Ask Better Questions

Definition of charente from a meeting in which all stakeholder in a project attempt to resolve conflicts and map solutions

I recently had the opportunity to participate in Association Charrette, a project of Vista Cova, facilitated by Lowell Apelbaum. Most commonly used in design focused industries (architecture, urban planning, landscaping), charrettes

“…serve as a way of quickly generating a design solution while integrating the aptitudes and interests of a diverse group of people. The general idea of a charrette is to create an innovative atmosphere in which a diverse group of stakeholders can collaborate to ‘generate visions for the future’.” (Wikipedia)

In its Association Charrette form, it’s kind of a cross between an un-conference and a retreat. The community of roughly 20 association professionals that forms for the event chooses the topics, and, as Lowell constructs it, the goal is not to solve the problems, but to frame the issues through multiple rounds of extended questioning. Which, as you might imagine, can be a bit frustrating for people who are generally paid to identify and solve problems, but it’s a useful exercise to undergo, to suspend the need for an answer and just stay with the process of questioning for an entire weekend. Also, as Lowell observed, the first questions you ask are often not the most insightful ones – it takes time to get beyond the obvious questions and get to those that will inspire new ways of thinking.

The issues this particular Charrette community chose:

  • Trust, within the context of the well-documented loss of trust in institutions and expertise, and how that might impact associations
  • Community and belonging, and associations’ role (or not!) in creating them
  • Structure
  • Emerging tech, particularly AI (in light of the recent advances demonstrated by ChatGPT and the attention being paid to them)

Again, the point wasn’t to try to answer or solve or fix any of these things, but to think through the kinds of questions we need to be considering as an industry as these forces impact us, our members, their customers, and the professions or industries we serve.

One thing that was new since the last time I was able to participate in Charrette was a “Mastermind group-lite” session on Saturday night. Each participant had the opportunity to submit a vexing problem (professional or personal) that was affecting her individually (NOT her organization) and then get 15 minutes to be the focus of the attention and ideas of four other participants.

If you’ve not had the opportunity to be a part of a Mastermind group, I highly recommend it. When I first launched Spark more than ten years ago, I was fortunate to be invited to participate in a Mastermind group, and it was invaluable.

What is a Mastermind group? It’s a group of 4-6 people who provide peer mentoring to each other about whatever the group forms to address. (In our case, it was how to be successful as a solo woman consultant in the association industry, but it can be about anything you want to learn or improve.)

You commit to meeting with each other regularly, and in each meeting, each participant “checks in,” and then the bulk of the meeting is focused on one person and her challenges (where obviously, you rotate who is the focus). The other participants provide concrete, actionable advice based on their experience.

It requires vulnerability – if you just want to pretend that everything is AWESOME all the time, Mastermind is not for you – the ability to take in advice that might challenge you or make you uncomfortable, the willingness to act on that advice and report back honestly about what happened, and the generosity to be the giver of advice and focused attention (rather than the receiver) next time around.

Top Ten

Red running track with white lane markers counting up from 1

All in one post/place!

10. Five Tips for Success with Ad Hoc Volunteers

Original Post (2014)

Updated Post (2022)

9. Why Is Membership the Only Relationship?

Original Post (2013)

Updated Post (2022)

8. Membership 101: Effective Renewal Cycles

Original Post (2018)

Updated Post (2022)

7. Membership 101: Exit Surveys

Original Post (2018)

Updated Post (2022)

6. Explaining Marketing to a Kid 

Original Post (2014)

Updated Post (2022)

5. Ten Tips for Creating an Effective Marketing Piece 

Original Post (2013)

Updated Post (2022)

4. Five Ways NOT to Brainstorm

Original Post (2014)

Updated Post (2022)

3. Getting the Most Out of Your Consulting Partnerships

Original Post (2013)

Updated Post (2022)

2. Strategic Planning v. Strategic Thinking

Original Post (2013)

Updated Post (2022)

1. Membership 101: The Welcome Series

Original Post (2017)

Updated Post (2022)

What did we learn?

A lot of my original posts held up pretty well – that’s probably why they’re in the top ten, because ten years later, they’re still relevant – and, experience being a good guide, I was able to bring some additional nuance to some of them.

