Don’t Get Lazy!!

Putting it all together, maybe the most important thing Sohini and I learned from fundraisers as we were researching Steal This Idea! (and as Sohini has worked with them over the past two decades) is: don’t get lazy.

And it’s really easy to do that, particularly if you’re organization is not in crisis. And many associations are NOT in crisis. According to the 2017 edition of the Marketing General Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, nearly three-quarters of associations who responded are either holding steady or increasing membership. Renewal rates are generally solid. Participation in programs, products, and services – particularly white-label social networks, virtual and in-person event attendance, and credentialing programs – remains robust.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” right?

Well, no. To quote the whitepaper:

It’s easy to get lazy. We urge you and your team not to, though..The association industry’s operating landscape is shifting rapidly and in unpredictable ways…That’s why it’s important, at least at times, to turn outside the industry to see what other organizations are doing to attract audiences, particularly younger audiences; to build relationships with those audiences on their terms, not the organization’s terms; and to recognize their contributions equitably and make people feel known, heard, special, and appreciated.

To learn more, download your free copy of Steal This Idea! Innovations in Cause-Oriented Fundraising for Associations at Also, mark your calendar for Wednesday, March 21, 2-3 pm ET. Sohini and I will be delivering a webinar on the whitepaper, graciously hosted (so free for attendees) by the nice folks at Wild Apricot.


Reduce Barriers to Entry

P J Hayman & Company Limited - Image

Just about every association I know of is struggling to recruit younger members (aka Millennials).

Part of the reason for that is that we’re erecting barriers to entry rather than removing them.

What’s required to be considered part of your association’s community? A certain degree? A license? A certification? MONEY?

Those are all barriers to entry that a young person may not be able to clear – at least not yet. What you’re telling them, in effect, is: “You are not welcome here.”

No wonder, when they can clear or have cleared those barriers, they aren’t returning. You made them feel unwelcome right when they needed you, when they were new in their careers, when they didn’t have an established network, when they needed a job. You turned them away. And for what? A few bucks?

Fundraising organizations know that if they can establish a relationship and loyalty up front, the dollars will come. Even if they don’t, those committed young fans will contribute in all sorts of valuable ways: volunteering to help with the mission-driven work of the organization, recruiting other supporters, amplifying messages and stories online and on social media.

Learn more about how fundraising organizations create alternate entry points to belonging and how associations can adapt their methods in the latest Spark whitepaper, Steal This Idea! Innovations in Cause-Oriented Fundraising for Associations freely available for download at Pay special attention to the stories of the Capital Area Food Bank and the CFA Society of Minnesota on pages 28-31.

Photo by Jumpei Mokudai on Unsplash

Your Baby Is Ugly

One of the great things about being a consultant is that we get to tell people when their baby is ugly without them getting mad at us – hey, they’re PAYING us to tell them when their baby is ugly.

Well, your (campaign) baby is ugly.

But it’s not your fault!

Marketing automation makes it easy for us to “set it and forget it!”

You set up the campaign, and your AMS and automation software run in the background, sending notices out on time and to everyone who still hasn’t renewed/registered for the meeting/bought the webinar or book.

But those highly automated campaigns aren’t compelling. They don’t tell a story. They aren’t personal. They don’t make a connection. Because of that, they often don’t live up to expectations.

Fundraisers are experts at doing all of those things. They have to be. They’re not asking for people to give them money to get a direct personal benefit (a membership, a conference experience, professional development, knowledge). They’re asking people to give them money for some sort of greater good. And they do it really well.

How? Is it magic? Do you have to know the secret Association of Fundraising Professionals handshake?

You do not – you, too, can run a compelling, visually-arresting, emotionally- motivating, effective campaign. Find out how in the latest Spark whitepaper, Steal This Idea! Innovations in Cause-Oriented Fundraising for Associations freely available for download at Pay special attention to the interview with Shonali Burke on the three keys to effective campaigns on pages 8-10, the sidebar by John Haydon on using social media effectively to promote your campaigns, and to the stories of CompTIA and New Endeavors by Women on pages 19-22.


