Associations & Nonprofits


I have a question for association, membership and marketing execs: How often do you pick up the phone at the front desk or in the call center?

nina simon tweet re working at the front desk

Nina Simon is the Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History and blogs at Museum 2.0. Her “guilty pleasure” is a smart idea. She also told me she spends about ten hours a month in the galleries with visitors. That’s like a free focus group!

Imagine how those visitors feel when she talks with them. The museum is no longer an intimidating institution – although I’m sure her museum has never been considered that during her watch – her friendly face is the face of the museum.

Those of you who work in a small associations, you’re excused from this exercise since you probably answer the main line as much as anyone else in the office. But if you work in an association that has a dedicated call center or member service team, you probably only receive calls that are direct-dialed or forwarded to you. That’s a shame because you’re missing out on a convenient, cheap way to understand what’s on the mind of your members and other stakeholders.

If you don’t have the time, budget, or inclination to spend a day in the life of your member, then spend 30 minutes every few weeks in your call center. The experience will give you an opportunity to listen, ask questions, and even lay the foundation for further conversation with members you probably don’t know.

You will also set a positive example for your staff by spending time getting to know members. Let them see you on the frontline making the effort to learn about member needs and concerns. Your example could convince them to build similar activities into their week, like calling new members to welcome them to the association and learn more about their expectations, needs, and aspirations. Or, calling “old” members to find out what’s on their mind.

This simple 30-minute task is one you can put into your schedule right now. And it’s a small step that can nudge your organization’s culture into a new direction.

phone calls with members

For many years now, Mitch Joel, president of marketing agency Twist Image, has been manning the lookout post for the rest of us. His blog, Six Pixels of Separation, is a constant in my RSS feed and his podcast is a regular on my phone. Mitch dedicates each podcast to a conversation with someone interesting from marketing, media or another connected world. If you speak at conferences, you’ll like his recent shows with Nick Morgan and Nancy Duarte.

Mitch was a keynote speaker at the recent digitalNow conference in Nashville. In his keynote, as in his book, Ctrl Alt Delete: Reboot Your Business. Reboot Your Life. Your Future Depends On It, he described five massive movements that have changed how we interact with organizations. Unfortunately, many organizations, including associations, haven’t done much to change how they interact with us.

The power of direct relationships

The battle for direct relationships with your members involves everyone else who offers value to them, including your vendor members, media, consumer brands, thought-leaders and others on their screens. Mitch introduced us to someone who might change how we think about connecting with members. Bethany Mota is a teenage video star who shares her shopping “hauls” with 2-3 million fans every day. She’s successful because she knows her community and gives them what they want. Traditional media can’t even compete.

Do you have a Bethany Mota? Partner with people who know how to connect and communicate with your audience — people who can create direct relationships with them and give them what they want. These people may be on your staff or in your membership, but most likely they’re not. You’ll have to create new relationships (and new budget lines) to get them on your team. But you want them on your team.

disruptions facing associations

Mitch Joel at digitalNow 2014 in Nashville
(photo by Bill Sheridan)

Sex with data

Don’t be standoffish. Get cozy and intimate with your data. You can now capture two types of data:

  • Linear data – transactions, searches, email open rates and clicks.
  • Circular data – the social data we willingly put online that paints a picture of our behavior, interests and needs.

The magic begins when you put both types of data together for a deeper understanding of your members and a more personalized experience for them.

Amazon is the personalization king with their website recommendations and their PriceCheck app which tells you how much the product you’re looking at in a store will cost on Amazon. In the process, they’re learning more about you – your location, interests and shopping habits. In return for your data, they provide a better shopping experience. Check out what the Project Management Institute is doing for their members and website visitors. You don’t need an Amazon budget to do that.

Utility or death

Mitch said today’s prime real estate is the smartphone screen. “What are you doing that makes you valuable enough to be on your member’s home screen?” Members don’t really care about you and your promotions, but the old “what’s in it for me” is one marketing cliché that remains relevant today.

Successful for-profit online communities like Doximity for doctors and ResearchGate for scientists focus first on creating utility – tools and services that help their members do their jobs more effectively. That’s why these hugely successful communities have attracted millions in venture capital and millions of members.

Passive vs. active

Know when to make the distinction between passive and active media, and when a member is passive or active online. Press releases don’t belong on Facebook. Members don’t want to be hounded to like or +1 everything they read on your website.

But members do want the opportunity to be active when they’re online in a way that provides value to them. Give them regular opportunities to provide feedback, share an opinion or idea, help make a decision, or participate in a discussion.

One-screen world

No wonder we’re all distracted. Think about how many screens we have going at times: our phone, tablet, laptop and TV. And the Internet of things may bring even more. Yet, we can only watch one thing at a time. The screen in front of us is the only screen that matters. And soon perhaps all these screens will integrate into one screen.

He closed his keynote with a hopeful message: associations are pioneers who will decide how the future of associations will look. Will your association have a cozy relationship with your member in the one-screen world? Come on out of purgatory and into the light where you’ll find plenty of opportunity for those who can keep up and move onward.

disruptions to associations - fade away or become a pioneer

Emigrants Crossing the Plains (or The Oregon Trail), Albert Bierstadt, 1869, courtesy of the Butler Institute of American Art

 

 

We attend conferences so we can deepen our knowledge and relationships. Hopefully we’ll also get recharged and inspired too but that doesn’t always happen. I was fortunate enough to come away from the 2014 digitalNow conference in Nashville both recharged and inspired thanks to being surrounded by smart people, good friends, savvy conference organizers and the very cool city of Nashville.

