Have It Your Way

cheeseburger with all the toppings

Almost 14 years ago, I addressed a question first raised by Jeff Dc Canga:

How will we manage the change from a pre-set package of options (membership) to an individually negotiated exchange of value?

In that original post, I addressed issues of consumer expectations around mass personalization and customization, the concept of “cafeteria” membership, deciding whether or not to gate content, and the necessity of the occasional sacred cow barbecue.

As a commenter on that post put it:

Figuring out the balance between revenue needs, information sharing and the value proposition for membership is key to a vibrant association.


This topic seems to be at the fore again. I’ve recently had several inquiries and some new clients all looking to address their dues structure and value proposition.

I suspect this is another lingering effect of the pandemic. During the pandemic, many associations held the line HARD on dues increases while at the same time adding a bunch of new “included with membership” benefits. Which is totally logical: We were in a MASSIVE economic crisis, particularly in that first year, when then-president Donald Trump was badly mis-managing every single aspect of the public health emergency AND the economic emergency.

However, in the past four years, the situation has improved. Dramatically.

The US economy is now so strong, it’s literally propping up the entire global economy. The rate of inflation is up significantly, something we all feel every time we buy groceries, but job creation is at historic highs (as is the stock market), unemployment is at historic lows (particularly for people of color), and wage gains have outpaced inflation for more than a year.

Meanwhile, many associations are still, from the perspective of what we offer members and customers and what we charge for it, operating as if it’s April 2020.

Admittedly, it *is* hard to start charging for a benefit that’s been included with membership, particularly when that’s been the case now for several years. It *is* hard to raise dues appropriately when you’ve left them alone while inflation is up more than 20%.

All of this, to me, strongly indicates that it’s time, maybe past time, to examine your membership model.

  • Are your dues structured in a way that makes sense for your profession or industry, not as it was in 2019, but as it now is?
  • Should you shift your basis of dues calculation?
  • Is your basis of dues calculation equitable within your profession or industry?
  • What is your current cost to serve? Are your dues adequate to cover it?
  • What *else* are you expecting dues revenue to cover? Is it appropriate to require members to fund those programs, products, or services as part of their membership?
  • What are your “loss leaders”? Are you confident that’s the right approach for those particular programs, products, or services?
  • What do your members most value and use? What *don’t* they value or use?
  • Should your “included with membership” benefits change?
  • Do some programs, products, and services need to move from “included” to “optional” (with fee)?
  • Have some programs, products, or services outlived their usefulness? Is it time to take out some of those sacred cows?
  • Did you discover some new programs, products, or services as a result of the pandemic economic crisis that were initially intended to be temporary, but have proved so valuable they need to be made permanent? If so, what infrastructure or process changes do you need to make so you can move from “making do” to “this to core to who we are”?
  • Did new audiences find you during the pandemic? What are you doing to learn more about them and their key goals and biggest problems, so you can provide the solutions that generate long-term loyalty?
  • Are you being intentional about what’s available only to members, what’s freely available to everyone, what’s included for members and offered at a fee to customers, and what’s offered at a (differential) fee to both members and customers?
  • Are you still offering a “you can have it in any color you want, so long as it’s black” membership model? That may still be appropriate to your profession or industry. But maybe not.

As I concluded that original post 14 years ago, I don’t have THE answer to these questions. There isn’t ONE answer that fits for all associations (of course, I am available for hire to help you find the answers for YOUR association). But I do know that we need to figure out how to let our audiences have it their way in a way that makes sense for them, meeting their goals and challenges, and also for us, providing the financial stability we need to create those solutions for them.

Photo by amirali mirhashemian on Unsplash

Innovate Now! But How?

lightbulb against a sunrise backdrop

Associations are constantly being urged to innovate, but frankly, in a world of generative AI, venture capital, nanotechnology, medical advances, and big R&D budgets – none of which we 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 or Amazon. And that’s OK. You don’t have to change the world for everyone to have an impact on someone.

