Innovate Now! But How?

We’re constantly being urged to innovate, but frankly, in a world of venture capital, nanotechnology, medical advances, and big R&D budgets – none of which nonprofits have access to on a regular basis – that constant drumbeat of “innovate…innovate…innovate” can feel more than a little intimidating – it can even seem impossible.

The thing is, your association is never going to be Apple (hell, Apple might not be Apple after visionary founder Steve Jobs is no longer on the scene).  And that’s OK.  You don’t have to change the world for everyone to have an impact on someone.

So as a community, if we’re not going to discover an abundant, non-carbon-based, renewable energy source or find the cure for AIDS or bring peace to the Middle East or create the next iGottaHaveIt device, what can we do?  Where is our ground for innovation?

It’s right under our noses: membership and volunteerism – the two things we, as a community, can lay claim to owning.

And the thing is, we NEED to innovate in both of these areas, because they’re key to our operations and they’re in the midst of being subjected to some pretty powerful generational forces.

I posted about this earlier this spring, but I think the current association model, particularly as relates to membership and volunteering, is an artifact of its creation by the Boomers.  Membership is often a one-size-fits-all prospect, with lots of “community good” stuff, well, stuffed in there, whether or not the individual member wants it or wants to support it.  That lets us get away with pricing at least some of our offerings below what they actually cost us to produce, artificially inflating demand, which in turn, makes it hard to kill things that should die.

John Graham gave a speech at the Association Foundation Group’s national conference a few weeks ago where he indicated that the association model is predicated on only about 25% of our members taking advantage of any given service that’s offered to them. His point was that if they all took 100% advantage of their memberships, we’d go out of business.  My response was different – that means that, for any given “benefit” you offer to members, 75% of them don’t want it.  And yet they’re paying for it.  And we wonder why we have a hard time articulating our value proposition!

To paraphrase the always-provocative Scott Briscoe (and I linked to this post recently in my regular Wednesday What I’m Reading feature):  we’re inundating our members with too much irrelevant crap.  No wonder they “don’t pay attention!” (how often have you said that?)  They aren’t interested in 75% of what we keep insisting on telling them about – no wonder we can’t get their attention about the 25% that actually matters to them.

Xers and Millennials – aka, your members of tomorrow – have much higher expectations of paying for what – and only what – we actually want (the article linked relates to Boomers versus Xers as parents of school-age kids, but it’s both interesting and relevant for our discussion here).  I quote:

Gen Xers are acutely sensitive to the prices they pay and the value they receive in return.

Prepare for the modular “opt-out” consumer. 

(Oh, and did I mention that the article was written by Neil Howe?)

We need to be thinking seriously, innovating seriously, about how that affects the membership model NOW.  Hell, we needed to start thinking about this yesterday.

Those same dynamics – localism, pragmatism, focus on the bottom line, personal accountability, distrust of authority and institutions – affect volunteering just as strongly (if not more so) than membership. We’re not interested in neverending committee meetings that don’t actually accomplish anything.  We don’t want to have to “pay dues” to get a leadership position – we want responsibility based on what we’ve accomplished, not on our ability to outlast the other guy.  But don’t listen to me – check our Deirdre Reid’s New Volunteer Manifesto.  She says it all way better than I could.

Associations, and nonprofits more generally, REQUIRE volunteers to operate.  But if we can’t innovate around what we offer and our expectations and put together a model that fits with what GenX and the Millennials are looking for, there will be no one to fill those seats.

So what do you think? What are you doing to address generational change and how it will affect the building blocks of your organization?  Where else can associations innovate?

One thought on “Innovate Now! But How?”

  • Nice post, Elizabeth (and not just because it links to Acronym!)

    I don't want to steal my own thunder (all right, maybe more of a base drum or even just a loud thwack) but Jamie Notter's post today made me do some thinking and I have a half-written post that will go on Acronym at some point. One of the things in that post will be the idea of forcing yourself to consider what your organization would possibly look like in a postdues scenario.

    And to add a little more context to your post, when I speak on social media to execs, I like to take a look at the reasons people join associations, which almost always fit neatly into one or more of the following categories: community, learning/information, advocacy, or some other golden handcuff. I argue that the social web changes the calculus of each of these things. Community and information are obvious. I usually get some argument about the advocacy (but that's ok, learning happens in such debates) and the golden handcuff is admittedly my weakest argument — it's a handcuff for a reason.

    The one thing I can't get behind in the post is the generational approach. It's not that there's not something to generational differences, it's a topic that just gives me the heebies a little — I see too many people jump to to too many wrong conclusions because of this one stereotype.

    In any event, can't stand the Facebook “Like It” terminology, which sounds kind of like cheesy hack salesmen, so I'll reach back to before my time and pull out this boomer expression about your post: Right on!

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