After a bountiful breakfast from the talented kitchen at the Omni Nashville, digitalNow attendees entered the theater at the adjoining Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum to await the conference welcome. I was expecting to see Hugh Lee and Don Dea of Fusion Productions, the brains behind digitalNow, walk on stage but instead the theater lights dimmed and I heard the opening chords of a familiar song. A spotlight shone on Nashville residents Gordon Kennedy and Wayne Kirkpatrick playing a little something they wrote for Eric Clapton, Change the World.

Gordon Kennedy and Wayne Kirkpatrick opening digitalNow 2014 (photo by Bill Sheridan)

Gordon Kennedy and Wayne Kirkpatrick opening digitalNow 2014
(photo by Bill Sheridan)

…if I could change the world…

digitalNow’s opening keynote speaker, Adam Braun, founder of Pencils of Promise, is changing the world, one pencil, one school and one child at a time. By the time Adam turned 25, he had already been a Wall Street child prodigy, Brown University graduate, shipwreck survivor and world traveler.

During his travels, he asked a child who was begging in the streets of India, “If you could have anything in the world, what would it be?” The little boy answered, “A pencil.”

The average pencil holds 45,000 words, Adam said. It provides access to self-education and unlocks a child’s curiosity and imagination. Adam started handing out thousands of pencils in his backpacking trips across six continents. Now, his organization, Pencils of Promise, builds schools (200 so far!), trains teachers and provides scholarships to students.

Adam shared several lessons he learned along the way – lessons that apply to both people and organizations.

We are not in the non-profit business. We’re in the for-purpose business. Adam hates the term “non-profit.” He believes “non-profit” is a negative term that doesn’t define our work and strips our organizations of their value. Pencils of Promise is “100% for purpose.” We all know that “non-profit” is merely a tax status, but I wonder how many organizations excite their community with their purpose.

When your members think about your association, do they only think about the products and services you offer, or do they think about being a part of a movement that is changing the world?

Nothing is more powerful than discovering purpose. Adam shared the journey that led him to discovering his purpose. Purpose, not possessions, gives life meaning. However, many of us are so busy living our ordinary lives that we don’t think about purpose. How can associations help members find and live lives of purpose?

True self-discovery is on the edge of your comfort zone. If your dreams do not scare you, then they’re not big enough. When you have big goals and do scary things, you end up becoming a much more grounded and happy person.

I can vouch for that even though I figured it out much later in life than Adam. Although I have very risk-averse genes, I moved across country twice, started my own business, climbed Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and, most recently, climbed over exposed slickrock domes, chimneyed in a slot canyon and rappelled down cliffs in Capitol Reef National Park.

I don’t list these experiences to brag. That’s not my motivation — although I do admit to still bragging about Angel’s Landing since I gave myself a 30% chance of doing it. I want to encourage you to go for the gusto. Prepare yourself and do it, whatever “it” is. Even if it makes you very uneasy. You’ll be a changed person once you stretch your comfort zone and overcome your fear.

Associations are on the edge of their comfort zone right now dealing with new ways of associating, learning and communicating, new technology, new competition, and new expectations. This is also a time of new opportunity. Associations who push through their fear will become stronger and better positioned to be agents of transformation for their members.

Angel's Landing - don't look down! (photo by Dale Beckett/Flickr CC license)

Hiking back from Angel’s Landing – don’t look down!
(photo by Dale Beckett/Flickr CC license)

The quality, not quantity, of an engaged and loyal following is key. It’s not about converting the masses; it’s about finding the one person in the room whose eyes light up. Adam told the story of one of their “torchbearers,” Chelsea, the only person who showed up at one of their meetings. She became a huge supporter and organizer. Are you paying attention to the people in your community whose eyes light up when talking about your mission? Not just the usual suspects but those on the periphery?

Take advantage of the belief people have that they can change the world. I wonder, do GenX and Boomers still believe they can change the world? I know some of us do. The members on your board better believe it too.

Thankfully, Millennials believe they can change the world. And Adam calls the generation after the Millennials, “Generation Why Not.” If younger people don’t see your association as a community where they can make contributions and create change, they’ll find another where they can.

Build a movement and mobilize people by making them the heroes of the journey. Stop talking about the association and start talking about the work your members and volunteers do – how they are creating (or can create) something bigger than themselves.

Find ways to make people feel like important members of a purposeful community. Adam gave business cards to early supporters of Pencils of Purpose. They built a digital platform where torchbearers can tell their own stories. They tag contributors’ name on social media platforms to show them (and their friends) what they’re creating.

Speak the language of the person you want to become — your future aspirational self. Use the language of self-realization, for example, instead of saying, “We’re hoping to build a school,” say, “We’re building a school.” Guess what happens? People will think of you in those aspirational terms and connect you with those who can help you do it. Say it and make it so.

Do you want to help change the world? Together, we are building a classroom for kids who never imagined they would sit in one. We’ll give little girls and boys the chance to unleash their minds and escape the worst kind of poverty. Visit http://www.thedigitalnowpromise.com and contribute what you can to digitalNow’s team fundraising page for Pencils for Promise.

Pencils of Promise's first students - click to watch the adorable 40-second video on YouTube.

Pencils of Promise’s first students – click to watch the adorable 40-second video on YouTube.

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)

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