the same. I appreciated that--not many mentors are comfortable acknowledging their own weaknesses. He tried to be gentle when he pointed out mine.

Together we would attend the annual Outdoor Writers Association of America conference, an extremely male-dominated event at the time. It was intimidating for any woman, especially one in her 20s. Everyone always thought I was someone's daughter along for the ride. At my first conference, I almost went home after the first night. The level of sexism and, at times, blatant harassment was quite unnerving.

Jack, though, would get his back up about it, and he was determined that I succeed despite the good-old-boy atmosphere. Because of him, I finally agreed to run for OWAA's national board, which I didn't make the first time. The second run was a ringer, though, and I still count that board experience and its painful challenges among my best professional learning experiences. I never would have taken the risk if he hadn't told me that he believed I could and should go for it.

I'm thinking of Jack tonight, and it's still hard to believe I won't ever see him again. Although I have not gotten together with Jack for many years, I have still felt connected through his crazy e-mailed jokes and the hilarious fishing stories that I'd sometimes run into in outdoor publications.

I'm so happy that he accomplished his lifelong personal goal of fishing every U.S. state and territory, and all of Canada's provinces. And I'm so grateful that Jack lived his professional goal of serving as a strong role model when it came to professional ethics, self-sacrifice, tireless optimism, true passion for mission, and generosity of spirit.

Most mentors never know how fundamentally they touch those they coach--so often their teachings aren't drawn from until a relevant situation arises much later. Maybe that's why good mentors seem in short supply--they just don't realize they're change makers.

I know you're up there watching me type right now, Jack, so I thank you again, and I wish you the best bass fishing Heaven has to offer.

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March 26, 2009

More influence than you think

It's easy to forget how much impact you have on the people around you. After all, you're not really thinking about them; you're thinking about what's gone wrong with the project you're working on, your plans for the weekend, an argument you had with a friend over last week's American Idol elimination. (Alexis Grace was robbed, by the way.) You're focused on your own priorities and not thinking about the fact that those around you are seeing your face and body language, and wondering what's wrong.

In this economy, the sensitivity is that much greater, especially for those of you who are CEOs or managers; your bad mood can cause a wave of worry. A series of bad moods can create a negative atmosphere in your entire office.

A quote comes to mind from Gershom Gorenberg's excellent book The End of Days, which I just recently finished: "You have to think not only about what you intend to say, you have to think about what people will understand you as saying." In context, the book is talking about the power of a religious leader. But I think there's a lesson here for association leaders as well.

What I take away from that quote is that it's not enough for us to think about what we're saying, whether to staff or to members. We have to think about how our body language, voice, and overall attitude communicates as well. And we have to think about alternative interpretations of what we say; "We're going through a rough time" can be interpreted as "We're all going to lose our jobs" by a nervous employee. It can never hurt to take the time to consider potential unintended readings of your words and actions, and how they can impact those around you.

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Change your bolts

During a discussion I helped to moderate earlier this week (the results of which will appear in the May issue of Associations Now--keep an eye out!), a CEO told a great story about a factory she knows of that makes bolts. Previously, the factory had focused on making bolts for yachts, but, clearly, the yacht market isn't what it was a few years ago. They're still a factory--they haven't gone into business as a call center or a hardware store--but they've changed their focus to start making bolts for another an industry that's growing rather than shrinking.

That led me to wonder: What are we doing in associations that's (essentially) building bolts for shrinking markets rather than growing ones? And how can we change our internal machinery to make it possible for us to build bolts for new, growing markets in addition to, or instead of, the shrinking ones?

A few thoughts occurred to me:

- Take a hard look at your programs and products for the next several fiscal years. Do you realistically expect growth (even after the downturn ends)? If, realistically, you expect flat or shrinking revenues, should you consider dropping or restructuring the program or product? After all, you can almost certainly expect expenses to rise over time rather than fall.

- Look at what slows your association down. Once, in a meeting, I made a comment about associations not typically being "blindingly fast." The other attendees laughed in agreement. But at the time I started to wonder, why can't associations be blindingly fast in our responses to the business environment? What's holding us back? Find ways to be more nimble, and your association will be able to aim for those new, growing markets quickly once they're identified.