So if the association community is unlikely to discover an abundant, non-carbon-based, renewable energy source or find the cure for cancer 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 forces.

It seems to me that 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 “good of the order” stuff, well, stuffed in there, whether or not a given 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 maybe should die.

Several years ago, John Graham gave a keynote at the Association Foundation Group’s national conference in which he pointed out that the association model is predicated on only about 25% of our members taking advantage of any given service that’s offered to them. The point he was making was that associations would be completely unable to support 100% of our members taking 100% advantage of 100% of their benefits, at least at current staffing and other resource levels. And he was right.

But another thought occurred to me: 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!

In short, 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.

Our current models are out of synch with the reality of consumer experiences. We’ve all been trained to expect mass personalization and customization, on-demand services, paying only for the pieces we want and opting out of the rest (including opting out of paying for the rest), the sharing economy, and freemium models.

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 affect volunteering just as strongly (if not more so) than membership. Your next generations of volunteer leaders don’t have time to participate in never-ending committee meetings that don’t actually accomplish anything. They aren’t interested in having to “pay their dues” in scut work to “earn” a leadership position. They want opportunities that fit into their lives and that are targeted to their skills and experiences, not years of waiting to “win” a prestigious role by attrition, aka being able to outlast the competition.

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 the realities of life in 2024, there will be no one to do those jobs.

What are you doing to address these forces and how they will affect the building blocks of your organization? 

Where else can associations look to innovate?

Photo by ameenfahmy on Unsplash

What if associations offered no agenda at the next staff retreat other than “show up and talk about how we can be better?”

painting tray with white paint and a roller brush on a brown wooden table

What if the only thing associations focused on was: “How can we be better?

I think this gets to some of the other questions, like:

  • What if we forgot about petty internal politics and focused on the mission?
  • What if we weren’t afraid to share new ideas?
  • What if we removed “we have always done it that way” from our vocabularies?

Anyone who knows me knows that this is what I try to do, and I know a LOT of other association execs and consultants in the same boat. And we’re all tempted to think that other people see the world the same way we do. But that’s demonstrably not true. Particularly not in this case, or “petty internal politics” would be an oxymoron.

So the question becomes: If “Ideas BAD!” is the focus of a sizable contingent of the association professional world (hell, of the world in general), AND we accept the premise that people act in ways that make sense to them, what’s really going on here?

No, “my colleagues are all out to get me” is not an acceptable answer.

And those of us on the side of “Change GOOD!” *need* the answer, because we have to persuade at least some of the “Change BAAAAAD!” crowd to at least not oppose us if we hope to accomplish anything other than a big ole headache from whacking our heads on our desks repeatedly.

I think – and I certainly could be wrong – that it comes down to fear. But I think it’s more than the traditional flip “they fear change” answer. Because that begs another question: Why does this person fear change? What happened in his/her past to cause this?

  • Did she have an idea – or multiple ideas – that were shot down in their infancy?
  • Did he get to implement an idea that failed, and then get punished, or just totally hung out to dry?
  • Did she have a great idea that was implemented and worked, only to see someone else hog all the credit?

I’m not saying that you’ll be able to somehow fix those past bad experiences. This isn’t therapy, and sitting around singing Kumbaya gives me hives anyway. But if you can get some idea about what’s happening in your detractors’ heads, you can think a little more constructively about what might help them be more comfortable with what you’re proposing than “very well, then let it be war between us!” And that’s when you can finally get some of those great ideas off the ground.

Photo by Karl Solano on Unsplash

What if associations required every staffer to cold-call one member each week just to connect and listen?

orange old-school rotary phone on a wooden desk

I am reupping this post from 2009 with only minor edits, because every word of it remains true.

What if EVERY staff member had to talk to members on a regular basis?

Despite the existence of the idea “Membership is Everyone’s Business,” too often, it’s really not. Membership retention, for most organizations, is the business of the membership department. If retention goes down, the membership staff gets blamed, even if the reason people are leaving is because, for instance, they hate the monthly magazine. Or they’ve decided to focus their energies on their local chapters. Or they’re organizing online. Or the annual meeting’s gotten too expensive. Or whatever.