Treat Members Equitably Not Equally

In the association world, we tend to want to treat all our members equally: nobody is more important or special than anyone else. That’s a noble impulse and helpful, up to point. After all, you don’t want your association to seem cliquish, or for any member to feel like there’s no place for her, like the association doesn’t respect or value her.

But only up to a point.

Because the fact of the matter is, some members ARE more important or more special than others. Some members only date your association casually and then move on. Some make significant, long-term commitments. Those two types of members are not equally valuable.

The challenge is to recognize ALL kinds of members and ALL levels of contribution and relationship appropriately, while still making everyone feel welcome in your community. That is, to treat people equitably rather than equally.

How do you actually do that?

Download your free copy of Steal This Idea! Innovations in Cause-Oriented Fundraising for Associations at to find out, and pay special attention to the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company case study (on pages 6 and 7) to see exactly how one organization makes EVERYONE feel like a rock star.


Steal This Idea!

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past 20 years, it’s that associations don’t always have all the answers. We definitely have some major advantages, not the least of which is that we are highly cooperative and collaborative, not least of which because there’s not a lot of intra-industry competition (i.e., the AICPA and the American Nurses Association have basically zero overlap in audiences). But there are some areas where we lag, and where other industries, say charitable fundraisers, do things better than we do.

That’s the topic of the latest Spark whitepaper, Steal This Idea! Innovations in Cause-Oriented Fundraising for Associations. Written with Sohini Baliga, a communications expert from the charitable fundraising world who’s recently come over to the association side of non-profits, Steal Like a Fundraiser addresses three major areas where charities are innovating and shares their secrets of success:

  • Building relationships with donors at all levels, with a special focus on major donors, and how that relates to membership relationship building and management
  • Creating and running outstanding campaigns
  • Attracting Millennial/young professional supporters

The whitepaper also features contributions from Beth Kanter, John Haydon, and Shonali Burke and case studies from:

I’ll be blogging about the whitepaper for the rest of the week, highlighting some key findings and action steps you can take, 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 the other FREE Spark whitepapers, too:

Membership 101: Ladders of Engagement Revisited

Elizabeth Engel's pyramid of engagement

Once members join, the next question becomes: How do you keep them? How do you
build real relationships over time that deepen your commitment to each other and lead to long-term loyalty on both sides?

The answer is ladders of engagement.

I’ve already talked a little bit about ladders of engagement in the membership 101 series, in that earlier instance, specifically related to joining an association. But they’re also the key to retention, which is critical to the health of your association.

According to ASAE’s Benchmarking in Association Management: Membership and Components Policies and Procedures, the average association invests $20,000 a year on recruitment and $15,000 on retention. That means associations feel the need to spend less in both absolute and relative terms, given the number of members retained versus recruited each year. It’s cheaper and easier to keep an existing member than to get a new one.

As I discussed in the earlier post, retention starts even before people join, and you have to teach your prospects and new members what it means to be a member, help them navigate what association offers and how it benefits them, and set expectations right from the start.

The overall goal is engagement: engaged members renew, disengaged members don’t.

Associations tend to have an inward-facing understanding of engagement: “How can we get our members to do what we want them to do?”

The thing is, that’s backwards. Better questions include:

  • What do my members value?
  • What reward system can I build around that?

Hopefully, the next logical question in the sequence has already occurred to you:

  • How do I find out what my members value?

The answer is simple, but not necessarily easy: You ask them.

Remember: Asking people what they want is usually futile. To quote (possibly apocryphally) Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Ask them, instead, what goals they’re trying to accomplish and what problems vex them.

People associate to accomplish things in a group that they can’t individually. That’s where you come in, helping them achieve goals or solve problems they can’t all by themselves.

