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, 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, no divulging of information about yourself required.


Lies, Damn Lies & Statistics?

Association execs consume – and produce – a lot of research in our day-to-day work, but most of us don’t have formal training in research. A lot of the language of research programs– p-values and confidence intervals and margins of error – can be pretty jargony, and some of the concepts behind what makes for good (or less good) research can be challenging for people who haven’t had the opportunity to take a graduate level methods course.

How can you be sure that the research you’re using or sponsoring is giving you the insight you need to make good decisions? How can you protect your association’s reputation as a trusted source of unbiased information for the profession or industry you serve?

In the latest Spark collaborative whitepaper, Caveat Emptor: Becoming a Responsible Consumer of Research, Polly Karpowicz, CAE and I tackle the sometimes thorny issue of what you need to know to be a savvy consumer and sponsor of research even if you DON’T have a formal background in research methods or much formal training (which, let’s be honest, most of us don’t).

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.

I’ll be blogging about the whitepaper more 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, on topics ranging from content curation to digital transformation, blockchain, DEI, lean startup, member-centric engagement, and more!

5: 10 Tips for Creating an Effective Marketing Piece

Price Is Right-style spinner wheel stopped on the number ten

We’re at the midpoint of the Top 10 All-Time Spark blog posts, with #5: 10 Tips for Creating an Effective Marketing Piece.

The original piece was written in response to a conference presentation I’ve given a handful of times, where I ask participants to submit their marketing pieces ahead of time, I work with the sponsoring organization to mount them on foamboard and place them around the room on easels in advance, and then after sharing the 10 Tips, I hand the attendees markers and turn them loose to critique each others’ pieces.

At the end, we do a debrief and the people who were brave enough to offer their pieces up for commentary get to take them – and the other participants’ ideas and suggestions for improvement (and compliments!) – home.

It’s fun and energetic and, in addition to gaining a little knowledge, the participants also get to see a big library of marketing samples in person.

Looking back at the ten tips, I think it’s all still applicable.

If I had to reduce it to just a few things to keep top of mind, I would say that the best marketing pieces include a clear call to action and are sent as part of a multi-channel integrated campaign that maintains a consistent visual through-line.

Call to action: You have to have one, otherwise why are you bothering people and wasting your own time and money? And make sure the call to action is clear to people who don’t have insider knowledge about your association (so not just staff and your most dedicated volunteers).

Multi-channel campaign: With the pandemic, it’s become particularly tempting to switch all our marketing communications over to email – after all, who’s in the office these days? Thing is, even for associations, which have an unusually high email open (~36%) and click (~16%) rate (per Higher Logic’s 2018 State of Marketing Automation report), that’s still an AWFUL lot of people who AREN’T reading those emails. A few years ago, I was working with an association on a renewal campaign. Their renewal rate had dropped to about 65%. We obviously made a LOT of changes, but one of the most effective things we did was to resume sending a mail piece (which they’d previously stopped doing), in the form of a colorful postcard with a snappy member testimonial and a custom URL that led to a simplified renewal process. By the end of the campaign, the renewal rate for our key membership category (full rate professional members) topped 72%. Was it just the postcard? Of course not, but the postcard had a measurable impact on that improvement.

Visual through-line: You don’t want your members and other audiences to delete/ignore/immediately recycle without reading your lovely marketing pieces because they have no idea who it’s coming from. ‘Nuff said.

Oh – and be sure to proofread. I still remember that event marketing piece that had no information about the date, time, or location of the event. C’MON, MAN!

Photo by Krissia Cruz on Unsplash

6: Explaining Marketing to a Kid

pile of legos

Coming in at number 6 in the all-time list of top ten Spark blog posts: Explaining Marketing to a Kid.

The original post was inspired by a fun activity the association I was working for at the time created for “take your kid to work” day: a career scavenger hunt. The kids had to find the participating staffers around the building, and each of us had prepared a short activity to help them understand what we did all day.

I was director of marketing & sponsorship at the time, so I went with marketing as the easier topic. And I knew I couldn’t hit them with a bunch of b-school blather about what marketing is (“exchanging offerings that have value”? YIKES), or I’d lose them in 30 seconds or less.

I’m still proud of the short definition I came up with:

Marketing is about telling people what your company makes and helping them understand why they would want or need it.

I then presented them with two toys (which we used as prizes later in the day) and asked them what they would do to show other kids why they might want those toys. As I recall, they came up with some pretty clever ideas.

In my original post, I posed the challenge to association marketers that it’s easy to market something fun and tangible (like those LEGOs up there), but much harder to do with the often intangible benefits of association membership.

One problem that repeatedly trips up association marketers is the features v. benefits thing, and I think it’s related. We talk about joining to get “networking” or “education” or ask people to come to our conferences because we have a certain number of exhibitors and sessions being presented over a certain number of days or because the conference is in some fabulous location.

The thing is, nobody wants “education” or “networking” or a certain number of sessions or exhibitors.

As association marketers, it’s our job to figure out what members and attendees are really trying to accomplish or fix, and then create a clear through-line from what the association is offering to those goals and challenges.

I don’t care about “education” – I want to land a job, get promoted/get a raise, or land a BETTER job.

I don’t care about “networking” – I want to meet a mentor or a protégé, find someone who will hire me or find someone to hire, meet a colleague who can answer my questions to help me be better at my job, make a friend.

I don’t care how many exhibitors you have – I need to find a particular vendor for a particular challenge I’m facing, or learn what the options are in case I want to replace my current vendor, or learn about new products in my industry that could make my business more money (either by reducing expenses or increasing revenue) or make my life easier.

