Idea Swappin’

This week’s Super Idea Swap at ASAE was great, as usual! We had lots of new faces – and plenty of familiar ones – and sessions with different topics than we often see.

I chose to participate in the session on diversity in the morning, led by Constance Thompson from the American Society of Civil Engineers, and Clinton Anderson, from the American Psychological Association. In the afternoon, I participated in the session on generations in the workplace, led by David Miles from the Miles LeHane Companies.

My top takeaways included:

  • When pairing up mentors and padawans, stop putting like with like (Asian man with Asian man, Latina with Latina, etc.), and look at people’s professional goals and who can best help them meet those goals.
  • Diversity is about how we’re the same and different. Inclusion is about using diversity to make us and our organizations better.
  • DJ Johnson shared two great tools: the diversity wheel and the concept of the diversity paradigm by Roosevelt Thomas.
  • If you don’t measure it, you can’t change it – getting data from our audiences is key to becoming more diverse as organizations, but we have to be transparent about why we want the information to allay people’s fears about sharing it.
  • We have to let people express the “who cares?” thoughts, since stifling those uncomfortable conversations helps no one.
  • Conflict is a sign of diverse voices, which, to a group that has been historically homogenous, feels threatening.
  • The decisions of a heterogeneous group take longer, but tend to produce better outcomes.
  • “Do you know next?”



Innovate Now! But How?

We’re constantly being urged to innovate, but frankly, in a world of venture capital, nanotechnology, medical advances, and big R&D budgets – none of which nonprofits have access to on a regular basis – that constant drumbeat of “innovate…innovate…innovate” can feel more than a little intimidating – it can even seem impossible.

The thing is, your association is never going to be Apple (hell, Apple might not be Apple after visionary founder Steve Jobs is no longer on the scene).  And that’s OK.  You don’t have to change the world for everyone to have an impact on someone.

So as a community, if we’re not going to discover an abundant, non-carbon-based, renewable energy source or find the cure for AIDS or bring peace to the Middle East or create the next iGottaHaveIt device, what can we do?  Where is our ground for innovation?

It’s right under our noses: membership and volunteerism – the two things we, as a community, can lay claim to owning.

And the thing is, we NEED to innovate in both of these areas, because they’re key to our operations and they’re in the midst of being subjected to some pretty powerful generational forces.

I posted about this earlier this spring, but I think the current association model, particularly as relates to membership and volunteering, is an artifact of its creation by the Boomers.  Membership is often a one-size-fits-all prospect, with lots of “community good” stuff, well, stuffed in there, whether or not the individual member wants it or wants to support it.  That lets us get away with pricing at least some of our offerings below what they actually cost us to produce, artificially inflating demand, which in turn, makes it hard to kill things that should die.

John Graham gave a speech at the Association Foundation Group’s national conference a few weeks ago where he indicated that the association model is predicated on only about 25% of our members taking advantage of any given service that’s offered to them. His point was that if they all took 100% advantage of their memberships, we’d go out of business.  My response was different – that means that, for any given “benefit” you offer to members, 75% of them don’t want it.  And yet they’re paying for it.  And we wonder why we have a hard time articulating our value proposition!

To paraphrase the always-provocative Scott Briscoe (and I linked to this post recently in my regular Wednesday What I’m Reading feature):  we’re inundating our members with too much irrelevant crap.  No wonder they “don’t pay attention!” (how often have you said that?)  They aren’t interested in 75% of what we keep insisting on telling them about – no wonder we can’t get their attention about the 25% that actually matters to them.

Xers and Millennials – aka, your members of tomorrow – have much higher expectations of paying for what – and only what – we actually want (the article linked relates to Boomers versus Xers as parents of school-age kids, but it’s both interesting and relevant for our discussion here).  I quote:

Gen Xers are acutely sensitive to the prices they pay and the value they receive in return.

Prepare for the modular “opt-out” consumer. 

(Oh, and did I mention that the article was written by Neil Howe?)

We need to be thinking seriously, innovating seriously, about how that affects the membership model NOW.  Hell, we needed to start thinking about this yesterday.

Those same dynamics – localism, pragmatism, focus on the bottom line, personal accountability, distrust of authority and institutions – affect volunteering just as strongly (if not more so) than membership. We’re not interested in neverending committee meetings that don’t actually accomplish anything.  We don’t want to have to “pay dues” to get a leadership position – we want responsibility based on what we’ve accomplished, not on our ability to outlast the other guy.  But don’t listen to me – check our Deirdre Reid’s New Volunteer Manifesto.  She says it all way better than I could.

Associations, and nonprofits more generally, REQUIRE volunteers to operate.  But if we can’t innovate around what we offer and our expectations and put together a model that fits with what GenX and the Millennials are looking for, there will be no one to fill those seats.

So what do you think? What are you doing to address generational change and how it will affect the building blocks of your organization?  Where else can associations innovate?

Next-Generation Leadership

JNott recently concluded a great series on leadership skills for the 21st Century, and Acronym has declared May to be Leadership Inspiration Month, and the combo got me thinking:

What qualities will the association leader of the future need?

Rather than putting together some laundry list, I thought I’d focus on the two that seem most important to me:

Nimbleness of Mind 

It took us a while to catch the bug, but boy howdy, do associations love planning these days.  We love strategic planning.  We love action planning.  We love work planning.  We love metrics.  We love data.  We love environmental scanning.  We love SWOT analysis. We love Gantt charts.  We love Microsoft Project.  You’d think we were getting ready to invade Normandy, rather than just trying to roll out the renewal notices on time.