When you know that, you can begin constructing ladders that focus on your members’ most important goals and most pressing problems. You’ll go through that same process of deepening effort, cost, and/or commitment that you did when converting a lead to membership, only with better insight into what to offer along the way.

Let’s say you discover that a young professional member wants to build her network.

You still start by offering something that’s, ideally, free (or included in the price of membership) that relates to that goal: say a networking brown bag lunch. Bonus points if there’s some sort of program, which doesn’t have to be terribly formal, that provides some content about how to build your network – tips like “Connecting on LinkedIn =/= building a professional network” or “Get to know people a little bit before asking for a job” or “Rather than flinging your cards at people like Mardi Gras throws, ask them for their cards.”

Assuming she attends, follow up by offering her something that involves a little more commitment, maybe a webinar that goes into more detail and maybe brings in an outside expert and thus costs something so you can pay said expert.

The next step might be to invite her to participate in your small group many-to-many less formal mentoring initiative.

The step after that might be to invite her to participate in your formal, structured one-on-one mentoring program.

When she finishes that formal program, you could ask her to present or write an article on her experiences for your association – or to be a greeter at your next brown bag, or to turn around and mentor someone herself, or join your task force that’s looking into technology mediated ways of extending your mentoring program to more people.

That’s one potential ladder. There are as many additional ladders as your members have goals and challenges.

When you flip your perspective from an internal focus on what the association wants to a member-centered way of viewing the world that puts the emphasis on helping people rather than pushing programs, products, and services, people will WANT to engage with you, because you’ll have become a vital partner in their success.

Membership 101: The Welcome Series

Welcome in bright rainbow colors

When last we left the Membership 101 series, you had just gotten a new member and were
busy finding out why she joined so you could focus your marketing and communications efforts around those 2-3 things that matter most to her.

Now that she’s here, you need to welcome her. She knew enough to join, but she doesn’t know what it means to be a member of your association. It’s your job to orient her, help her navigate what the association offers and how it can help her with achieving those important goals and solving those pressing problems, and continue the process of building that ladder of engagement relationship with her.

By “welcome her,” I don’t mean “drop a huge folder of sheets of paper on her desk.” That’s just going to get tossed – well, hopefully, recycled. But if you dump everything on her all at once, it’s overwhelming and she won’t know where to start.

There is a better way:

  • Make it personal. Someone who’s not on staff (i.e. another member, aka one of her peers) needs to call her or drop her an email welcoming her and sharing some insight from a member perspective on what membership means and offers. (This, by the way, presents a GREAT opportunity to engage ad hoc/micro-volunteers.)
  • Get her started right. What’s the first most important thing she needs to know right away? That should be the SOLE focus of the first communication from staff (well, other than the confirmation of her membership, of course). Related to that…
  • Don’t drop everything on her all at once. What does your “welcome to Association XYZ” communication look like? Is it a long list of “member benefits” (too often presented as features and from the association’s perspective) that she’s supposed to plow through? Try introducing one thing at a time with concrete examples of how other members use it, explaining why they like it in their words (testimonials, examples, case studies).
  • Benefits not features. “Association XYZ produces the leading annual conference in our field…”? No. “Earn free continuing education credits when you come to our annual conference. We’re excited to feature speakers and topics like:…” Yes!
  • Don’t ask her for more money – at least not right away. She just joined – the first thing she hears from you shouldn’t be “now spend MORE with us on our book/webinar/conference/whatever.” She’s still figuring out if her initial investment is going to be worthwhile. Don’t try to get her to sink more money in before she’s even sussed that out. It’s just rude.
  • Ask about her. What’s the main reason she joined? You need to know that so you can focus on delivering it to her, and then remind her that you did deliver it when it comes time to renew. What are her most important professional goals for the year? What are the biggest challenges she’s facing? What do you offer that can help her achieve those goals and resolve those challenges? Introduce those things to her first.
  • Pay attention. As you’re doing your drip campaign introducing benefits, what does she respond to? Did she ignore your email about your new book but click immediately on a link to a webinar? That gives you some valuable information about what she might be interested in. Oh: and don’t just assume “she likes webinars and hates books.” Maybe it was the topic of the book versus the topic of the webinar. That’s something else you should try to find out.
  • Stay in touch. You’re trying to develop a relationship here, one that you want to last over the long term. You don’t do that by ignoring the other party for a year (or, worse, bombarding her with tone-deaf marketing messages about things she’s not interested in), and then asking her for more money. You need to stay in touch on a personal and non-financial basis throughout the year. Ask her how things are going. Check in to see if she has questions. Remind her of what’s included in her membership. Get volunteers to reach out. You know, actually develop an actual relationship as if you’re an actual person and so is she. Then, when that renewal invoice does arrive, her decision will be an easy one, and you’ll have a successful renewal.

