Associations & Nonprofits

Here’s a post I wrote for MemberViews Monday, a collaboration of bloggers in the association world who have teamed up to share their experiences and knowledge with other association professionals. The first topic in this series hosted by MultiView blogs is Advice for the Emerging Association Professional.

I never expected to work in associations. Frankly, they weren’t even on my radar. But I was leaving one career and in search of another. I took an association job just to have some stability and income while I figured things out. Little did I know, back in 1999, what a rewarding and fascinating profession I was about to enter.

Looking back, I wish I had asked for advice. It took me several years to find my way. If we were to have a “learn from my mistakes” conversation, it would go something like this.

Never stop learning. You will succeed in this profession if you live to learn. This is the most important piece of advice I can give you. Don’t shortchange yourself. Make time for learning even if it’s on your own time. Your older self will thank you.

Be observant. Listen to and watch people. You have to understand human behavior, both individual and group, if you want to motivate, manage and lead staff and members.

Give yourself time to think. You need time every week to plan ahead, set and review goals, and let your brain work its way around challenges and issues. 

Develop a DIY professional development habit. Set aside time to read association management blogs and publications, participate in Twitter’s #assnchat (Tuesdays at 2:00 p.m. Eastern), and attend association events. If your boss doesn’t give you the time or budget to do these things, do it on your own time. Put aside a small amount of every paycheck, even if it’s only $10, toward professional development. It’s an investment in your future, just like your 401K.

Join your state SAE even if you have to spend your own money. You’ll meet a network of peers that could become lifelong friends.

Look for mentors. Find people in your office or at another association who are active in your SAE or ASAE. They might not consider themselves mentor material so don’t even use the word “mentor” around them. A conversation with them could develop into a mutually satisfying relationship.

Find association peers. If you’re surrounded by colleagues who are only there for the paycheck, don’t be discouraged. Don’t follow them down their boring, soul-deadening path. Find people either in your office or other associations who are around your same age and career level. Twitter makes this so much easier now. Arrange monthly meet-ups. Make them your mastermind group.

Make friends all over the building. Avoid eating lunch alone. Don’t isolate yourself in a departmental silo. Learn about the work your colleagues are doing. How can you help them? How can they help you? What member stories can you share? What can you teach each other?

Pause and reflect before reacting. Expect stressful times. You might start the day expecting to work on specific tasks and projects, but find yourself dealing with other pressing problems, issues and people that weren’t on your list. You will constantly juggle a variety of deadlines and demands.

It’s natural to react quickly and emotionally to these stressors – those same reactions save us in life and death situations. But in the workplace, you must develop the habit of pausing before reacting, and thinking rationally, not emotionally. It’s not easy. Yoga helps, but I don’t expect you to practice yoga as a professional development tool – although it’s not a bad idea.

Become aware of your reactions to your own behavior (self-judging), other people’s behavior, stressful situations and change. If you learn to pause and reflect before reacting, you won’t stress yourself out so much and you’ll be a positive influence on the people around you. 

Don’t be a workaholic. Never put in crazy hours because you think you should, except, of course, for those special times in the meeting, magazine or budget cycle that require it. You and your brain need time off to recharge. You know the people who are always boasting about how busy they are and how late they stayed in the office? They’re not paragons of virtue to emulate. They’re doing it wrong — “it” being life.

Never be defined by your job. If you develop that limited mindset, retirement will be rough. Yes, your job is a huge, rewarding part of your life, but it’s just one part of your life. Make sure it doesn’t get in the way of the relationships and experiences that add color and passion to life. Find people, causes and hobbies to love. You’ll be a happier and more interesting, creative person and professional.

Advice for emerging association professionals

Photo by Andre Mouraux (Flickr CC license)

Have you ever seen one of these?

association maker culture

UCF’s 3D printer at digitalNow

That’s a 3D printer from the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Simulation and Training METIL Lab. David Metcalf and two of his students brought it to digitalNow for The “Maker Society,” their session with Jenny Levine, Strategy Guide at the American Library Association. 

Jenny made it clear up front: “Your association does not need a 3D printer.” Instead she focused on the maker culture and what it means for associations.

