Who’s responsible for association culture? The association staff, or its membership?
[Association culture? Here’s a definition by Jamie Notter.] “Organizational culture is the collection of words, actions, thoughts, and ‘stuff’ that clarifies and reinforces what a company truly values.” —Jamie Notter, Definition of Organizational Culture
To explore this question, let’s be clear about which culture we’re talking. I view an association as a group of people with a shared mission, the organizational incarnation of a community of practice. Every association has an internal culture, formed by its staff, while existing in an external culture, its members’ relationships with each other and the industry or realm they inhabit.
In a dynamic association, these two cultures constantly interact with, inform, and influence each other. This leads us to the question.
Who’s responsible for external association culture?
Is it an association’s staff, or its membership? At first glance, internal association culture is the direct responsibility of its staff, usually steered by the board, which (hopefully) includes and represents members.
But who’s responsible for external association culture, which determines how members learn from and work with each other, and how the association impacts and influences the wider world?
“It might be collaborative or it might be competitive. It might value academic accomplishment or it might value real-world experience. It might embrace diversity or it might fear it. Whatever your members’ culture might be, it’s there.” —Joe Rominiecki, Where membership and culture meet
Later in the same article, Joe says:
“If any player has the position and influence to change the culture in an entire industry, it’s an association, because that’s exactly the sort of change an association is designed to do.
I think the primary purpose of an association is not to change “external culture”—i.e. the culture of its collective members—but rather to support and strengthen the culture. If you see associations as multi-purpose tools for communities of practice, then it’s the community itself that determines what kind of supporting and strengthening capabilities the association builds into its toolkit.
The internal culture then becomes the way in which the association structures and organizes itself to best support the external culture embodied in its membership.
Healthy external association culture
I’ve consulted with hundreds of associations over the last three decades, have served on numerous boards, and been a member of many non-profits. In my experience, healthy associations foster continual conversations between staff and members. These conversations develop the association in response to the wants and needs of the membership, the resources available to the association, and the pressures and challenges posed by the association’s commitment to its mission in the context of its changing external environment.
Such conversations can involve questions like:
What should the association be doing that it isn’t (or what should it do less of)?
How political should the association be?
How much member and societal education should the association provide or support, and what kind?
What useful things can and/or should the association do that individual members can’t and/or won’t?
There are no “right” answers to such questions. What’s important is that association culture allows and expects staff and members to ask them. And, of course, that there are mechanisms in place to:
Support the resulting conversations; and
Create appropriate organizational and programmatic changes when needed.
The devolution of responsibility from association members to staff
Finally, we get to the title question asked by this post: Does your association’s tail wag your membership’s dog? One unfortunate trend I sometimes see, especially with larger associations, is that responsibility for the external culture swings towards the staff at the expense of the membership. This is understandable. As associations grow, individual members tend to assume that the association leadership will “handle” the external cultural issues. (“Hey, I’ve got a business to run! That’s what my association’s staff gets paid to do!”) But that doesn’t mean that the staff should take over this important responsibility.
Instead, it’s vital that staff maintain a leadership role supporting how an association defines its external culture. That includes staying in close touch with member needs and wants, and the external political, social, and cultural environments. How an association responds to wants, needs, and external events, must always involve the entire association community — staff and members — so the organization responds and changes in a healthy way.
“Contains active cultures.” How often have you read this on the sides of yogurt containers? Well, healthy organizations contain active cultures too.
Active cultures — not just for yogurt any more
Just as there are hundreds of different strains of probiotic cultures, there are many ways to think about organizational culture. For example, you might focus on descriptive approaches: an organization’s core beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions about “what is” and “why is”, plus customary ways of interacting. Or, you could concentrate on a behavioral approach: how an organization consistently does things.
Unfortunately, in many organizational cultures the descriptive culture isn’t congruent with the behavioral reality. Ultimately, however you define organizational culture, what interests most people is changing it, hopefully for the better.
That’s where active (aka adaptive or adhocracy) organizational cultures shine.
“I am crazy but I’m not alone.” —participant evaluation comment
Someone wrote “I am crazy but I’m not alone” on the paper evaluation form for the first edACCESS peer conference in 1992. The next year we printed it on a banner above the entryway to the event, and it’s been been edACCESS’s official motto ever since.
There’s more behind this simple phrase that meets the eye.
A new association service, Open Collective, offers an intriguing way to raise funds and provide radical financial transparency to members.
I like to think of an association as a group of people with a shared mission, the incarnation of a community of practice. Open Collective supports communities of practice like meet ups and open source developers. But the service can be used by any association that wants to outsource fund raising and offer financial transparency on how funding is raised and spent.
Here’s how it works.
Open Collective makes it easy to request funds for specific activities or goals (example). You can quickly create a sharable link to the request, which can be one-time or monthly. Flexible donation tiers allow you to create named donation levels, and feature them appropriately on your website. You can also sell tickets to events (currently in beta).
One interesting feature allows an umbrella organization to empower local or networked chapters/projects to raise money. Each sub-group have their own budget without having to open multiple bank accounts.