Photo by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash

Membership 101: Why Did They Join?

Man's hand assembling a puzzle

My last membership 101 blog post addressed the question: how do I know when it’s time
to ask a prospect to join my association? 

The answer was: by studying your data. Data can tell you when is the right time to ask, and what you should emphasize in your slate of programs, products, and services when you do ask.

Why does that matter?

Your association no doubt has a long list of member benefits, programs, products, and services you provide. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But even though your members and prospective members share some common interests, they don’t all want and need exactly the same things. Not all aspects of your value proposition are going to be equally appealing to everyone.

What you need to do is learn what your prospects – and members – are there for, what they’re trying to accomplish, what their most pressing problems are, and then provide that.

Segmentation in your marketing and communications helps you target the right offer to the right person at the right time.

For instance, a prospect who’s just finishing up school might be most interested in your job board and career services. So when you’re pitching her to join – or renew – you’d want to emphasize that.

A mid-career professional might be ready to learn about your certification program, so as you’re describing your member value proposition to her, you’d want to be sure to highlight that.

As I covered in the previous post in this series, a given individual might like to attend webinars, or buy books, or attend face to face events, or volunteer, or support your advocacy efforts, etc.

How do you know what’s most important? Active and passive data collection.

On the active side, you ask questions like:

  • What are your most important professional goals?
  • What are the biggest persistent problems and challenges you face that you can’t seem to solve on your own?
  • Why did you join (or renew)? What were you looking for?
  • Are we delivering on that?

On the passive side, track what people do. Remember, what a member says she wants and needs may not align with what she actually does. Tracking behavior is an important reality check on what people say. I might say that I want to eat nutritiously, but if I consistently order the fries rather than the kale salad… Your members are no different.

You have a wonderful, extensive list of member benefits. But most individuals join for 2-3 key things, and those vary from person to person. Your job is to find out what those are  for a given individual and focus your marketing efforts to her around them.

(And now the stick part of the equation: if you constantly promote your list of 15 benefits, and your member is only here for two of them, she might start questioning why she’s paying dues that funds all that stuff she doesn’t use. I’m not saying you NEVER want to share the full list with your members – people’s needs change over time – but be careful about how you do that, and don’t do it in every communication. Constantly promoting stuff she doesn’t use also shows the member that you don’t know her or care about what’s important to her, which is another message you don’t want to be sending.)

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

Membership 101: How Do I Know When To Ask?

wedding proposal on a beach

My last membership 101 post ended:

You continue to do that [make offers] for a few cycles, THEN ask her to marry you, once you both know it’s right.

Which begs the question: how do you know when is the right time to ask?


If you’ve constructed your ladder of engagement correctly, you started with asking your lead to do something free and easy (maybe signing up for your free e-enewsletter). When she did, you tracked what she clicked on, then offered her a free resource (infographic, webinar, whitepaper) on that topic. When she took you up on that, you offered her something that cost money (another webinar, a resource on the same topic that wasn’t free), which she purchased (hopefully).

