When ASAE hosted a recent study tour of about a dozen association professionals from African nations, we thanked our lucky stars for the volunteer member who developed the idea, organized most of the memorable experiences, recruited fellow colleagues to help with home stays and mentoring/knowledge-sharing events, and now is willing to share tips to other associations keen to replicate the activity.
While many organizations have study tours as part of their regular international offerings, I'm not sure many of them are volunteer-driven and volunteer-organized.
I asked the ever-energetic Liz Jackson, president of Jackson Consulting and prime mover-and-shaker behind the African study tour, to provide her advice regarding ways that associations can support volunteer members willing to put in the work needed to pull off a study tour for international association professionals . Here are her responses:
(1) Identify the project goal. Why does the volunteer want to do this, and how will it help strengthen the association and its community?
"Certainly most associations send their members outbound rather than receive them inbound," Jackson says. "If you're receiving delegates into your own country and office, determine if it's because of a [desire for] fact-finding, training, a chance at future membership opportunities, or perhaps an international initiative. My reason for proposing it was that I'm doing consulting in sub-Sahara Africa and am working with an association [that works] with other associations....
"Associations are bursting out all over Africa, but they're currently more of a community of like-minded people than an association that's run as a business, like we see in DC.... If you assess your goals for the study tour, that will set the stage for what your program will be like."
(2) Incorporate a strong component of personal networking with participants' professional counterparts. Jackson determined after questioning potential participants that a combination of expert-based presentations and private networking opportunities would generate the most value to attendees--and U.S.-based association members.
Jackson organized two lunches and a dinner specifically for networking, and called for volunteers willing to sit with an African professional to answer questions and share ideas and advice. About 100 volunteers responded. She then contacted each, so they could choose their assignment either for lunch or dinner.
"Many delegates said that was the most impressive part of the study tour," Jackson says. "To sit down and talk about living in this country, about associations in general, progress in their country versus ours, and just having a private heart-to-heart discussion of life as it is today [was incredibly rewarding to both parties]." An association can help get out word for such a volunteer opportunity to a wider community.
(3) Don't underestimate the role sponsors can play in adding value to the attendee experience. Association staff can help a volunteer leader by identifying and connecting him or her to potential sponsors. In Jackson's case, two sponsors--etouchs and Marketing General--came aboard, organizing meal set-ups using small dinner tables at which one or two of their representatives sat to talk about applications of technology and development of technology-driven membership strategies.
"Also, if you're dealing with candidates from developing countries, the likelihood of them needing sponsorship would be great," Jackson explains. "We knew most associations in Africa do not have full-time staff, but that was the candidate we were looking for.... [Even those groups] with enough money to have full-time staffers [still were challenged by] the cost of living,.... so almost half needed sponsorship help." Jackson sought funding from potential sponsors directly and, fortunately, "had very few people say no."
(4) Understand that this type of volunteer project takes more time to execute than it might if it were on an association staffer's work plan. It took Jackson a year and a half to organize the tour, working closely with two ASAE staff members and deciding against establishing a specific committee.
"They were good about helping with the registration component, finding pre-paid hotel rooms, and other things," notes Jackson.
Study tours are time-consuming, detail-oriented, fabulously enriching projects. If your organization is lucky enough to have an enthusiastic member willing to take on the effort, find a way to support it with gusto so you too can hear the kind of study tour feedback every association wants: "This has changed my life."