And that’s all great – really it is.  A constant Ready –> Fire –> Aim approach can get you in big trouble.

But the thing is, you can’t plan for everything.  Associations were never the most change-friendly organizations in the first place, and all this process-heavy planning infrastructure is slowing us down even more in a time when the *pace* of change is accelerating.  Rapidly.  News cycles, already 24/7, have been sped up by social media.  Competition from free and for-profit sources is increasing – and neither of those types of groups has to wait 6 months until the next board meeting to even get an idea on the agenda to be considered.

I’m not saying fly by the seat of your pants all the time – that can leave you without the available cash to make payroll at the end of the month.  But I am saying that the ability of our leaders to perform rapid analysis, trust their instincts, adapt, and come to decisions quickly is going to be critical to our ability to thrive as an association community.

Cross-Generational Fluency

We have 4 generations in the workplace at the same time for maybe the first time ever, as younger Silent generation members and Boomers delay retirement, while Gen-Xers are firmly in the middle of our careers, and the Millennials are moving en masse out of their schooling years and into their careers. Even the most cursory review of the available datareveals that these generations have MASSIVELY different ways of interacting with both people and technology. That lack of shared experience and understanding can produce significant friction in the workplace.  Does any of the following sound familiar?

  • That old guy in my office still prints out all his emails and dictates his responses to his assistant!  What’s wrong with that guy?
  • Why won’t those damn self-centered Boomers retire already? Or at least help prepare younger people for leadership positions?
  • Stupid Gen-Xers – they’re so secretive.  Why do they always want to work on their own?  What’s their problem with team work?
  • Why does the 25 year old program assistant think she’s too good to make copies?  And why did she apply for that open director position?  She’s only been here 6 months!

One of the key management lessons I’ve learned over the years is that you need to meet people where they are, not expect them to come to you.  Our leaders are going to have to become multi-generational-lingual in order to be able to get the most out of our teams.  For more on this idea, I highly recommend Karen Sobel Lojeski’s work on virtual distance.

What do you think?  What do our next-generation leaders need to do and be to make sure associations continue to thrive?


Generations, Leadership and Change

A number of things, including this post on leadership mindsets by Jamie Notter, have gotten me thinking about the major forces that I think are currently shaping the association community.

“The economy” and “health care reform” both seem like the obvious answers, right?

Particularly given that NACHRI is a health care organization, and we all keep getting those blast emails “from” John Graham urging us to…well, I actually haven’t paid a ton of attention since I already have my mind made up on health care (the only major thing that’s wrong with the bill Obama signed about two weeks ago is that there’s STILL no public option, and since I lack representation in Congress, what I think doesn’t really matter anyway). But (I digress) no, not health care.

And the thing about the economy is that it cycles. What’s going on now is a difference of degree, not of kind.

People who know me might guess that I’d say, “Social media! And it’s going to cure cancer, assure me a lifetime supply of Jimmy Choos, and get us all puppies!” Yeah, not so much – social media provides a new platform (or platforms, if you prefer), but it’s for a very old school activity: communication.

I think the most important force shaping the association community today is generational change.

As described in the Lifecourse work of William Strauss and Neil Howe, generations (like the economy) cycle, but the key difference is that a large majority of associations have never directly experienced significant generational change.

Most associations were built by, are currently staffed at senior levels by, and have memberships largely made up of idealistic “prophet” Baby Boomers. I think that provides the foundation for most associations, and carries with it some very good and very bad things: the level of commitment we require of our volunteers, the fact that we expect members to happily support “common good” programs, the focus on process over outcomes, the emphasis on mission and the willingness to make personal sacrifices in service to that mission, and even the high value placed on gathering face to face.

Gen-X “nomads” are much more pragmatic – we’re not joiners, and we don’t follow movements. Is the membership model dying? I don’t really know, but if it does die, I think it will be Gen-X that kills it – not the economy or social media, both of which are usually held at fault.

Xers lack patience with the hierarchy of belonging and with traditional forms of engagement and volunteering. If the price of admission involves reading hundreds of pages of rote committee reports and spending long hours in meetings that don’t actually accomplish anything, we’ll form our own groups. Remember the Bush 41 recession of the early 90s, when Xers were graduating? No room at the (workforce) inn? Fine – I’ll just go do my own thing (and invent Netscape in the process).

I think this generational shift will require that our membership models become more limited and personalized, our decision-making processes become more nimble, and our model of volunteering become more focused on outcomes and less on process.

Further complicating the picture is the emergence of the Millennials, a “hero” generation, into adulthood. Heroes value community and teamwork, in direct contrast to the independent and cynical nomadic Xers, and they are much more sanguine about institutions and authority than either nomads or prophets. This “hero” generation is our future.

To quote The Hourglass Blog:

“[D]oes leadership mean something different to each generation, and therefore our leadership systems will constantly change as each new generational perspective comes into power?”

I think the answer is “yes” – our leadership models will have to change to mirror generational change. Given the single-generation life-span of many associations, that will, I believe, be wrenching.

How will your organization respond to generational change? How will we, as a community, respond? How is generational change causing you to think differently about volunteerism? Membership? Mission? Leadership? Or are you even thinking differently at all at this point?