By tracking what other new members have done with your association prior to joining, you can estimate how many cycles of offers you need to go through before pitching membership.

By tracking what that particular prospect is responding to (both topic and platform – she might be really interested in leadership OR she might be really interested in infographics OR she might be really interested in both), you can make sure that the additional offers you’re sending her will be appealing.

By combining those two, you can tell when is the right time to ask, and what you should emphasize in your slate of programs, products, and services when you do ask. My next post will explain why that’s important.

Image found at Lesbian News.

Membership 101: Ladder of Engagement

Beth Kanter's chart of the ladder of engagement

As I discussed in the last post in this series, membership is all about relationship building.
The mechanism you use to build that relationship is the ladder of engagement.

Simply put, just like you wouldn’t ask someone to marry you on the first date, so you need to create and deepen your relationship with your prospects (and members) over time before asking them for further commitments.

The first communication someone gets from your association shouldn’t be an invitation to join – they don’t know you yet, and they have no idea if they’re interested in committing a significant amount of money to a full year of relationship.

Membership *is* a relationship, and both parties (the association and the prospective or new member) need to gradually increase cost, commitment, effort, and knowledge. You do that by constructing ladders of engagement, based on engagement paths, that gradually deepen involvement on both sides, until individuals get to the point that they’re comfortable making a larger commitment to you, and you know enough about them to ensure that commitment will be meaningful for them and meet their needs.

There are four main steps in the ladder of engagement:

  1. Capture – this is when you get leads in the door in the first place, virtually always by giving them something free but valuable to them that requires a very low level of commitment.
  2. Nurture – this is when a lead turns into a prospect, which happens as you learn more about her and begin offering her programs, products, and services that can help her achieve key goals and solve problems, moving gradually from free to low cost to higher cost.
  3. Convert – this is when you invite the prospect to join, in a way that’s tailored to his interests and needs, which you know because you’ve been learning more about him as you build the relationship through the nurture process.
  4. Partner – this is when that new member becomes a long-term, loyal, committed, involved member through the ongoing process of getting to know her better and offering programs, products, services, and opportunities for involvement that are increasingly tailored to her most important goals and most pressing challenges.

In practice, this might work something like:

  • Someone registers for a free user account for your career center to look at jobs and post her resume.
  • That person goes into your prospect database, coded as a prospect and with a “career center” origination code.
  • A week or two later, the prospect gets an email offering some free editorial content related to professional development, which she clicks on and downloads. That email MUST have a call to action, and you MUST be able to track whether or not the prospect took it.
  • A few weeks later, the prospect gets another email offering something else free – perhaps a free archived webinar, which she then views (same thing with the call to action and tracking).
  • Next, she’s offered something she needs to pay for, perhaps a paid report or webinar on career development, which she chooses to buy (same thing with the call to action and tracking).
  • Then you offer her membership, with the offer focused on all the additional professional development-related content she’ll have access to if she joins.

Notice that the prospect is only being asked to join (marry you) after you’ve established that she’s actually interested, and she gets a membership offer that’s targeted to what *she’s* interested in, not something generic that’s mostly focused on what the association thinks is valuable.

Ideally, you will create MANY ladders of engagement based around all sorts of segments – source of lead, career stage, professional interests and needs, geographical location, past purchases, demographics, etc. You collect some of this data actively – you ask for it. Some of it you collect passively by observing and recording what people do and grouping them by demonstrated behaviors.

But in all of them, you start with something that’s of interest but is free and requires little  commitment to get, often just providing one’s contact information. If your lead does that, offer him something that asks a little more of him. It can be money, but it doesn’t have to be – maybe you just ask for some demographic information about him, or ask about his interest areas. You continue to do that for a few cycles, THEN ask her to marry you, once you both know it’s right.

The fantastic, really simple graphic of the ladder of engagement above is from Beth Kanter. On an unrelated note, you should read her blog and follow her on Twitter if you don’t already.