These articles will give you a better understanding of the maker culture:

Who’s a maker? Dale Dougherty, founder of MAKE, defines a maker as:

“Someone who is a builder, a creator, a producer, a developer, someone who has an active sense of taking an idea and developing it into something that’s real and tangible and can be shared with other people.”

Sounds like an association leader to me.

The Maker Generation

A generation of makers is coming of age — our future members. How do we become organizations they want (and need) in their lives?

Librarians, as usual, are ahead of the game. At work, they’re creating maker spaces for kids and adults. At the American Library Association (ALA), they’re experimenting with new approaches to membership issues. Like many associations, the ALA has seen a decline in volunteerism. Fewer members are willing to commit to time-intensive volunteer roles. So what can an association do? Jenny  appeals to the maker in her members.

  • Listen to member conversations. What are they talking about? What inspires their passion? Jenny monitors an unofficial group of 3000 members and non-members on Facebook – the ALA Think Tank. She looks for short-term project ideas that she can help facilitate.
  • Create new pathways to bring members into association involvement. In addition to the traditional, time-intensive style of volunteer service, offer project-based entry points that require less of a time commitment.
  • Nurture the maker ethos – “let’s just do it” – by providing support or, at least, encouragement to member-organized projects.

One of the UCF students mentioned how fun it is to get a maker community going. The community was already there, UCF only needed to give it resources and get out of the way. You have communities of members who are passionate about different issues or causes. Find them and listen to them. What types of projects would give them a sense of satisfaction while also staying aligned with the association’s mission?

Maker governance

When Jenny looks for projects, one of her criteria is purpose. David Metcalf looks for passion about a social mission. The motivation behind these projects is a yearning to create or accomplish something. That’s such a powerful desire – the drive to create – yet how often do associations satisfy it?

After the session, I wondered: What will happen to the traditional association governance model? Is the next generation of members willing to put in time serving on committee after committee in hopes of getting a board position and then, maybe one day, being nominated for an officer position? Is that a desirable path? Is that how they want to serve? Is that how they envision an association experience?

Will this generation of makers be willing to deal with the slow-moving engines of association governance? Does “let’s just do it” work in the association world? Can we find ways to let people get together and make “things” that help their fellow members, attendees, profession/industry or community? 

I’m excited about this emerging culture of makers and here’s why. Bob Johansen, author of Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World, says the best leaders are makers:

“All humans have at least a touch of what I call the maker instinct, but most leaders have a serious dose since they must make and remake the organizations they lead. The best leaders have always been tinkerers who imagine alternative structures and love to play around with them to see what new things they can create.”

Why wait for the young ones to start hacking our associations. Let’s figure out how to just do it ourselves.

association maker motto

Photo by NoSoma (Flickr CC)

Although I didn’t participate in today’s #assnchat about ASAE’s Great Ideas Conference, it still inspired a blog post. Thank you, KiKi! Here’s why.

conference creativity rooms

I must confess I never went into the creativity rooms at Great Ideas. I peeked into one, but it looked like a dolled-up regular meeting room to me. Maybe I missed something. Maybe I missed it completely. I thought I saw toys on the tables. Or did my eyes deceive me? It’s a shame I didn’t go in and explore, but the timing was never right.

And table toys don’t do much for me. I swear I’m not that serious a person. I’ve attended sessions with group activities centered around toys or other building-block-type things. It’s forced fun for a while. People relax a bit and some get really competitive: “Ours will be bigger!” Perhaps playing with toys shifts our mindset from serious office mode to relaxed engaged conference mode. And, yes, we’re using our creativity, but it seems so forced. And passé, isn’t it? Ok, call me a kill-joy. Then, after a rousing round of construction, the hubbub dies down and we sit passively for the next 30 to 40 minutes listening to the speaker and sneaking glances at the silly-looking fort on our table.

The association professionals in today’s Twitter chat had plenty of great ideas (heh heh) for conference creativity rooms and I even have a few of my own.