Unpaid expenses and available funds can be seen by all members (example). Definable (and changeable) core members can approve or reject submitted expenses (example). Anyone can see the money flow in and out of the organization.
From the website: “Open Collective takes 10% of the money raised by the collective for managing bookkeeping, taxes, and admin (fiscal sponsorship), as well as providing your Open Collective page and the software it runs on. We share this commission with the fiscal sponsor (legal owner of the bank account that holds the money on behalf of the collective). Additionally, our payment processors charge a fee, usually 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction.”
This seems reasonable, though it’s not clear how the commission sharing works. The non-profit service Network for Good charges a 5% administrative fee (which includes payment processing charges) for donations, but Open Collective offers many more services than just accepting donations.
As I write this, Open Collective is supporting over two hundred organizations with a combined annual budget of over half a million dollars, and you need to apply to join; it’s not automatically open to anyone who signs up. A two-part article by one of the founders (formerly cofounder/CEO of Storify.com) offers a useful summary of the history and philosophy of Open Collective.
What I think
For the first ten years of its existence, a non-profit association edACCESS I co-founded in 1991 was run informally under the auspices of another non-profit. Because we committed to transparency right from the start (our books were always open for anyone to see) Open Collective would have been very helpful for managing our finances.
A structure like this isn’t appropriate for every non-profit. But I think the service offers a novel approach to supporting communities that want to be financially transparent. It could be especially useful for localities that want to support citizen-created collectives using shared infrastructure (example: the city of Brussels). If it fits for you, Open Collective is well worth investigating.
How to become one with your association’s strategic goals
No, I’m not suggesting you rise at 5 a.m. and recite your association’s strategic plan as your daily morning mantra. But I’d like you to answer this simple question. How many of your association’s strategic goals can you recall right now?
(No cheating! And not the easy bits about your vision, mission, who you serve, or your programs and services — just your goals!)
Was that a little embarrassing? You’re not alone — when I tried this recently, I was pretty embarrassed too!
Last month I joined the board of a local non-profit, just in time to take part in the third and final board meeting to update our strategic plan. It was a productive and well-run meeting, expertly facilitated by non-profit consultant Lizann Peyton, and ten minutes before the scheduled end we had agreed on a list of five major goals, each with several subgoals.
Then Lizann asked us to avert our eyes from our notes and recall the goals we had just spent two hours formulating.
Oh my goodness! My mind went blank. We’d just been talking about our goals, but in that moment it became clear to me (and I suspect to most if not all board members) that we hadn’t internalized them.
That’s upsetting because, Dilbert jokes aside, organizational strategic plan goals need to be top of mind for board members and staff if there’s going to be a reasonable chance that they’ll actually be met. (Otherwise, what’s the point of having them?)
Lizann had clearly seen this movie before. She smoothly suggested three ways for us to become more familiar with our strategic goals at our board meetings.
Three suggestions on how to assist board members become one with your strategic goals
1) Add your list of strategic plan goals to each board meeting agenda. (Print them on the back if you’re still using paper agendas.)
2) At each board meeting, organize the agenda to reflect the structure of your strategic goals. Also, include a short discussion about some part of your strategic direction. For example, if one of your goals is to assess opportunities for the use of new space, include an agenda item at each meeting for a progress update from the new space committee.
3) Have the executive director’s reports to the board be organized around the strategic goals too. After all, the director’s job is to help move the organization in the direction set by the board.
My inability to recall conclusions that we’d just spent two hours creating clearly indicates the limitations of learning models that rely on one-time exposure to information (e.g. lecturing). Learning research tells us that “repeat to remember” is key to encoding learning in long-term memory. Although the monthly interval between our meetings is longer than optimum, following Lizann’s recommendations over time should help us internalize our strategic goals, reducing future potential embarrassment and, more importantly, improving our ability to achieve them.
Perhaps these recommendations will help your association’s staff and board members too!
Have you found other ways to help internalize your organization’s strategic goals? Share them in the comments below.
Then in 1966, a man named Dee Hock had the vision, determination, resources, and a little luck to break this logjam. Dee described his journey in a fascinating book he wrote after his retirement in 1984, intriguingly titled: Birth of The Chaordic Age. Dee was the first CEO of what became the mammoth multinational financial services corporation VISA, a company with a current market capitalization of over $200B.
What has this to do with associations? Well, VISA has never issued cards, extended credit or set rates and fees for consumers. The company is, in structure if not in capitalist terms, an association of tens of thousands of member banks. They offer VISA-branded credit, debit, prepaid and cash-access programs to their hundreds of millions of customers. While competing with each other for customers, these banks agree to honor each other’s trillions of dollars in transactions annually across borders and currencies.
A set of agreements
At its core, VISA is a set of agreements between its members. The company’s value to its owners and customers is created from the mutual agreements its members have made. Without those agreements, VISA would not exist. We would return to the pre-VISA world, when every financial entity needed its own system of offering customer credit.
