Culture Change + Vendor Selection

As my The No BS Guide to Digital Transformation: How Intentional Culture Change Can Propel Associations Forward co-author Maddie Grant is fond of quipping, that’s what digital transformation is: culture change + vendor selection.

The technologies of digital transformation are:

  • Artificial Intelligence (AI)
  • Cloud
  • Data analytics
  • Internet of Things (IoT)
  • Mobile
  • Social
  • Web

First of all, you don’t want a cloud strategy, or an AI strategy, or a social strategy – you need well-thought-out organizational strategy that includes these things. The tech is not the end – it’s the means to the end of accomplishing your larger organizational goals in a member-centric way. 

But it’s the culture part that gets really tricky. In order to be successful, you’ll need strong, consistent support from your C-suite (and your board or volunteer leadership), actively providing direction and the resources for that change to happen, and that involves identifying and, as necessary, adjusting your culture patterns.

To learn more about how you do that, download the full whitepaper at, no divulging of information about yourself required.

Why Do Associations Struggle With Digital Transformation?

In our research for The No BS Guide to Digital Transformation: How Intentional Culture Change Can Propel Associations Forward, Maddie Grant and I learned that, while associations definitely still have work to do on the technology front, it’s not technology that’s holding our industry back: it’s culture, and more specifically, culture change.

This is also why a lot of the copious digital transformation advice that exists don’t quite hit the mark for associations: for-profit culture is fundamentally different than association culture. 

On one level, that’s because a member =/= a customer.

However, associations also struggle with awkward collaboration, reactive transparency, uneven discipline, and unclear priorities.

To learn more about all of these, and what your association can do to overcome them and use what makes member relationships special to accelerate your transformation efforts, download the full whitepaper at, no divulging of information about yourself required.

What IS “Digital Transformation” Anyway?

What IS “Digital Transformation” Anyway?

When Maddie Grant and I were researching The No BS Guide to Digital Transformation: How Intentional Culture Change Can Propel Associations Forward, we found all sorts of definitions, depending on the perspective of the definer (marketing, tech, HR, C-suite, etc.). People also tend to define digital transformation too narrowly, as just about the adoption of new technologies and/or as adopting a “digital-first” culture.

The thing is, as my pretty post header graphic reads, the challenge associations face in our digital transformation initiatives is that it’s an iterative process that includes both of technologies and culture, and our members. Associations focus on creating more value for our members and for the professions and industries we serve, which means we need to continuously change the way we work, which means we need to be on the lookout for the tools and technologies that will allow us to do that. And the cycle repeats.

Which sounds, if not easy, then at least simple.

So why aren’t we doing it?

To discover the answer, download the full whitepaper at, no divulging of information about yourself required.

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Digital Transformation…

…but were afraid to ask.

Organizations of ALL types – for profit and tax exempt – have been talking about digital transformation for many years, and yet association efforts, both to digitize and to go digital, continue to lag.

Why is that?

In our new whitepaper, Maddie Grant, co-founder of PROPEL, and I posit that it’s all about culture. There’s a ton of great research and advice – Maddie and I review a good chunk of it in the monograph – but it’s missing our community because it misses what makes us unique:

associations have both unique advantages and particular challenges we face in trying to transform ourselves, assets and drawbacks that the extensive existing literature on the topic doesn’t really address. Associations have been struggling with digital transformation because the advice that exists on how to do it misses what makes our community special.

In The No BS Guide to Digital Transformation: How Intentional Culture Change Can Propel Associations Forward, Maddie and I analyze a decade of research that demonstrates that the key to lasting, responsive digital transformation is intentional and focused culture change. We delve deeply into how that impacts associations particularly and what association execs need to know and do to be successful in their DT initiatives.

The whitepaper also includes:

  • An interview with Martin Mocker, co-author (with Dr. Jeanne Ross and Cynthia M. Beath) of Designed for Digital: How to Architect Your Business for Sustained Success.
  • A summary of digital transformation maturity assessment tools, and a recommendation as to which we think you should use.
  • A summary of PROPEL’s culture management maturity model.
  • The definitive answer to the perpetual “Should we build an app?” dilemma. (Well, OK, *we* think it’s the definitive answer.)
  • Case studies with the Construction Specifications Institute, the Healthcare Financial Management Association, the Independent Community Bankers of America, and the School Nutrition Association.
  • 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.