Exercise: @AssnMetrics would include “some piece of exercise equipment to put my body in a different state from just sitting.” That reminded me of the Snap Learning Spot sponsored by the Canadian Tourism Commission at Great Ideas where my friend Rob Barnes rode an exercise bike for 35 miles while listening to a micro-learning session. His miles on the bike also raised money for charity. I can imagine a creativity room with a bunch of exercise bikes (or treadmills or ellipticals) for people who want to chat while firing up their mind and body. Maybe some air hockey too. If you rather get outside, the room could be a meeting place for people who want to take scheduled or random walks or hikes.

F&B: The Canadians also served poutine at one point during the conference. I’m sorry I missed it! But, that leads me to my second creativity room feature – food and beverages. @SarahJanetHill and @strattonpub had the same idea. Definitely provide coffee, tea, water and other healthy beverages. Our brains need fuel. Have sign-ups for sommelier- or Cicerone-led wine and beer tastings at the end of the day. The food for the room could be made by people attending mini-cooking classes.

Mini-classes: Why stop at cooking classes? People can sign up in advance to teach people how to knit, play Texas Hold ‘Em or the acoustic guitar, or whatever. 

Arts and crafts: @SarahJanetHill said she likes “playdoh or pipecleaners or something to keep my hands busy. Helps keep my brain engaged.” @ASegar added, “craft paper, scissors, glue.” Who doesn’t like arts and crafts? Let’s make lunch centerpieces, art projects, lanyards or badge decorations – it’s like camp!

Puppy room: @k8doyle suggested this brilliant idea. But where do the puppies (or kitties) come from? Why the Humane Society or SPCA, of course! They can talk to folks about fostering pets, pet care, and other topics.

Music: @ToeKneeRay wants music and I agree. Even at a low (and adjustable) volume, it will energize people. Live music throughout the venue would be even better, if you can afford it. 

Furniture: @strattonpub requests “comfortable seating for solo and group work, lots of natural lighting, warm colors/décor.” I’d add all kinds of plants too – ferns, cacti, succulents, leafy plants, etc. @craigsorrell would like “a room of rocking chairs so you can sit and chat with attendees.” I envision a big room with some private spaces for those who need a bit of solitude. A room with a view would be ideal. Or a few rooms scattered throughout the venue, each with their own character.

Shazam: Wouldn’t it be cool to go somewhere and let your creativity and intellect go crazy in conversation with other attendees? Maybe speakers would pop by and ask questions that encourage wild thinking and wondering. Or whoever is staffing the room would come armed with provocative questions and topics, and not just professional ones.

Tools: @ASegar would stock “flipcharts, postable walls, sticky notes, pens” and @strattonpub would include a “whiteboard or chalkboard.” Make it a good place to let the mind wander and work out issues. Provide magazines and iPads too – tether them if you wish. Who knows, maybe you can get a group visionboard activity going.

Introvert-friendly: @bussolati said “My ideal creativity room would be just me… Introverts unite!” She wasn’t alone in that sentiment. We can create creativity rooms that include quiet space where we can recharge alone.

@ThadLurie shared an article by Susan Cain, The Rise of the New Groupthink. “We need to move beyond the New Groupthink and embrace a more nuanced approach to creativity and learning,” said Cain. “Our offices should encourage casual, cafe-style interactions, but allow people to disappear into personalized, private spaces when they want to be alone.” Replace offices with conferences.

I know we’re at conferences primarily to meet and deepen relationships, oh, yeah, and to get an education too, but I wouldn’t mind a bit more downtime or white space, even if it means extending the conference. I hate having to skip a session just so I can go for a walk while it’s light out.

What do you think? What’s in your ideal creativity room? And how do you recharge when you’re in the midst of a conference?

contents of a conference creativity room

Photo by laffy4k (Flickr)

Every day in my association’s online community, people reach out to fellow members to ask questions or request guidance. Today I saw someone ask for examples of associations that have had proven success with social media. At the bottom of her request for help, she added three words – “NO vendors, please.”

I get why people say that. Too many clueless vendors use discussion forums for their own spammy self-interest. Their boorish behavior provokes others to put fences around their discussions so vendors can’t contribute.

Some association executives want to hear advice only from those who have been in their shoes, either as a CEO or director of membership, education, or another department. But many vendors have been in these same positions – they know what they’re talking about.