(Although a fabulous location may be a pretty big draw all by itself – then again, if attendees are coming mostly for the location, I would call that a conference #FAIL.)

The questions you need to answer every time you’re thinking about marketing any program, product, or service are: WHAT are your members and other audiences’ biggest goals and challenges and HOW, SPECIFICALLY, is your education or networking or trade show or session or fabulous location going to address them?

Photo by Xavi Cabrera on Unsplash


The Ask Matters

About two weeks ago, DC’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, held a series of virtual budget engagement forums to share her draft budget for FY2022. The format her team chose was extremely clever.

While waiting for the broadcast to start, participants were invited to answer a few questions about themselves (location, demographic information, ranking of key priorities), then each deputy mayor was given the floor for a short presentation on her department (health, education, housing, etc.).

The forum concluded with a game for participants. Each person watching was given $100 to distribute as she saw fit across the city’s six main budget “buckets.” The full city budget is obviously much more than $100 (it will be $16.9B for FY2022), but it was an exercise in setting priorities with limited dollars. (If you’re curious, you can check it out at

Each of the deputy mayors used the time to present the key priorities for their cluster of agencies, but one in particular stood out: Deputy Mayor Lucinda Babers, head of the Department of Operations and Infrastructure.

Now Operations and Infrastructure may sound pretty dull, but DM Babers got creative. She used a slightly goofy – but memorable – Ghostbusters “who ya gonna call?” framing for her presentation. But she made two particular presentation choices that had a major impact.

  1. Story telling
  2. Specific ask

Story Telling

DM Babers told the story of the fictional “Little Johnny,” a boy who uses city services as he goes about his day. Johnny needs a safe way (protected bike lanes, safe sidewalks) to get to school which includes the city’s #VisionZero initiative to eliminate pedestrian fatalities. His family needs pollution monitoring so they can manage his asthma. Permitting and inspections ensure his house doesn’t “fall over!” Johnny needs access to technology so he can do virtual schooling right now and so he can do his homework once kids are back in classrooms.

DM Babers made the work of her cluster of agencies – transportation, permitting, energy & the environment, public works, the DMV – real through her story. She showed the impacts they all have on residents’ day to day lives.

Specific Ask

When you get down to it, $100 is not a lot to spend to cover the priorities of a city with 712,000+ residents. I, for one, had no idea what reasonable allocations would be between departments. Although the mayor had already shared the overall budget breakdown ($3.2B for education, $2.1B for public works, etc.), it was hard to translate that into percentages of $100 in my head.

DM Babers told budget engagement forum participants EXACTLY how many dollars she needed to fund each aspect of “Little Johnny’s” story she shared.

How did it turn out for her?

When the results of the $100 game were tallied at the end of the forum, DM Babers’s department got the full funding she requested.

When you’re making an ask, make it real, make it specific, and make sure it connects with your audience. 

Partnership v. Membership: Untangling the Knot

pile of tangled blue ropes

I’m excited to announce a new blog series I’ll be writing with Lewis Flax, the founder of Flax Associates, a consulting firm that helps nonprofits support their objectives through establishing mutually beneficial partnerships with corporations.

In the coming weeks and months, Lewis and I will be looking at various aspects of association membership, sponsorship, and corporate partnership.

Properly structured, these three types of relationships can inter-relate and support each other, helping all the parties (members, suppliers, and the association) solve their problems and achieve their goals.

Unfortunately, these relationships are often structured at cross-purposes, with siloed departments being given goals that, at best, don’t complement each other and, at worst, are in direct opposition, leading to competition and conflict between departments, rather than one high-functioning team all working together to achieve the mission of the association.

Lewis and I have conceived of this series as an ongoing conversation between two association pros coming at this sometimes contentious topic from slightly different perspectives, one in which we’ll help our colleagues untangle the mess and achieve harmony among their staff members in different departments and among their members and the suppliers who serve the profession or industry those members engage in.

We’ll be taking on topics like:

  • What is the difference between partnership, membership, and sponsorship? How do they relate?
  • Who are appropriate prospects for supplier/corporate relationships? How do you find and nurture them?
  • How do you structure corporate relationships so that they’re to everyone’s benefit?
  • How do you educate your board of directors about the differences in types of corporate relationships?
  • How do you deal with internal conflict and departments with conflicting goals?
  • What is the ROI of corporate relationships? How do you show it?
  • How do you retain corporate partners? How do you increase the scope of those relationships over time?

What questions do you have about the role of suppliers in your profession or industry? Leave them in the comments or email them to ewengel@getmespark.comor,  and we’ll address them in a future post.

(The Membership Q&A series will be going on a brief hiatus while Lewis and I talk about all the ways you can work with corporate supporters to the benefit of them, your association, and your members.)

Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash

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.

Growth Strategies from Top Fundraisers

My Steal This Idea! Innovations in Cause-Oriented Fundraising for Associations co-author Sohini Baliga and I recently had the opportunity to talk with some smart people about the information in the whitepaper.

Special for those of you who prefer to learn from methods OTHER than reading: Two are videos; one is a podcast. We embrace all types of learners around here!

Video one: Association Chatwith KiKi L’Italien:

Podcast: fusionSpan podcast with Justin Burniske:

Video Two: Wild ApricotExpert Webinar Series:

Check them out to learn how fundraisers:

  1. Build relationships that are equitable (but not necessarily equal) and personal
  2. Create and run effective, compelling campaigns
  3. Attract and engage young professionals (aka Millennials and even GenZ)