- Create an early warning system. Social media offers some great opportunities in this area, but more traditional research could be helpful as well. What are your members and nonmember prospects spending money on (especially if they're not spending it with you)? What ideas does that give you for ways you could change your own offerings to better provide them value?

What other ideas do you have?

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March 23, 2009

Mentors for Laid-off Professionals: An Idea Worth Modeling

Journalists are among the professionals who have taken a hard hit during this economic downturn. Just look at the closing of such revered newspapers as The Seattle Post-Intelligencer or the bankruptcy filings of The New York Times and many other media outlets.

As a result, the Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW) has been finding creative ways to help members “cope with the media transformation.” Like numerous associations, it permits unemployed members a one-time deal of discounted dues (many other organizations offer a 100% dues waiver for six months or a year), has expanded its jobs listings site (and disabled all password access requirements to allow any journalist anywhere to search the job postings site), and even launched a freelance market to unite editors with freelancers. A new listserv enables editors and media organizations to distribute work proposals to 100-plus freelance subscribers.

However, SABEW is offering something I haven’t seen before but think is a terrific idea: “a mentor for business journalists who accepted a buyout, was laid off, or otherwise put out of work by workforce cuts.”

“The aim is to help these journalists by providing advice, networking opportunities, and career development suggestions,” writes the organization.

I bet many other professional and trade associations would find significant support for such a program within their ranks. If your organization is doing something like this, I’d like to know about it. Please email me at kclarke@asaecenter.org. I’m hoping this catches on and further strengthens the mentoring programs so many organizations already have.

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March 20, 2009

Guiding Members through Economy-Focused Media Interviews

In response to the down economy, the League of American Orchestras has created a free, downloadable Support Kit for members that could be a helpful model to other association and nonprofit leaders.

The kit includes special management advice, a 24/7 free financial management webinar by the League’s chief financial officer (who based it on a popular presentation at the group’s 2008 conference), and—of most help to all associations—a media guidance document to help members relay the organization’s most important messages to business reporters.

“The key is to take the time to prepare and practice delivering clear messages … for making the most out of a media opportunity in this environment,” states the document. It then spends five, clearly written pages walking a member through the process of identifying and voicing confidently the desired points.

Frankly, I’m surprised more associations haven’t done more quick media training with their members—I’m certainly seeing many additional materials offered in online newsrooms by national staff. Kudos to the League for coming up with inexpensive, informative materials that will help members cope with the economy at the community level.

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March 17, 2009

Being prepared when members have too much time

Here’s a Times article relevant to associations that might be easy to miss as it’s buried in the local New York news section. It highlights how charities are seeing an influx of volunteers.

The idea this sparked in me was the need for associations to tailor a short-term volunteer package aimed at raising the profile of a jobless member while giving the organization a boost of knowledge for content.

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March 13, 2009

Time to expand global reach?

There's been quite some activity on the International email list on what it means to be global and some additional chatter on how the economy is affecting U.S.-based outreach internationally.

I wanted to point to the latest series of videos on This Week in Associations. The first features Project Management Institute CEO Greg Balestrero who talks about how PMI has found success in becoming a truly global organization. He's followed by John Peacock, who leads the Association Forum in Australia (think of it as the Aussie's SAE) and Supratik Bhattacharyya, CEO of Association Management Initiatives in India. The videos were shot several months ago just as the world appeared perched on economic freefall, so they talk more about the how the market opportunities are different in different places than on what the global recession means. Still there is useful tips for organizations that have begun or are thinking of a more global perspective.

The opportunity to penetrate deeper into global markets quickly probably exists now more so than a year ago. But obviously there are barriers. First, despite the talk of opportunity, most associations seek to contract rather than expand in tough financial times. And when the global economy is as bad as it is today, I've heard of trade associations exerting pressure to curtail international initiatives, not just as a cost-cutting measure, but as a protectionist measure.

Watch the videos, and then share your thoughts: what should an association's international role be in such times of economic crisis?

See the other two videos.