VISA is an atypical kind of for-profit organization. But its core purpose is essentially identical to that of trade and professional associations. Associations are society’s instantiations of communities of practice, groups of people who share a common interest, profession, or passion and agree to actively engage around what they have in common. That leads us to Dee Hock’s (and my) view of organizations like VISA and associations:
“…organizations exist only in the mind; they are no more than the conceptual embodiments of the ancient idea of community.” —Dee Hock, Birth of The Chaordic Age
When associations go astray
This perspective is extremely important because it’s easy for associations to forget their initial and continued reasons for existence. Every association is created when at some moment in time a group of people with something in common wants to further a particular profession and/or the interests of those engaged in a profession and/or the public interest. Typically, the community already exists informally. Its “members” want to create a formal, legal structure to support, deepen, and widen its reach.
Associations can, however, lose sight of this primal and ongoing purpose. When this happens, they concentrate on self-perpetuation and/or expansion at the expense of supporting the community of practice for which they were created. Remembering that an association is, at its core, a set of agreements in people’s minds about the instantiation of a community that is important to them is key to keeping the association relevant to the community it serves.
So remember that associations exist only in the mind. Keeping an association’s purpose foremost, is key to maintaining its community of practice’s core reasons for being.
In June I’m stepping down as President and Executive Director of edACCESS, an association I co-founded 25 years ago. This is the third time I’ve left an association leadership position. Here are some valuable lessons learned from these association leadership transitions.
The Solar Association of Vermont
Although the rapid growth of the solar energy industry may appear to be a recent phenomenon, North American boomers will remember the late 70’s and early 80’s when the 1979 “oil-crisis” hit and interest in alternative energy generation soared. I moved to Vermont in 1978 and joined the management of a fledging solar hot water manufacturing business. After a couple of years, I helped to found the Solar Association of Southern Vermont. Eventually we became the Solar Association of Vermont (SAVE!) We’d hold monthly meetings in the tiny rural town of Brattleboro and sixty people would show up. SAVE went on to produce many of the earliest alternative energy conferences in the United States.
But in the 80’s Reagan was elected. He removed the solar collectors that a colleague of mine had installed on the White House. By the mid-80’s oil prices had returned to pre-crisis levels. Interest in solar energy dried up and SAVE meeting attendance shrank to a few people.
What did we do?
We shut SAVE down.
We held a big end-of-the-association party, inviting everyone who had been part of this brief flowering of community interest. Little did we know that our work would set the stage for the meteoric rise of solar photovoltaic systems today.
As time passes, the key motivations for an association’s existence can transmute, or even disappear. I’ve worked with hundreds of associations, and seen some continue to struggle on long after their mission has become irrelevant. Check regularly that your association’s mission remains congruent with its circumstances. If not, change your mission or your operations to stay relevant. Or, if necessary, close up shop (not forgetting to celebrate all your good work if you do!)
A local association
After a number of years serving as a board member of a local chapter of a national association, the board offered me the presidency. The national was recommending that chapters fundamentally change the way they operated, a change I agreed with. I told the board that I would happily accept the presidency if we allocated the resources needed to make this transformation happen, arguing that the change would improve our financial resources by allowing us to significantly increase our community fundraising.
Unfortunately, the board refused to allocate the resources I requested.
Consequently I reluctantly turned down the presidency and left the board, as I did not want to lead an association whose board did not support the vision I had for its future.
Looking back on the subsequent evolution of the association, I don’t regret my decision, though I wish I’d been better able to convince the board that my approach was a better alternative to staying with the status quo.
Before taking an association leadership role, share your vision for the future and make sure the rest of the association buys into it. If they don’t, don’t take the job!
In 1991 I co-founded edACCESS, a 501(c)6 that supports information technology staff at small schools. Initially, I had a professional interest in the organization’s mission for many years and served for free. As my consulting focus shifted increasingly towards meeting design, I moved into a paid part-time executive director role.
In May, I decided to give up the position, with the goal of making the handover to new leadership as smooth as possible. I announced my intent at the June annual conference and offered to stay for a year in a supervisory role, coaching new leadership as needed.
The existing leadership handled my announcement very well. I told them I would provide any desired assistance and advice around leadership changes, but felt it was important not to be intimately involved in ongoing decisions. I was gratified by the response, which to me reflects the fundamental health of the association I helped to create.
As I write this, the transition is going well. The full year’s notice will allow me to take new and existing leadership through an entire life cycle of core association process. I am confident that the association will be in good shape when I leave.
I have seen (and experienced) a number of associations that were severely stressed by the sudden departure of leadership and the total lack of any leadership succession planning. To be honest, edACCESS is small enough that we did not have a formal plan in place. I am glad I have the flexibility to offer what will hopefully be sufficient time and support to allow the association to continue effectively carrying out its mission. Don’t assume that key association staff or board members, will stay with the organization for ever, or give you ample warning before they depart! Pre-emergency planning for leadership, staffing, and succession will minimize the turmoil that can be generated without warning when key personnel leave unexpectedly.
Association leadership transitions
Have you made association leadership transitions? What lessons have you learned that others may value? Share in the comments!
“Unmembership? What’s that?” It’s a word invented by my creative friend Mitchell Beer during a wonderful ninety minute coffee break during the 2014 PCMA Convening Leaders conference a few weeks ago. Let me explain.