Thanks for coming along on this ride with me, both in the narrow sense, as I revisited these posts, and in the larger sense, as I’ve gone through the adventure that is running my own consulting business to the association industry these last ten years.

Photo by Charlie Wollborg on Unsplash

1: Membership 101: The Welcome Series

Welcome in bright rainbow colors

And finally, coming in at #1 in the Spark All-Time Top 10 Blog Posts (and it wasn’t even close): Membership 101: The Welcome Series.

First written more than five years ago, this post remains the first or second most visited page on my entire website month after month (thanks, Google Analytics!).

Once again, I’m finding that the advice I provided, gleaned both from my own years as a membership director and my time working with clients, holds up: Create a drip campaign, mix your methods, keep it personal, focus on building a (hopefully long-term) relationship, and make sure you have calls to action to respond to and then pay attention to those responses.

In the interim, the lovely folks at Kaiser Insights and Dynamic Benchmarking have come out with two reports (one from 2018, and an update just released this fall) with data that backs up a lot of this advice, while also sharing some good practice metrics that my clients have found useful, such as:

  • 3-3-6 pacing: three communications in the first week, one a week for the remaining three weeks of the first month, then one a month for the next six months
  • 3-5 tactics: associations CAN use all kinds of tactics and platforms to communicate with (new and loyal) members, but you should probably stick with 3-5 so as not to spread your marcom team too thin, so you can develop expertise, and so your members know where to look for you

In fact, Amanda Kaiser just hosted a “launch party” for the updated study earlier this week, with Matchbox Virtual Media hosting many of the artifacts of that event.

As I’m thinking about how things have changed since the original post – and how they haven’t – I’m particularly intrigued by the responses to the “challenge questions” from the launch party (you’ll need to log into the Matchbox platform to get access to the Jamboards with the responses).

One of the biggest things that’s STILL holding associations back with regards to connecting with our newest members is: Most associations offer LOTS of benefits, but most members join for only a few of them.

The problem is, how do you learn which benefits any given member needs to help her solve her most important problems and achieve her biggest goals? 

Which gets back to my advice in the original post. You can do a great job creating a multi-channel drip campaign that shares your benefits (NOT features) one at a time and doesn’t ask your new member to spend more money too early, BUT if you aren’t paying attention to what happens next, you’ll never answer that important problems/biggest goals question, which means your new members will never get past that “awkward newbie” stage and connect both with the solutions your association provides and with the community of people you’ve gathered together (aka “the rest of your members”) that creates the magic that keeps them coming back year after year.

So yeah, you have to do the hard, unglamorous work of looking at your data periodically to see what messages on what platforms are resonating and with whom, and what actions are being taken and by whom, and then use that information to inform your next steps in relationship-building.

Or, as I closed out the original post:

[A]ctually 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

3: Getting the Most Out of Your Consulting Partnerships

two women sitting in front of a computer monitor working together in an open office

Coming in at Number Three in the all-time Top 10 Spark blog posts: Getting the Most Out of Your Consulting Partnerships. (And it garnered a lot of pingbacks, which is probably one of the reasons it’s so high on the list.)

The original post was written about a year into the Spark journey.

So how did I already have a perspective on effective consulting partnerships?

Well, aside from having worked with consultants in my 13 years as an association exec before launching Spark, I’d also had the opportunity to do two years of consulting (one for a big firm, one for a small firm) before launching. (That turned out to have been seriously helpful when I did launch, as then I didn’t have to try to learn how to consult AND how to run a small business at the same time. But that’s a different post.)

I think my opening question: “Hire a consultant, or…?” is still a good one. Association execs do have lots of options: hiring or training staff, outsourcing, relying on member volunteers. Consultants are, I think, mostly useful for bringing an experienced, outsider strategic perspective in situations where you don’t need access to that type of expertise all the time.

The rest of the advice in the post remains solid, too, I think.