Even if vendors don’t have association management experience, they can provide you with the examples or guidance you seek. I thought of a handful of social media consultants who could have given this person exactly the data she needed for her board. Vendors are happy to share their clients’ (and others’) success stories and answer your questions either publicly or privately.

I’ve learned a beautiful thing about many of the vendors in my association community – they’re willing to share their knowledge when someone asks and they won’t ask for anything in return. They won’t hound you with phone calls or add you to a mailing list without your permission. They simply want to help.

Why? They’re smart. They know providing knowledge to others gets their name out there in the community. That’s why they write articles, blog posts, and white papers, and speak at conferences, workshops, and webinars.

Many of them are also blessed with a good heart. They get a kick out of helping others. Why hoard knowledge when you can share it? They’re driven by relationships and are sincerely passionate about their professional community. It’s why you always see them smiling and laughing at conferences despite the grueling hours spent traveling, exhibiting, and speaking while getting up too early and staying up too late.

I know these vendor secrets because I work closely with several of them in the association community, and I’m friends with many others. I see what makes them tick, and it’s not just the prospect of new business. It’s the prospect of helping someone.

So the next time you’re tempted to write “NO vendors, please” in your request for help, please remember, there may be a vendor out there who has exactly the information you need. As a matter of fact, they may be the only one paying attention who has what you need, and they’re willing to provide it without any ulterior motive, but unfortunately you just blew him or her off.  

association vendors

Photo by Max Wolfe (Flickr)

Right about now, if Isaac hadn’t interfered, I’d be arriving in New Orleans to enjoy its local food and cocktail culture for a few days.

I was going to tag along as my boyfriend attended a conference that was to start Tuesday. Late last night, the conference was postponed, so there’s a good chance I’ll get to have my New Orleans adventure another time, most likely with better weather. But the members of the American Political Science Association aren’t so lucky.  

association conference hurricane decision

On Sunday while watching Isaac’s westerly turn toward New Orleans, I noticed some #apsa2012 tweets in the #nola stream. The tweets were about the cancellation of their Wednesday pre-conference sessions. What a mess, I thought. Making the decision to cancel my boyfriend’s conference was a no-brainer since it was scheduled to run the day before, during, and after Isaac. But what would APSA do?

As I mourned my missed vacation, I checked the #nola stream earlier today.  A slew of WTF-type tweets from #aspa2012 registrants dominated the stream. “Make a decision!” was the most common plea. People were wondering if they should get on the plane or cancel their plans. They kept asking APSA for information but nothing was forthcoming.

association conference hurricane decision

If APSA had taken the time to address or ask about people’s concerns, they may have stemmed some of the negativity that took over the conference hashtag.

Finally, the announcement came: the conference would start on Thursday as scheduled. If your flight to New Orleans was canceled, you could apply for a registration refund, but questions about that policy went unanswered.

association conference hurricane refund

Some of the tweets took the decision in stride, focusing on short lines in bars, but most of them leaned negative. Some wondered whether their concerns about traveling to the eye of the storm were even taken into consideration.

APSA’s in a tight spot. Imagine the hotel liability, and lost exhibition, sponsorship, and advertising revenue if they were to cancel. What do you do with the members and exhibitors who are flying less cooperative airlines than my full-credit-on-canceled-flights Southwest? Ask them to pay for another flight to the conference when it’s rescheduled?

What about members and speakers who can’t make it? Did they try to find out who would be able to come and use that data in their decision-making? What kind of experience will attendees have if many of the attendees and speakers can’t make it?

association conference hurricane

Imagine attendees getting to New Orleans on Thursday, the earliest they’ll be able to arrive, in what shape will the city be?

association conference hurricane decision members

We can say to ourselves, “Man, I’m glad that’s not my association,” and the obvious, “Why would you ever schedule a conference during hurricane season in New Orleans?” Well, because I bet you can get some good deals, ask my boyfriend’s company.

Associations must consider dozens of factors when making a decision to either hold a conference during a hurricane, or postpone or cancel it. It’s a revenue question, I know that, but you can’t forget your mission. Is leadership making an expedient short-term decision or do they have the capacity (and the balls) to make the right decision?