I’ll be blogging about the whitepaper in the coming days, highlighting some of our major findings, but in the meantime I invite you to download your free copy at – we don’t collect any data on you to get it, and you won’t end up on some mailing list you didn’t ask for. We just use the as an easy mechanism to count the number of times it’s been downloaded.

And don’t forget to check out some of the other FREE Spark collaborative whitepapers, too:

Preview: The No BS Guide to Digital Transformation

Quote from podcast

I’m so excited to announce that the next Spark collaborative whitepaper will be dropping ONE week from today.

In it, Maddie Grant (Digital Strategist, PROPEL) and I discuss digital transformation for associations, seeking to address what makes the process of digital transformation different for associations. Spoiler alert: it’s culture.

I recently sat down (virtually) with Carol Hamilton of Grace Social Sector Consulting to talk about our findings for her Mission Impact podcast. Some of the topics we touched on in our wide-ranging conversation include:

  • The significance of digital transformation for nonprofit organizations
  • What’s different about digital transformation for associations
  • Avoiding shiny object syndrome in your tech related projects

Check out the full recording here, or on your favorite podcast app.

What’s Blockchain?

And why should associations care?

Shelly Alcorn (Ubiquity University and Alcon Associates Management Consulting) and I will be presenting for CalSAE on The Perils and Promise of Blockchain Wednesday, September 30.

“Hm,” you may be thinking, “I’m not IN California. Why is Elizabeth telling me this?”

Because CalSAE’s annual ELEVATE meeting has been converted into a series of Virtual Summits taking place for four consecutive Wednesdays in September, starting September 9.

  • Building Capacity – Wednesday, September 9
  • The Essentials – Wednesday, September 16
  • Thriving Associations – Wednesday, September 23
  • Trends Watch – Wednesday, September 30 (that’s when Shelly and I are presenting)

Quoting the CalSAE Virtual Summits site:

The buzz is unmistakable. The next technological wave is beginning to crest and blockchain is leading the way. Advocates claim it will revolutionize trust on the internet and, perhaps counterintuitively, lead to more privacy for individuals. Detractors have concerns about misuse, security, and what the overall socio-economic impact may be of blockchain being deployed at scale. Is it all just hype? How can we develop a better understanding of how blockchain may impact us as individuals and leaders of organizations? In this session, we’ll answer those questions, talk about what blockchain is and how the technology works, discuss how it’s going to affect the association industry, and provide a roadmap for associations to use as they begin to help their members prepare for the impacts of this disruptive technology on their industries and professions.

Shelly and I pre-recorded the session, which is based on our recent free whitepaper of the same title, so we’ll be able to be active in the chat with participants. That means: Come ready with your questions about blockchain, because we’ll be ready to answer them!

Learn more about all the sessions on all four Wednesdays and register for one or all four here.

What Lies on the Other Side?

What do we want a post-pandemic world to look like?

Shortly after the coronavirus pandemic stay at home edicts began coming down, a colleague posted a question to LinkedIn: What’s your vision for when we come out of this?

I suspect she was looking for stuff like: “associations will embrace smaller, regional, hybrid events” or “employers who were convinced there was no way their staff could work remotely would realize they were wrong.”

I responded:

  1. We as a society will realize that healthcare must be affordable and accessible to all (which likely means it can no longer be tied to or predicated on employment).
  2. We as a society will realize that all workers merit paid time off.
  3. We as a society will realize that all full time jobs merit a living wage.
  4. We’ll have sufficient majorities at all levels of government who agree to make these things happen.

Well, it turns out, I’m not the only one thinking that maybe we don’t want to return to the old normal that was a bad normal for far too many people.

What if we could not only envision but create a new normal, a better normal?

That’s what Humanity Rising aims to do.

Convened by Ubiquity University, Humanity Rising is a global solutions summit that launches THIS Friday, May 22. The summit will feature daily live content via TED-style talks, as well as interactive sessions, group dialogues, and working groups aligned around the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The plan is continue to convene as long as the pandemic lasts. (Right now, they have content planned through September.)

The goal is to come out of this not just having thought about or talked about a better vision for humanity, but to actually make a more sustainable and equitable future happen.

Find out more and register here.