In the past decade, I have, however, noticed some things that can really cause a consulting relationship to go sideways:

  • Lack of agreement on the problem we’re trying to solve. Getting clarity on this is a shared responsibility that requires a willingness on both sides to be open and honest about what’s really going on at the association. If the client’s staff hides unflattering information from the consultant or the consultant is afraid to tell the client what she really thinks, everyone’s going to be working at cross-purposes and there will be a LOT of misunderstandings. And then no one ends up happy.
  • Lack of buy-in from staff and/or volunteer leadership. I’m thinking of a particular project where a VP hired me and then promptly quit – his last day on staff was the day of our project kickoff meeting. That left our project without an executive-level sponsor. The project team and I worked really hard for months, and it all turned out to be for nothing, as we discovered as we were delivering our recommendations that the CEO was never in favor of the project in the first place. Not good.
  • Negative organizational culture. The committee chairs are angry with the board. The board doesn’t trust the executive director. The staff is mad at the affiliate leaders or vice versa. Different departments maliciously conceal information from each other. There’s no agreement about organizational priorities. People don’t trust each other or communicate well internally. Everyone’s attitude is on a downward spiral, and everyone’s trying to sabotage their perceived enemies. The consultant ends up rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg. Yikes.
  • Unrealistic expectations. “We’d like you to triple our membership in six months or less. And we’d like a guarantee of success. And we have a budget of about $5,000.” Again, expectation setting is a shared responsibility and should happen early in the process – like during the proposal or, at the latest, at the kickoff meeting. But if what you’re asking for sounds crazy, it probably is.

It’s important for association execs to remember that consultants don’t just want you to pay us for our expertise (although of course we do want that), we want to help you with your problems and for you to be happy with the results. We want to come up with solutions for you that you can actually implement and that work. Don’t treat us as adversaries – we’re not. Most of us have, at one point or another in our careers, been in your shoes. We empathize, but we also have perspective. Take advantage of that.

Photo by LinkedIn Sales Solutions on Unsplash

4: Five Ways NOT to Brainstorm

Cartoon from The Oatmeal - one person holding another person horizontally and yelling "WHOOSH!"

The 4th most popular blog post on the all-time top ten list is an unexpected entry: Five Ways NOT to Brainstorm.

Written almost exactly eight years ago, it was intended to be funny and a little silly – mostly.

I had read a couple of articles in Fast Company and the New Yorker about the perhaps counter-intuitive reality that brainstorming is rarely productive, which I found ironic.

Brainstorming was originated in the 1940s by a “Mad Men” era exec at BBDO, one of the big Madison Avenue advertising firms. The basic concept was that being too critical early on stifles creativity, so get a bunch of people together, suspend judgement, and watch the ideas flow. (The New Yorker article goes into a lot more detail about this history.)

Sounds plausible, but it turns out not to be true.

As the Fast Company article reports, further social science experiments indicate that it’s group dynamics more than criticism that stifles creative thinking.

Which group dynamics? Well, if you’ve were ever assigned a team project during your formative years, you know the answer: The forces that encourage everyone to sit back and assume someone else will do all the work. (Unless you’re the one who was always the “someone” in the group, in which case, we should meet for coffee sometime because I think we’d have a lot in common.)

In fact, criticism can actually help produce more ideas in the form of solutions as the group gets more clear about what problem it is they’re trying to solve exactly. As Fast Company advises:

…the fact is that people are usually better at finding fault than they are at finding answers. Properly harnessed, that could be a good thing.

Or, as the New Yorker article puts it:

In a way, the power of dissent is the power of surprise. After hearing someone shout out an errant answer, we work to understand it, which causes us to reassess our initial assumptions and try out new perspectives.

Interestingly, as we’re all contemplating issues related to where we work as the pandemic emergency transitions into an endemic problem we’ll have to learn to manage, physical proximity appears to matter, in everything from the “best” scientific research (measured by number of citations) to the famed MIT Rad Lab to making “Ratatouille” and “The Incredibles.”

Again quoting the New Yorker:

The most creative spaces are those which hurl us together. It is the human friction that makes the sparks.

