When association leadership loses its way

Is it OK for a U.S. 501(c)(3) non-profit association to make large profits, pay its four top executives well over $1M per year, and yet do little for its members?

In an astonishing article, Professor Dorothy Vera Margaret Bishop, FRS FBA FMedSci, who is Professor of Developmental Neuropsychology and Wellcome Trust Principal Research Fellow in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford shares an example of an association that’s guilty of all of the above.

“The Society for Neuroscience (SfN) makes humongous amounts of money from its journal and meetings, but spends very little on helping its members, while treating overseas researchers with indifference bordering on disdain.”
—Dorothy Vera Margaret Bishop, Has the Society for Neuroscience lost its way?

Why the SfN lost its way

Bishop’s article gives the financial details, also available from the association’s 2016 (latest) IRS Form 990. To summarize, the Society for Neuroscience:

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Create memorable learning experiences and connections at simple workshops

Create memorable learning experiences and connections at simple workshopsI often design and facilitate workshops for association members who mostly haven’t met before. The desired outcomes are for each participant to gain useful and relevant professional insights, and to make significant new connections.

During the workshops each participant shares and receives consulting from a small peer group on a current personal professional challenge. The only technologies used are printed cards, paper-covered round tables, and colored pens.

Here’s what you might see on a stroll through a typical workshop:

An example
At one workshop, association staffers noted that no one touched a cell phone, and intense conversations with frequent bursts of laughter filled the entire two-hour event.

A participant started crying and his group members rushed to console and support him. (We learned later that he had been unfairly fired earlier in the day.) Afterwards, we saw many people swapping business cards and making arrangements to meet up again. Before leaving, the fired man told me that, despite his dire circumstances, he had had a very positive experience and made several good new friends in his group. Other participants shared during post-workshop conversations that the experience would be memorable because of their personal learning and the new connections made.

Follow up evaluations confirmed that participants obtained meaningful peer support and advice, and began new friendships with other workshop participants.

Such workshops routinely meet the outcomes they’re designed to achieve: creating useful and memorable learning experiences and connections.

Why are these workshops successful?
These workshops are not successful because of the:

  • excellence of a speaker;
  • beauty/novelty of the venue/F&B/entertainment; or
  • extraordinary facilitation.

(Full disclosure:  the facilitation needs to be competent!)

They are successful because of the process design that supports participants learning from each other while simultaneously enjoying a positive emotional connection together.

Adult professional peers can learn much from each other, and when they meet they are hungry to find solutions to current problems, explore issues, and make connections with others who work in the same sphere.

The successful workshops I’ve described above do not have a single expert sharing content. (Rather, it’s fair to say, they tap the expertise and experience of everyone present.) All they need for success is good process, competent facilitation, and a few low-tech items.

They are also simple. Every process element is a strategic ingredient of the workshop design. Running these workshops helps me continually refine the design, stripping away components that distract focus from the desired outcomes.

Many organizations focus on getting the “best” experts to speak at their meetings. Ironically, in my experience it’s almost always easier to create memorable learning and valuable connection for attendees by employing participatory workshop formats. Why? Because they take full advantage of the group’s combined expertise, hone in on what people actually want and need to learn, and build lasting relationships in the process.

How to become one with your association’s strategic goals

association's strategic goalsHow 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!)

I’ll wait…

Was that a little embarrassing? You’re not alone — when I tried this recently, I was pretty embarrassed too!

association's strategic goals

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.

Lessons learned

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.

Associations exist only in the mind

Professional, trade, and public interest associations are significant businesses. In the United States alone, associations employ more than 1.6 million people, and generate an annual payroll of ~$50 billion.

Yet, ultimately, associations exist only in the mind.

Stay with me! I’ll tell you a story that may convince you of the value of this strange point of view.

Fifty years ago, every business wanting to offer credit to its customers needed its own independent system. Individual banks were trying to encourage merchants and customers to adopt newfangled things called “credit cards”, but they failed to solve the chicken-and-egg problem that consumers did not want to use a card that few merchants would accept and merchants did not want to accept a card that few consumers used.

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 AgeDee 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.

Lessons from my association leadership transitions

association leadership transitionsIn 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.

Lessons

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.

Lessons

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!

edACCESS

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.

Lessons

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!

Photo attribution: Flickr user by_andy

Tip: Simple inexpensive effective appreciation of your volunteers

HHMI appreciation posterHere’s a great inexpensive appreciation to provide powerful personal feedback in permanent form to meeting volunteers and staff that complements giving them public appreciations during the event. Event planning committee members and I were the delighted recipients during a recent national peer conference for medical research lab managers.

Simply print copies of your event’s marketing poster, logo, or website main page on white poster stock (see illustration above). Post one copy for each person to receive appreciations, matched with a name card, on noticeboards or tables located in a prominent spot in your venue, and provide some pens nearby. Then, publicize the posters a few times throughout the event and ask attendees to write appreciations for the people posted.

You can see the heart-warming poster I received above. I’ve permanently posted it on my office wall. Every time I look at this poster, I’m reminded of the meeting and the kind plaudits and thanks I received.