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March 5, 2009

Proposed Charity Impact Criteria Prompts Vehement Debate

The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy’s new report, “Criteria for Philanthropy at Its Best,” has set off lively debate within the nonprofit community about the group’s proposed set of benchmarks for charities’ effectiveness. While NCRP Executive Director Aaron Dorfman says the report aims to foster conversations about “standards of excellence in charitable giving,” the Alliance for Charitable Reform—a project of the Philanthropy Roundtable—warns that the benchmarks “have nothing to do with measuring effectiveness. In fact, the natural consequence of these benchmarks will be to reduce the scope and diversity of the foundation sector to one that serves a more narrow set of highly politicized interests.”

The group also is worried that the benchmarks will be “distracting” for the sector at a time when they must stay focused on responding to dramatically increased public needs for assistance in light of a weak economy.

"On average, foundation assets have dropped 20%-40%, and The New York Times reports an unusual number of charities filing for bankruptcy. It is incomprehensible that the NCRP is proposing criteria that could further ravage the charitable sector," says Sue Santa, senior vice president for public policy, The Philanthropy Roundtable.

NCRP, meanwhile, says its research shows that grantmakers “are not delivering as much social benefit as they could” and notes that more than 120 nonprofit leaders and foundations have already endorsed the criteria.

"What we offer foundations are reasonable principles and attainable goals," explains Niki Jagpal, research and policy director at NCRP and primary author of the report. "It's important for foundations to know that some of their peers already are paving the way for the rest of the sector."

To hear more about this conversation, visit www.acreform.com and www.ncrp.org.

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March 4, 2009

Coach Marshall Goldsmith on Leadership in an Uncertain Economy

A fabulous 13-minute podcast of learning guru Elliott Masie interviewing world-renowned executive coach Marshall Goldsmith on “Leadership in Uncertain Times” is available free and is well worth getting a cup of coffee and having a listen with pen and notebook in hand.

Goldsmith starts off with some firm advice: “What not to do is fake it … There’s nothing to be embarrassed about” in terms of not knowing what will happen. But subordinates do need to know “where am I going now?”

Goldsmith urges leaders to pursue a six-question dialogue that should help reveal some sensible strategic options:

1. “Where are we going? (And where do you think we should be going?)”
2. “Where are you and your part of the business going? And where should you be going?”
3. “What are you excelling in?” (This is called the “doing well” question, and Goldsmith wishes leaders would ask it much more frequently, regardless of the economic landscape.)
4. “If you were the coach for you, what advice would you have?” (Prepare to be shocked at the honesty of these answers, which are often more substantive and relevant than anything the leader might suggest, according to Goldsmith.)
5. “As a leader, how can I help?” (The answers help you shape an action plan for yourself to best support others.)
6. “What suggestions do you have for me as leader?”

Most of all, Goldsmith warns leaders not to become paralyzed, especially by the big, scary numbers that may result in a feeling of helplessness. “What is, is,” he quotes a Buddhist mantra. “Ask yourself, ‘Given the reality of now, what’s the best step forward? …’”

Don’t hide from what is, he continues. Realize this reality can be hard to face, but you need to let go of the past, the anger, the grief…. "It may all change tomorrow.”

My own interview with Goldsmith on how the weak economic climate has affected board and CEO attitudes of succession planning, as well as guidance regarding what association leaders should do to help successions succeed, will appear in the next week or so on ASAE & The Center’s new economic resources site.

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February 26, 2009

Business is booming, huh?

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” Remember that famous opening line from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities?

I turn on the TV at my lunch break and the Dow is down, or when it up, it doesn’t seem to stay up!

Everybody is talking about how awful things are, but strangely in the association management company business that seems not to be the case--at least based on my experience over the last couple of months and most especially the last couple of weeks.

Seems like every few days I get another call from another struggling association looking to cut costs by going with an AMC. The reasons for their troubles are as varied as the associations, but the common denominator is, they have to reduce costs! And the word is out--association management companies can save big money.

The AMC model, of course, makes lots of sense, especially for smaller organizations. Economies of scale, reduced overhead, shared resources, and smart use of technology can make the difference between folding and flourishing.

I think that those of us who run AMCs need to brace ourselves for a sudden influx of new clients--especially if the economy continues to tank for an extended period. What was a slow moving trend has become a potential tidal wave. We had best be prepared!