(And, while we’re on it, why are we always so concerned with affixing blame? It’s pointless. It stifles innovation, because people think “cover your ass” not “come up with and try amazing new idea.” And it wastes time and mental energy that would be better spent FIXING the PROBLEM. But I digress…)

I was hired for my first association job as Director of Member Services and Technology not because I knew anything about associations or management, but because I was from the profession, and the executive director figured I’d empathize with the members. And she was right. And that was great, as far as it went. Which was as far as one staff person – me. Not far enough, by a long shot.

We all talk about the idea that we exist to serve members, meet their needs, and help them solve their problems. But most of us have no real idea what those things are. We do annual satisfaction surveys and listen to and repeat conventional wisdom and swear that we’ve been doing this long enough to know every little thing about our members, their industry or profession, and what’s best for them.


You know the easiest way to find out what people want and need? Ask them. And not in some Likert-scale driven survey way.

“Hi there, Member. This is Elizabeth calling from Association. If you have a few minutes to chat, I’d love to find out what’s going on in your professional life, and if you have any questions or comments about what’s we’re up to here at Association.”

What do you get? Information, sure, but also connection. Community. A source of new ideas. The feeling that the association cares about me. Early warning of problems that might be cropping up, whether in your industry, or related to your association.

And, more importantly, it’s unfiltered. This is not meant to imply ill intent to your membership staff (often the only staffers who have regular contact with members). But everyone filters information they receive through their own mental maps. And someone with a different map might interpret the same data differently.

How would your association benefit from deep understanding of your members, their goals and challenges, and the industry or profession you serve, spread widely across the entire organization? What could you do with that?

Would your members think differently about the association when the renewal notices show up or when they arrive at your annual meeting if they felt connected, not only to other members through the agency of the association, but to the association itself through contact with staff?

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Your Meetings Suck

bored looking blonde woman wearing glasses sitting in front of a computer

But they don’t have to.

I don’t mean your Annual Meeting, of course. If that sucks, you have MUCH bigger problems. I mean those 2 hour snooze-fests where 50% of your staff sits there on Zoom/Teams/WebEx “multitasking” with their cameras off, while one person blathers on and the other 50% thank The Powers That Be that they were spared attendance.

And this problem has gotten MUCH worse since the pandemic, with the ease of scheduling virtual meetings and everyone’s increasing comfort with video conferencing tech.

A few of my favorite tips to help your meetings ROCK!

  1. Informational meetings. DO NOT have them. I mean it! If you don’t have questions to ask that require the active participation of  multiple people to answer, send a memo. Send an email. Start a Slack thread. Send a gorilla-gram. But DO NOT send a meeting invitation! “This meeting could’ve been an email”? DO NOT PASS GO, DO NOT COLLECT $200.
  2. Participants. Have the right people – and ONLY the right people – in the Zoom room. Do you have more than one representative per department involved? Unless there’s something truly unique about their individual perspectives, maybe don’t invite both of them. Don’t invite people just to cover your ass, or so their feelings won’t be hurt. Their feelings will be MORE hurt by spending 30+ hours a week in meetings they didn’t need to attend in the first place.
  3. Agenda. Have one. Even if it’s a regularly scheduled meeting. Especially if it’s a regularly scheduled meeting, which tend to quickly devolve into informational meetings. In fact, if it’s a regularly scheduled meeting and you have no agenda, CANCEL IT. And if your agenda has more than about three items per hour of scheduled meeting, you need to cut back, because you will NOT get through everything. And think twice before scheduling a meeting that’s more than an hour. People can’t concentrate for that long.
  4. Questions. Remember the no informational meetings rule? You should walk into any meeting with a list of questions you need the group you’ve gathered to discuss and, perhaps, answer. After all, if you’re just conveying information, you sent a memo, right? And if you just need one person’s thoughts, you went to that person and talked to her directly, right?
  5. Listening. Who should do the majority of the talking? If you say, “Me Me Me! It’s all about me!”, review the above point. You’re there to ask questions and facilitate discussion. That means less talking, more listening. And make sure you’ve asked someone you trust to take notes, because it’s really hard to facilitate a discussion AND take good notes at the same time.
  6. Action Items. Gathering a bunch of people for an hour or two is expensive. Next time you’re sitting there online with your Brady Bunch squares, do a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation of the salaries+benefits (which are generally about 1/3 of salary) of yourself and all the other squares. Then ponder the opportunity costs for a moment – what ELSE could those people have been doing? You better make damn sure that when you leave, everyone knows what her marching orders are and when they’re supposed to be fulfilled. Sending a follow up email to all the meeting participants with “this is what we all agreed we’d do, this is who agreed to do each thing, and this is when we agreed it would be done by” earns you a gold star.