At the end of the meeting, remind recipients to pick up their poster before they go!

One more suggestion. Supply cardboard tubes so that recipients can bring their inexpensive appreciation poster safely home. As you can see, mine got a little wrinkled in my suitcase—but I’ll treasure it nevertheless!

 

Unmembership and unconferences

Unmembership and unconferences roots

Unmembership and unconferences?

Sparked by my article Is unmembership the future of associations?, Joe Rominiecki, senior editor of Associations Now, has published an interview with me: How “Unmembership” Gets Back to the Roots of Associating.

The interview helped me verbalize the close connection between the reasons why associations begin and new conferences are born. I’ll leave you to read Joe’s excellent article for the details.

Photo attribution: Flickr user buehlerphoto

Convenings 2.0: Connecting adult learning, communication strategies and event logistics to build stronger relationships

Convenings 2.0

What’s not to like about Convenings 2.0?

“The W.K. Kellogg Foundation is a relationship-based and an event-based organization. We love to bring our grantees together so they can learn, network and share best practices.”
Sterling Speirn, President and CEO, W.K. Kellogg Foundation

Hot off the press! You can download for free the beautifully designed Convenings 2.0 report (click on the report cover above). Convenings 2.0 describes a wealth of thoughtful approaches, proposals, and standards for meetings hosted by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for its grantees. Containing extensive research by Carol and Mike Galle, and Sharon McMurray of Special D Events, I believe this document deserves wide circulation to associations, foundations, and event and association professionals.

Thirty-five subject matter expert contributors from foundations, the meeting industry, and adult learning/academia  contributed to the report, including my friends and colleagues Mitchell Beer, Michelle Bruno, Sandy Heierbacher, Carolyn Ray, Maarten Vanneste, and myself. The bibliography includes books and reports by Joan Eisenstodt, Jackie Mulligan, Maarten, myself, and many others.

The report scope includes meeting and event logistics, knowledge management, integrated communications, technology, foundation considerations, design and execution, communication and branding, a set of twenty-one recommendations, and an outline of design, execution, and evaluation process, with an appendix covering adult learning theory and its application to meetings and a glossary. Apposite quotes are sprinkled throughout the fifty-two pages.

There’s something for everyone here, folks. It’s well worth reading!

Two ways to make conferences better

make conferences better  Attendees talking 7088326883_a77ef0d148_o

How can we make conferences better? Samantha Whitehorn of ASAE’s Associations Now recently wrote an interesting article on new staff roles for meetings and events and I’ve picked out two of her suggestions to comment on:

Attendee Concierge

“Full disclosure: I pretty much stole this one from our June Associations Now cover story about Terry Fong, member concierge for the California Dental Association, who calls 1,000 new members each year to welcome them and ask, “Is there anything we can do for you?”

What if you had a staffer call all new attendees after your meetings and ask them what they liked most and least about the meeting and what else you could be doing to get them to register for the meeting again?

You could also use a similar role onsite and assign new attendees to attendee concierges—in this case, maybe extra staff or member volunteers—and have them check-in with attendees throughout the meeting and then follow-up after.”
—Samantha

I think it’s crucial to check in with attendees during an event. This is something that I’ve done for years—and it’s easy to do. I like to concentrate on attendees I don’t know (the one’s I do are probably going to bend my ear anyway) and ask how the event is going for them. And listen. Do this and you’ll get tons of good in-the-moment feedback, build goodwill and relationships with the people you talk to, and get occasional opportunities to answer questions and solve problems they mention while the event’s still going on, rather than having to wait until next year. Don’t just ask new attendees, by the way; returning attendees can have equally valuable feedback for you. And take notes promptly so what you hear doesn’t evaporate from your brain from the conference heat.

Conference Connector

“I’ve blogged before about how the association education model needs an overhaul where the focus is put more on attendees learning and connecting with one another rather than just speakers on a stage or in front of a room.

At ASAE’s 2013 Great Ideas Conference, Thom Singer, served as “Conference Catalyst.” Over the course of the meeting, he gave attendees networking tips and helped them to engage and connect with one another. And at the California Society of Association Executives’ Annual Conference in April, Jeff Hurt served in a similar role, helping attendees keep the conversation and learning going between sessions and during lunch by having organized chats about what they recently learned.

What if you had a full-time staff person who helped form these small-group discussions to not only help members engage but also to help process and remember what they learned in the larger sessions?”
—Samantha

Thom and Jeff are doing great work around this important topic. But rather than simply adding opportunities for connection piecemeal into our events we can make conferences even better. We can build opportunities for meaningful connections right into our entire event design. This means that we need to adopt meeting and session formats throughout our events.  Formats that facilitate effective participation, connection, and engagement in the sessions themselves. We’ve known for years that the learning and connections that occur when we do this are far superior to what happens at traditional meetings. This is not rocket science—I’ve been designing and facilitating meetings like this for over twenty years. Participants love them. And more and more of them are taking place, all over the world. Let’s do this!

Photo attribution: Flickr user michigancommunities