Ubiquity is asking for a one-time voluntary contribution of $20 (or more, if you can afford it!), but no one will be denied participation for financial reasons.

Spark Consulting is proud to be one of more than 100 partner organizations on this convening.


Blockchain and Associations Podcast

As part of our continuing effort to help association executives understand what blockchain is and how it’s going to affect us and our members, Shelly Alcorn and I recently recorded a podcast with Justin Burniske for fusionSPAN.

In it, we addressed questions like:

  • What *is* blockchain? Isn’t it just a database that doesn’t let you delete records?
  • What are some of the most common misperceptions you have heard about blockchain?
  • Blockchain has been around for a while – what was the catalyst that caused you to write about this now?
  • For most applications, it seems that a single centralized blockchain would be most efficient. Do you think that is the direction the technology will ultimately move?
  • When thinking about blockchain, there are different levels. On one part you have the actual blockchain, but then on top of that you have the interface to interact with the blockchain. How do you see that playing out in the long run? Won’t that present similar challenges of having a “middle person” in the process, or is that different somehow with blockchain?
  • While having transparency is important, there is also the question of privacy. How would you speak to skeptics who worry about the loss of privacy with these public blockchains?
  • If people want to learn more, what next steps would you recommend?

Want to learn more?

Yes, we want to have you covered no matter WHAT format you prefer.

Membership 101: Who Counts?

Illustration of group of people

Who do you consider to be your members?

That seems like an easy question: “Anyone whose dues are current,” right?

But if you dig a little deeper, it quickly gets a lot more complicated.

  • Do you offer a grace period?
  • Are there ways to pay other than money?
  • What about the people in your profession or industry who haven’t paid?
  • What about the people who support those in your profession or industry?
  • What about their audiences or customers?

For instance, many associations report trouble attracting and retaining young professionals. But if we’ve set up “pay us money” as a barrier to entry, it’s no wonder. Young professionals are young – their employers may not pay for association membership for them, and if those employers don’t pay, young professionals often can’t afford to pay out of pocket. They tend not to be making large sums of money, and meanwhile they’re paying off school debt and/or saving for major life events and purchases. Is there a way those cash-strapped young professionals could contribute something else of value? The most obvious non-monetary contribution would be serving in a volunteer position, but they might not have the capacity to be committee members either. Could they serve as social media ambassadors for you? Volunteer at chapter events? Assist in moderating your online community (after, of course, receiving training)?

As another example, what roles do you offer for the people and organizations who support your profession or industry? What are you doing to work with those who provide training and education to your entering new or career-change professionals, whether they be graduate or undergraduate program faculty or those who provide more hands-on training at technical schools or through formal or informal apprenticeships? Those trainers and educators may not be appropriate targets for your primary membership benefits, since those benefits are likely targeted to people actually doing the work, but they are critical contributors to the profession or industry you serve. What are you doing to build relationships with them?

Many associations offer “supplier memberships,” but those are often little more than fees we charge companies for the right to advertise to our paying members. What can you do to stop treating those companies like a cash register? They are critical elements of your community, too.

There is no one right answer to any of these. But all those groups – people in their grace period, people who contribute to your association in ways other than financial, the rest of your industry or profession (including supporting players like educators who train people and suppliers who make their work possible), even potentially your members’ “end users” – are potential valuable contributors to your community, if you can find the right way to connect with them.


Growth Strategies from Top Fundraisers Q&A

In my last post, I shared the link to the webinar my Steal This Idea! co-author Sohini Baliga and I presented for Wild Apricot on March 21. Sohini and I got to as many questions as we could at the end the webinar, but as usual, we missed a few, so we’re answering them below:

How can wildlife conservation related organizations tap into millenials if we are asking them to be a hero for another species?

EWE: This provides a great opportunity to tell a story of an endangered animal (or species or wild place) in a way that’s compelling and, in that story, explain how your donor/member can be the hero who saves that animal (or species or wild place) by her donation.

What if your membership is a low fee like $25/year?

EWE: Well, at least you’ll probably never hear the objection: “Dues were too expensive”! Seriously, though, that hopefully means you have a lot of people in your membership file. The trick now is to start looking for the ones who do more than just pay their $25 a year – or who want to do more than that.

How have you had best success at gathering stories from members/donors?