But it’s equally important not to just throw people together in the interest of “team input theater,” where, per Scott Berkun, a bad manager:

holds a stiff and awkward meeting, some stuff is written down, a few smiles are exchanged, and then: nothing happens. (emphasis added)

And that’s actually a key point: follow up. Once you have all those ideas – good, bad, indifferent, WTF?, whatever – DO SOMETHING WITH THEM. The boss (maybe that’s you) needs to assign someone to weed through them and then assign tasks back out to the group. Otherwise, you’re just wasting everyone’s time.

And in the spirit of the original post, LONG LIVE GARBAGE FONDUE FOUNTAINS! (Be warned: If you follow that link to The Oatmeal, the language is definitely R-rated. But you should check it out, as it’s the source of the great image that heads this post, which is part of a funny and profane take on the promises and perils of brainstorming by author and artist Matthew Inman.)



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


7: Membership 101: Exit Surveys

neon blue "exit" sign

In position number 7 of the top ten all time Spark blog posts: Membership 101: Exit Surveys.

(I told you the Membership 101 series would be back!)

Once again, the advice in the initial post remains solid. To this day, I regularly recommend conducting an exit survey as part of client projects, or as something they should start doing on their own after we’re done, or both.

It’s important to remember that exit surveys are not a formal statistically valid instrument – they’re a pulse check.

That said, they can, as I wrote nearly four years ago, provide useful clues to emerging problems with your member value proposition, as well as providing one last chance to recapture folks who might not have realized they lapsed.

One thing I would like to highlight that I missed in the initial post is: Are people leaving for reasons that are under your control or NOT under your control?

“I left the profession” is a good example of the second. “A customer service staff person was rude to me” is a good example of the first.

You genuinely can’t do anything about the someone leaving the profession. That person is appropriately gone from membership, and all you can do is wish her good luck in her new ventures.

For the second example, that’s a clue for further investigation. But don’t immediately jump to the conclusion that the staffer in question needs to be retrained – or fired. Maybe the member is just a jerk (it happens). Maybe you’ve set up a system that’s rewarding the wrong behaviors (i.e., how many complaints the staff person can handle in a day, how quickly the staff person can conclude the interaction). Maybe your customer service team is under-staffed, or you’ve tasked them with responsibility (to fix problems) without authority (to actually do anything meaningful about problems). Or maybe that person – or the entire team – needs refresher training on things like empathy, listening, follow through, warm handoffs, checking back in to ensure the problem was solved, and how to debrief as a team effectively.

But many reasons are not so clear-cut. Example: “My employer stopped paying for my dues.”

Is that under your control?

Well, no – you can’t make any given employer pay employees’ association membership dues.

But also, yes – what you’re offering isn’t valuable enough that the employee is willing to pay out of her own pocket. Why is that?

In short, keep running those exit surveys, and keep looking for clues to the *next* question you should ask based on what you learn.

Photo by Dustin Tramel on Unsplash



8: Membership 101: Effective Renewal Cycles

GIFY: That was perfect. I have no notes. Jane the Virgin

In position number 8 of the top ten all time Spark blog posts: Membership 101: Effective Renewal Cycles.

(Spoiler alert: you’re going to see more of the Membership 101 series posts in the countdown.)

When I reviewed the initial post, I realized everything I wrote still holds four years later. I still walk clients through this process today in creating renewal campaigns, answering questions about goals, audience(s), offer, message, tactics/platforms, resources, schedule and responsibilities, and metrics on the way to creating our campaign plan working document, because EVERY campaign is a working document.


Ideally, you’re going to learn and adjust as you go, devoting more resources to what’s demonstrably working and reducing or eliminating what isn’t. (On a related note, this is why clients often include an implementation retainer – it’s a lot easier to stay on track and actually do real-time evaluation when you have an accountability buddy asking you about those things every week or two.)

After ten years at this (plus my MANY years as association membership staff before launching Spark), what have I learned about where things generally go wrong?


We always run into problems with data, either because we don’t have data we need (or would like) or we can’t use the data we have.

Goals: Associations may struggle to know, with any degree of precision, what their retention rate is, or has been over time. That makes it hard to set a realistic goal.