Some AMCs will choose to say “no” to prospective new clients because they simply can’t reconfigure their operations quickly enough to take them on. Others will be highly selective, only choosing those organizations who are the best fit. Still others will take on as many clients as they can, and worry about how to service them later. I plan to be in yet another group with a flexible operational model, access to skilled contractors to add quickly to my team, and good tools for assessing compatibility between our firm and the prospective clients.

For each day that the Dow falls, some board president is looking at an income statement and saying, “We can’t go on like this!” And some task force is comparing operational models and concluding, “Maybe we should get a quote from an association management company.”

I suspect, however, that we will not be simply seeing an increase in organizations wanting full management. What I am seeing is organizations that want to outsource some of their functions, while maintaining some staff and/or having volunteers take on more jobs.

The wise AMC will work closely with the board to define staff, board, volunteer and AMC responsibilities. The new economy will make “strange bedfellows.” The key to sanity has to be clearly defined roles and responsibilities and strict accountability of all parties.

We also must understand that the clients we get in times like these may be in an apparent death spiral. Some we can save, and some simply can’t be saved because they have become irrelevant. In my experience, organizations that are really desperate start to clutch at straws. They have a new idea a minute and want staff to implement each of them--at no additional fee, of course.

For an AMC, scope creep is the enemy of profitability. We are doing ourselves and our clients no favors when we spend our time in a reactive mode. In order to really help our struggling clients we must focus their energy and our energy on the things that really can make a difference to the client's bottom line.

While AMCs may not suffer the usual ravages of a failing economy, we have our own unique set of challenges. The test will be how we react, both as individual firms and as an industry.

(Note: This post was corrected thanks to a commenter's sharp eye. Thank you!)

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February 24, 2009

Nonprofits Identify $10.6 Billion “Shovel-ready” Infrastructure Projects

In addition to state and local government projects, “America’s 1.4 million private nonprofit organizations also have significant ‘shovel-ready’ infrastructure projects that have been put on hold due to the credit crisis,” starts a survey analysis at John Hopkins University’s Center for Civil Society Studies. “Indeed, nonprofits have long faced special barriers in generating investment capital due to their nonprofit status and their inability to access the equity markets, and the current credit crisis has simply added to their woes.”

More than 1,835 organizations responded to the survey, identifying an impressive $10.6 million of “shovel-ready but stalled” infrastructure projects that they hope will move forward with recovery support from the U.S. economic stimulus package signed last week. Almost 40% of respondents acknowledged that they had delayed at least one infrastructure project due to the weak economy.

The study is a joint project of the center, Alliance for Children and Families, American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging, American Association of Museums, Community Action Partnership, League of American Orchestras, Lutheran Services in America, Michigan Nonprofit Association, National Council of Nonprofits, and United Neighborhood Centers of America.

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February 22, 2009

Strategies for a rough economy

Monica Dignam, vice president of industry & market research for ASAE & The Center, presented findings from the just released: Impact Study: Beliefs, Behaviors, and Attitudes in Response to the Economy.

(See the full white paper on our new Economy Resources Online, a constantly updated new web page devoted to leading associations in a turbulent economic climate.)

Here are some of the ideas/suggestions for what associations are doing from session attendees:

- Waiving dues for a year for unemployed members.

- Expanding the “retired” member status with lower registration fees and less expensive dues to unemployed members.

- Enhancing the career services offerings, including adding mentoring opportunities, resume critiquing and commenting, and information on how to do a job search (in a profession where people may not have had to look for employment in a long time).

- Invite a group of members to a roundtable discussion to find out what issues they are having, bring in experts/economists to talk to them, and develop a white paper or other product for members.

- If attrition clauses are kicking in, use it to provide “scholarships” in the form of free housing to selected or hard-hit members. Involve chapters to help add value and possibly share cost burden.

- Rethink the annual meeting, replace big, expensive bash with low-key networking opportunities designed to get attendees talking with each other.

- Give attendees a $20 Visa giftcard instead of offering an expensive lunch or dinner.