I don’t know anything about APSA’s situation so I’m not suggesting this is a bad decision, although their members on Twitter seem to think it is. They’re a vocal minority, but do they represent the views of the majority of attendees?

Poor APSA gives the rest of us in the association community the opportunity to watch and learn.

Update: Tuesday afternoon and the conference is still on despite signs of weak attendance by members and exhibitors. Check out the comments on this blog post, Are You Going to APSA?

Update #2: Tuesday, 5:49pm APSA made the conference cancellation announcement on their website, later followed by a tweet. News of the cancellation leaked to Twitter about 20 minutes earlier. They announced, “In light of revised information we have from local officials about the trajectory of Isaac, we now anticipate the potential for sustained rain, flooding, power outages and severely restricted transportation into the city on Thursday.” I hate to say it, but after watching The Weather Channel  Jim and I were anticipating those conditions when our trip and his conference were cancelled on Sunday. One of APSA’s members agrees.

new orleans isaac


Eight years ago, the Girl Scouts of the USA decided it was time to transform the organization. “We knew we had to…revitalize the organization to ensure we remain compelling, contemporary and relevant to today’s girls.”

“Girl Scouts was founded 100 years ago. We need to update the organization and our model, or else we’re going to lose people,” says Anna Maria Chávez, CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA.

Sound familiar?

Think big. Act boldly. Transform yourself.

It doesn’t surprise me the Girl Scouts plan to transform themselves. After all, the Girl Scouts have been a transformational experience for many of their alumnae, including me.  According to Girl Scouting Works: The Alumnae Impact Study, Girl Scout alumnae exhibit more positive life outcomes than do non-Girl Scout alumnae, including self-perceptions, volunteerism, community work, civic engagement, education, income and socioeconomic status. Not bad.

Are your members’ lives changed because of their membership? Do they get experiences they wouldn’t have elsewhere? Relationships they couldn’t develop elsewhere? Education they can’t find elsewhere? Does your association provide a transformational experience for your members? Imagine if you did, you wouldn’t have any worries about recruitment, retention or relevance.

Read more about why the Girl Scouts have lessons for associations at the Avectra blog.

My old Girl Scout sash

Quiz time:

  1. How often do you try a new recipe? A different gas station or restaurant? An unfamiliar magazine or radio station?
  2. When’s the last time you talked with someone about an idea or project that flopped, or asked for constructive criticism?
  3. When did you last seek ideas from someone with a different perspective? Or collaborate with a colleague from another department?
  4. Who lights up your office with their energy, passion and creativity? Is it you?
  5. Whose reactions concern you the most: your boss, the CEO, leadership or the average member?

These questions are based on traits identified by Jasper Visser as signs of a good organizational attitude. Visser is a digital strategist and workshop facilitator who works primarily with museums. His recent post, The Future is About Attitude, Not Technology, got me thinking about individual and organizational attitude.

You can have the biggest technology budget on the block, but if your association’s culture and attitude is stuck in the 20th century, that slick AMS or online community is only going to take you so far.

When Visser looks at museums that have successfully adopted new media and technology, he sees five common characteristics that hint at the attitude organizations need to succeed in the 21st century.

Read about these five characteristics at the Avectra blog.

the future belongs to the few of us still willing to get our hands dirty

Photo by Stephanie Vacher (Flickr)

How’s your first-year member retention rate? Not that great? You’re not alone. First year retention is a challenge for most associations, maybe because they spend much more money on acquiring new members than on guiding them into the association. Last week I suggested several onboarding ideas, beginning with the application and welcome touches. The next touch: orientation.

New approaches to orientation

Many associations still run orientations the way the Pennsylvania School Boards Association used to: “We talked at new members — the ‘It’s all about us’ approach.”

Turn the focus around and make the new member reception (more appealing than ‘orientation’) about them. Hold it before an event to encourage participation. Allow plenty of discussion time. Ask veteran members to learn more about the new members, answer questions, show them around the website and advise them on membership paths.

Invite new vendor members to a marketing workshop where a veteran member panel explains how to market and develop business within the association. Send tips on association networking and relationship-building to all new vendor members.

Please read the rest of this post about new member onboarding at the Avectra blog.

association new member onboarding orientation membership

Photo by Global X/Flickr

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