Audiences: Associations may not know much about their audience, other than that they’re the members who are currently due to renew, when it’s really useful to know how long they’ve been members (first time renewals generally need a little extra attention), what programs, products, and services they have – and haven’t – been using, where they are in their careers/lives, what their normal renewal behavior is, what platform(s) they prefer to communicate with the association on, who else might be involved in the decision to renew, etc. The more you know about your audiences, the better you can segment them and target your messaging to be most effective.

Offer: Associations may not know what persuades – it’s not always discounts – or what’s worked in the past. As an example, a client recently tried offering a drawing to get MORE of their most visible and valuable benefit (it’s a metered program) for those who renewed right at the beginning of the cycle, and we saw a HUGE bump in members who renewed off that first month’s communications, which has all sorts of compounding benefits for the rest of the cycle, not least of which is that staff has fewer slowpokes to chase later on.

Message: Likewise, associations may be unclear about who they’re trying to persuade. Is the member herself? Her boss? Her finance department? Her spouse? They may also not know what persuades – it’s not always WIIFM (what’s in it for me?). As an example, I had a client recently where the most effective message in our renewal series was one that talked about contributing to the good of the entire professional community. I know that type of messaging is supposed to be passé, but I’m here to tell you, it still works for some audiences.

Tactics: Associations may not know what platforms get the best response, aka “Just because your members are on Facebook (or Instagram or TikTok or whatever platform arises between the time I type this and when I hit “publish” in ten minutes) doesn’t necessarily mean they want to be WITH YOU on Facebook.” Another example: a lot of associations have stopped sending any type of print renewal notice, particularly since COVID with a lot of people at home rather than in an office and the association maybe not having those home addresses. And their renewal rates have dropped, because even though associations enjoy a significantly higher email open rate than pretty much any other industry, it still runs around 35%. Multichannel campaigns FTW, my friends.

And the thing is, we often don’t discover these gaps until we’re putting together the campaign or even running it, when we find we can’t easily track what’s happening in real time so we can make adjustments, because the association’s various tech systems and platforms don’t talk to each other, which makes that whole “who’s going to do what when?” conversation a little tricky, and makes measuring what happened, and documenting it so we can do better next time, even MORE tricky. But that in itself is a valuable lesson, as we now know where the gaps and problems lie and can begin addressing them by work arounds, working with vendors, or changing systems.

9: Why Is Membership the Only Relationship?

Why is Membership the Only Relationship?

In position number 9 of the top ten all time Spark blog posts: Why Is Membership the Only Relationship?

Originally written as a follow on to a panel session I participated in at ASAE’s 2013 Great Ideas Conference, I noted that while associations have LOTS of different types of constituents, we still, with a few limited exceptions, tend to consider everyone who interacts with us a membership prospect and push everyone we interact with towards becoming a member.

In other words, you can have a relationship with us in any color you want, as long as it’s membership.

As I wrote nearly ten years ago:

The world has changed to one of mass customization, and we aren’t keeping up with people’s expectations and experiences.

How have things changed?

I would argue that the forces I was talking about then have only intensified, even before the pandemic and certainly in its wake.

People’s expectations of our organizations are influenced by their consumer experiences – mass customization and personalization, paying only for what you want, on demand services, subscription models, free and freemium models, and the sharing economy. That may not be fair, but it is a fact. Meanwhile, we’re offering them a model T.

Post-pandemic, a lot of people are re-examining their lives: work-life balance, how they invest their limited resources (time, money, attention), what really matters to them, how much travel they want to and are willing to do and for what purposes, how busy/booked they’re willing to be, what causes are worthy of their volunteer energy and attention, etc.

All of those things influence both what people are looking for from your association and what they’re willing to give to it.

I do get it. We’re membership organizations. That long-term, loyal relationship is critical – it’s a key part of the foundation both of associations’ revenue models and of the work we do to benefit our professions and industries.

However, there are people within the larger profession/industry community your association serves who have valuable things they want to and can contribute to the betterment of that community who might not want to or be able to be members (maybe for now, maybe forever).

Are you making space for them to be part of your community in ways that make sense to them? If not, why not? 

Image Credit: “Henry Ford Quotes.”, Last modified July 30, 2021.