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February 18, 2009

Stimulus Bill Signing Including Association Shout-outs, New Resources

Associations were front and center during speeches before and during the signing of the much-debated economic stimulus bill—the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act--yesterday by President Barack Obama in Denver.

First, Blake Jones, president of the small but rapidly growing Namaste Solar company, cited statistics by the Solar Energy Industries Association that estimate the stimulus package will create 69,000 new jobs this year and twice as many in 2010. He also emphasized the organization’s stance that solar energy provides “one of the most important and fast-growing job sectors in the U.S…. Green jobs are good for everyone.”

President Obama followed later with a shout-out to a variety of the bill’s bipartisan supporters, including the National Association of Manufacturers and the AFL-CIO.

He also urged Americans (and I’m sure this will prove valuable to associations as well) to monitor progress created by the legislation at a new web site—www.recovery.gov—and to find a state-by-state breakdown of where the money will go and how many jobs it will create in each sector and industry. The package of $789 billion aims to create or save 3.5 million jobs during the next two years, with job creation occurring in a wide range of industries from clean energy to health care. More than 90 percent are expected to be created in the private sector.

“It is a plan that will be implemented with an unprecedented level of transparency and accountability," said President Obama. "And we expect you, the American people, to hold us accountable for the results.” You can read the President’s and Vice President’s full remarks here.

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February 12, 2009

Resources Regarding Closure of a 501(c)3 Foundation

We received a recent request to our Knowledge Center about the ramifications of dissolving an association’s 501(c)3 subsidiary such as a foundation. It coincided with a discussion I’d had recently with two fundraisers who said they were struggling to generate revenues for their associations and had “all but given up” on raising money for their subsidiary foundation as well.

Obviously, the Internal Revenue Service has a number of guiding documents about closing down a charity, including “Dissolving a 501(c)3”, IRS Rev. Proc. 82-2, "Life Cycle of a Private Foundation," and "Termination of Private Foundation Status."

If you subscribe to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, you can access a June 1, 2006, article called “Engineering a Foundation’s Demise,” or if you receive Trusts & Estates, you can look up the more recent article June 2008 article, “Breaking Up Is (Not So) Hard To Do.”

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New Study Shows Sustainable Organizations Faring Better in Poor Economy

I’m hearing an avalanche of “greening” stories from association and nonprofit professionals who are either eager to leverage the frequent cost savings, increased efficiency, and positive brand-building of such efforts, or are already seeing tremendous return on investment for such actions.

It seems that anecdotes and solid data about associations and other businesses saving serious amounts of money through their efforts to become more eco-friendly in their IT operations, publishing, direct mailing/fundraising, and other functional areas are starting to spread more rapidly now that the economy has been sinking.

Still, some leaders who may not have much experience in creating sustainable value may be tempted to push the pause button on their organization’s social responsibility initiatives. They may want to think twice. A new study by the consulting firm A.T. Kearney finds that “companies committed to corporate sustainability practices during this [economic] slowdown are achieving above-average performance in the financial markets. … So before tossing out those sustainability practices and initiatives, it might be wise to first determine the real value of the efforts—especially the possible rewards for staying the course.”

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February 11, 2009

Half a Million Micro-Nonprofits Could Lose Federal Tax Exemption by May 2010

GuideStar is reporting that 500,000 nonprofits could lose their tax-exempt status in May 2010, if they haven’t yet filed the required Internal Revenue Service Form 990-N and continue to not do so for several more years. 2008 was the first year when this specific set of small nonprofits—groups that didn’t meet the income threshold for filing an IRS Form 990 “or its variants”—were required to file a new IRS form, according to the Pension Protection Act of 2006.

“Nonprofits whose exemptions are revoked will suddenly be required to pay federal income taxes -- and subject to financial penalties if they fail to do so. Hundreds of thousands of charities … could find them themselves no longer eligible to accept tax-deductible contributions,” Guidestar states. “Nonprofits that wish to have their exemptions reinstated will be required to re-apply to the IRS for tax-exempt status, a process that can take several months.”