EWE: Talk to them. That can be individual and formal (like a phone interview), group and formal (like a focus group), or individual and informal (like a conversation at an event). Pay attention to when he starts talking faster, or a little louder, or in a higher pitch. Watch for when her eyes light up and her face gets more animated. That means you’ve struck gold – you’ve discovered something that member is passionate about. Then it’s your job to look for ways that member’s passions tie to your organization’s mission, and explain to her how involvement in your organization will make a difference to that issue she’s passionate about.

We are a membership association of cause-oriented organizations. But we don’t have a cause ourselves. Will there be materials in this webinar that will help me?

EWE: Sohini and I would like to think so. When you’re a federation of organizations, it can be hard to make that direct, personal tie with people. I’m about to use an example that’s a bit politically charged, so stick with me. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton founded an organization called Onward Together. It uses her high profile and large audience to raise money for small, scrappy nonprofits that are doing excellent work, but that may lack the audience base to effectively raise money themselves. Can you highlight the stories of the organizations you serve?

We are thinking about doing a major gala.  What is the best way to get corporate table sponsorships if you don’t know people within the individual businesses?

SB: The first thing to consider is that corporations look at the bottom line, and want bragging rights – it makes them look good. Now, put yourself in a corporation’s position. You’re not just spending money because it feels good – you have to pay employees and benefits, investors and backers want to see returns on their investment, and you need to be able to stand behind your spending decisions. All of them. So what’s going to make you give? What’s going to make you say, “Sure, I’ve got bills, but you can not only have a big chunk of change, you can put my name up in lights so others come asking me for the same thing”? What will make you say yes? What will make it hard for you to say no? Therein lies your answer – make your best case; make the story of the gala compelling; make it really hard to say no. Make them an offer they can’t refuse.

This is where I will say that nonprofits should not skimp on fundraising staff and professional executive development. A good, connected development officer is worth every penny of salary. And it is their job to make those sponsorships happen in tandem with a board and executive staff that is not shy, and can make the ask clearly, comfortably, and elegantly. There are grants available for hiring fundraising staff and professional development at all levels of the nonprofit world. The bigger the budget, the more they exist – because everyone understands that you have to support staff so they can do their best. It’s not a perk; it’s an investment that allows nonprofits to continue growing and serving their core mission.

What is the best way to get feedback from members? Surveys at events, letters, or…?

EWE: Yes. You want to turn your organization into a sponge for information. That means you want to collect data on your members and other audiences formally (like surveys and interviews) and informally (like conversations and responses to emails). You want to collect it actively (asking people to answer questions) and passively (paying attention to what they do and tracking what behaviors you can without turning into Big Brother and creeping people out).

Collecting the data is only the first step, though. You also have to share it with your colleagues. You’d be amazed at what your “line” staff in customer service knows that you don’t know, because they talk to your stakeholders all the time. Likewise, you’d be amazed at the insights your newer or more junior staff might have into some of your “C-suite” information, because they have a fresh perspective and aren’t jaded by “we’ve always done it this way” and “we tried that five years ago, and it didn’t work.” No information hoarding!

I have a large number of small dollar donors that I want to cultivate to be higher donors. I would like to meet with them to know them better. How should I go about doing that? 

EWE: Ask them. I am a donor to Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (one of our case studies). My relationship with them started by going to one show. I liked it, so I went to more. I liked them, so I became a season subscriber. I realized I supported their mission, so I started donating. Now I’m donating much more, on an annual basis, than I was then. The Woolly development staff started building that relationship by calling me up to ask if I would like to meet for coffee.

Any suggestions on where to start with an all-volunteer organization?

EWE: It’s tough when you have no paid staff. Sustained projects, like fancy integrated multi-channel campaigns, are really hard to do. You need to assess what, for your organization, would constitute low-hanging fruit. Can you easily identify who your super-members are? Can each volunteer take responsibility for calling one of them in the next two weeks? Do you have young people in your volunteer base? Can you get them talking about what sorts of engagement activities they would find appealing? Does your organization have a compelling story, where it’s easy to frame the member as the hero? Could you send out one email that does that? Figure out what the easy thing is, do it, (hopefully) experience some success and learn some things, and build from there.

Missed the webinar? Wild Apricot’s got you covered.