Got any favorite tips to convene like a rockstar? Share ’em in the comments.

Photo by Magnet.me on Unsplash

Generative AI, Associations, Ethics, and Regulation

Maddie Grant (PROPEL), Jennifer Yarrish (AARP), Paul Roetzer (Marketing AI Institute), and I recently had a great conversation about associations’ role in the ethics of generative AI and in regulation of the technology for UST Education.

Topics we addressed included:

  • What are the critical ethical concerns related to the creation and use of generative AI tools?
  • AI has been all around us for years. What’s different about the generative AI tools that are now available to us?
  • What’s happening with regulation of generative AI tools? What are the concerns about regulating? What are the concerns about NOT regulating?
  • What role should associations be taking with regards to ethical use of generative AI for our internal operations? For member-facing programs, products, and services? For the professions and industries we serve?
  • What role should associations be taking with regards to regulation of generative AI?
  • What are some of the positive possibilities that are facilitated by the rise of generative AI technologies?

Did you miss it? Never fear! The recording is now available at the UST Education website (our webinar host).

Image credit: Ness Labs

2: Strategic Planning v. Strategic Thinking

silhouette of a person wearing a hiking backpack hiking in the mountains at sunrise

We’re almost at the end of the revisiting of the top ten all-time Spark blog posts in honor of Spark’s tenth anniversary!

Coming in at the #2 spot: Strategic Planning v. Strategic Thinking.

In the original post, I highlighted Henry Mintzberg’s well-known Harvard Business Review piece “The Fall and Rise of Strategic Planning,” in which he encourages us to focus on creating dynamic, flexible visions of the future that accommodate disruption and allow us to rapidly respond to emergent trends.

In other words, do 100% the opposite of what we usually do in strategic planning.

Now, I mostly do *membership* strategy for clients. But every once in a while, I have an organizational strategy project. When I do organizational strategy, I use Appreciative Inquiry methods to try to help my clients switch from a strategic planning (static, rigid, episodic, fixed) perspective to a strategic thinking approach. And it is generally a HARD mental and organizational transition for them to make, because we’re all so accustomed to the “traditional” way.

But as so many of us saw during the pandemic, the traditional way of planning fails us, and it fails us SPECTACULARLY when a crisis hits.

One of the things we learned is that we CAN rapidly gather information from our members and other stakeholders and use that to create minimum viable product style tests, then take what we learn from those tests and use it to create the next iteration of that MVP, or to change directions entirely. And the world doesn’t end if the original thing isn’t perfect, or if we do have a make a small – or big – change in the next round.

Now this mostly happened in the context of events and professional development, where all of a sudden, our traditional way of going about the business of associations was unavailable to us. But we can apply those lessons we learned, about focusing on the journey, about becoming deeply curious about our members’ and other audiences’ daily challenges, about being inventive and responsive in providing solutions those challenges, both outside event planning and outside a global pandemic.

If we’re willing to change “the way we’ve always done it.”

Are we?

Photo by Mukuko Studio on Unsplash

Being Responsible About Research

In this final post celebrating the launch of Caveat Emptor: Becoming a Responsible Consumer of Research, I want to talk about why this matters.