"If you volunteer with, work for, or give to a smaller nonprofit, make sure its leaders know about the 990-N,” urges Bob Ottenhoff, GuideStar president and CEO. "… Smaller nonprofits make up as much as three-quarters of the nonprofit sector. They are the local animal rescue societies, the neighborhood groups that tutor elementary school students, the all-volunteer organizations that drive cancer patients to chemotherapy. Collectively they have a tremendous impact, and society will be the poorer if these organizations lose their federal tax exemptions.”

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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 25, 2009

Outsmarting the Competition: Quantity vs. Quality

All this talk about an economic downturn – I think it’s been a solid hour since my last invite to participate in a survey about how the economy has affected my association and our members – led me to an interesting question: In today’s economic environment, how can we outsmart the associations with which we compete for members?

The answer, at least in my mind, could take one of two paths:

1) Quantity. Market more services and benefits than usual – for your association – with fewer resources. In other words, decrease the expense per service and offer more services. The focus here is on value-added services. How can association staff add value and spend the least amount of money? Generally, these services take little funding or staff time to administer, such as members-only Web site access or an invitation to participate in your association’s committee meetings.

2) Quality. Market fewer services and benefits than usual – for your association – with more resources. In other words, increase the expense per service and offer fewer services. The focus here is on a handful of impressive services. How can association staff outshine their competition by strategically funneling money into fewer services that yield a larger impact? Obviously, these services require more funding and staff time to administer, such as a complimentary subscription to a well-respected magazine you publish.

The point here is that during an economic downturn, it’s unrealistic to do both. Likewise, a reduction in staff, revenue, members, resources or some combination thereof means the status quo is also not an option. Yet, we all agree that standing out is a top priority. So, my question to you is this: Does your association subscribe to the notion of quantity over quality or quality over quantity? What does that look like in your association?

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January 23, 2009

Keeping to the Mission Despite the Economy: An Inspiring Example

Wow. At a time when most nonprofits are hoarding every dime, it’s amazing to read that Rotary International, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the leaders of economically hard-struck nations Germany and England are keeping their “eyes on the prize”—eliminating the last bastions of polio—by announcing a $635 million donation to the eradication effort.

Rotary has committed to raise $100 million during the next five years to boost vaccination campaigns in the polio hotspot regions of India and Nigeria, an effort that has inspired the Gates foundation to give $255 million to the nonprofit’s initiative over that same period. Already, Rotary’s 33,000 clubs worldwide have raised $61 million of a $100 million pledge to match a 2007 donation by the Gates foundation. Great Britain continues it highly visible position as one of the top governmental leaders in the eradication effort by pledging another $150 million; Germany, also a longtime committed partner, will donate $130 million.

Polio—an “epidemic prone disease,” as described by one expert--has not been as easy to eradicate as health professionals had hoped, and the effort has suffered setbacks. In 2008, 1,625 polio cases were reported globally, an increase of 500 from 2007 numbers. However, since Rotary and its partners began their efforts in 1988, the caseload has been reduced by 99%, so NGO leaders are not giving up.

Congratulations to Rotary International and the Gates foundation for showing real optimism, focus, and determination to keep to their core missions in the face of a global economic crisis!

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December 11, 2008

Prepare for a Tough Budget Environment

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that enormous deficits and declining tax revenues lead to difficult times maintaining funding for existing programs, much less funding new priorities. Prepare for this tough environment through the following activities:

Learn the Rules of the Game: A range of online resources offer insights into the budget process. If you’re worried that this might be a really dull way to spend a couple hours, remember that those who know the rules of the game are far more likely to be successful. Take a minute to look at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities’ Overview of budget process or the House Rules Committee Overview materials to ensure that you know what should happen when – and how to take best advantage of the process.

Don’t Ignore the Agencies!: Many advocacy organizations focus on the Congressional process for managing the budget, but the numbers and priorities are initially established at the agency level. Take a minute to review the OMB website to learn more about what happens with the agencies.

Run the Numbers: A site like USA Spending or OMB Watch’s Fed Spending can help you figure out how your policy priorities relate to the rest of the federal budget. You can even compare your piece of the budget pie to others at the National Priorities Project site. This information can be invaluable in making arguments as to why your organization’s priorities should continue to be supported.

Got the budget figured out? Great! The last installment of this series will look at a few fun and interactive ways to get advocates engaged in early 2009 and beyond!

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