Why do association execs need to develop discernment about research, both as consumers and sponsors? Why do you need to have at least some familiarity with research terms? Why do you need to understand the benefits and drawbacks of various types of research methods?

Quoting from the monograph:

It’s important for associations to get this right, both so that association executives have the best possible chance of making good decisions about how to invest limited association resources to generate the best return for members, and because associations are viewed as trusted, unbiased sources of information for the members and other audiences we serve. It’s incumbent on us to provide quality research products so we remain worthy of that trust.

As a reminder, the whitepaper also includes:

  • An interview with Dr. Sharon E. Moss, co-editor (with Sarah C. Slater) of The Informed Association: A Practical Guide to Using Research for Results, on ethical practices in research.
  • An interview with Dr. Joyce E. A. Russell, The Helen and William O’Toole Dean at Villanova School of Business, on developing discernment in assessing research.
  • An interview with Jeff Tenenbaum, Managing Partner at Tenenbaum Law Group PLLC, on avoiding antitrust liability.
  • Case studies with the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy, the Association of American Medical Colleges, the Casualty Actuarial Society, and IEEE.
  • A plain English review of key research terms, and a brief explanation of the rules of formal logic (and how they affect research work).
  • Recommendations for books, articles, websites, podcasts, and courses you can use to improve your research skills.
  • A series of thought questions for you to use to spark discussion with your team.
  • An extensive list of resources in case you want to dig deeper on any of the topics addressed.

My co-author Polly Karpowicz and I are in the process of arranging additional opportunities to learn more, including a webinar with Association Insights in Old Town in April of 2023 – more information to follow.

In the meantime, get your free copy at https://bit.ly/3SYJiAO, no divulging of information about yourself required.


Curiosity with a Purpose

As Zora Neale Hurston described it:

Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.

When you’re sponsoring a research study, one of the biggest decisions you’ll have to make is what method(s) to use.

What are your choices?

  • Quantitative v. Qualitative
  • Primary v. Secondary

You also have some decisions to make about data collection. The choices there include:

  • Formal v. Informal
  • Active v. Passive

All of these choices have associated pros and cons.

For instance, surveys (quantitative primary research where the data collection is active and formal) provide numeric answers that can be described by levels of statistical significance and degrees of confidence (see yesterday’s post for more on that). That’s obviously a pro.

On the con side, because surveys provide reassuringly specific answers, it’s tempting to over-rely on them. They’re also more susceptible to design flaws that can introduce bias – and once the survey’s deployed, you can’t correct those errors without invalidating all the responses that have already come in.

So what’s the answer?

Download the new Spark collaborative whitepaper Caveat Emptor: Becoming a Responsible Consumer of Research to find out!

“P-Value”? What’s a “P-Value”?

And why should you care?

Associations generate a lot of original research, but association execs also use a lot of research created by other entities both to assess the internal operations of the association as a tax-exempt business and to understand what’s happening in the industry or profession the association serves.

And let’s face it: Lots of research terms are pretty jargon-y. P-values and margin of error and confidence interval and representative versus purposeful samples, oh my!

It’s easy to find yourself glazing over in the methods section of the study you’ve chosen, ignoring it all together, or just deciding not to worry about what it reports.

That would be a mistake.

All those things directly affect the validity of the study and the results presented, results which we use every day to make decisions for our associations and the professions and industries we serve.

Quoting the new Spark collaborative whitepaper Caveat Emptor: Becoming a Responsible Consumer of Research:

Good research does not guarantee good decisions, but it certainly helps. And bad research, barring getting lucky and guessing right, almost inevitably leads to bad decisions.

We want you to have everything you need to make good decisions, so in Caveat Emptor, my co-author Polly Karpowicz and I provide plain English explanations of key terms in research design so that you can build your information literacy muscles and choose wisely what research you will – and won’t – trust.

Get your free copy at https://bit.ly/3SYJiAO, no divulging of information about yourself required.