Catch Spark at #ASAE16

I’ll be presenting two sessions at the upcoming ASAE Annual Meeting in Salt Lake City in a I'm Speaking ASAE 2016 Annual Meetingfew weeks:

  • Unsession: The Association Role in the New Education Paradigm, Sunday, August 14
  • Deep Dive: The Lean Startup Changes Everything, Tuesday, August 16

For the unsession, join me and Shelly Alcorn (Alcorn Associates) for a town hall-style discussion of how associations are being impacted by and can in turn impact trends in education and employment. Both of these sectors are undergoing profound disruption, and we believe associations are uniquely positioned to play a vital role in helping our current and future stakeholders adjust and even thrive in this rapidly changing environment.

In this unsession, we’ll share a preview of our soon-to-be released whitepaper, The Association Role in the New Education Paradigm (yep, the next Spark white paper is about to drop, y’all!). We’ll highlight some of the latest research on this topic, identify what we see as association advantages in these areas, and share the stories of associations that are doing good work preparing their audiences for the future.

We plan to challenge your thinking about the role associations can play in bridging the education to employment gap. We’ll have some questions for you, and we hope you’ll have some for us. Our goal is to have a productive dialogue that opens all of our eyes to some new possibilities for benefitting our members, our other stakeholders, and society at large.

We’ll be in one of the pop up session pods, probably around 3:30 Sunday afternoon.

For the Deep Dive session, join me and Guillermo Ortiz de Zarate (National Council of Architectural Registration Boards) for a full 90 minute session on lean startup methodology.

There’s no bigger waste than investing resources working on the wrong thing. Lean startup is a development approach that requires articulating and testing assumptions, favors rapid experimentation over elaborate planning, relies on customer feedback over intuition, and encourages iterative design, all in the service of ensuring you’re investing in the right thing.

It’s based on our October 2015 white paper Innovate the Lean Way: Applying Lean Startup Methodology in the Association Environment, and because we have a deep dive session, we’ll have time to work through a multi-part exercise, using the lean canvas, where attendees will get to work with lean concepts like the MVP, The One Metric That Matters, and the Pivot, so you can learn to apply this technique in your own organization to eliminate waste, validate your learning, and innovate faster and more successfully.

The deep dive session will be in Salt Palace room 255E from 9 – 10:30 am on Tuesday.

You Say You Want a Revolution

There’s a bit of a fracas currently occurring around the selection of James Carville and Karl Rove as opening keynoters for the 2012 ASAE Annual Meeting. To me, it raises a much larger question: how does a member change the direction of the organizational ship, if s/he’s not happy with where it’s going?

In every protest movement, from the largest (the Occupy movement, justice for Trayvon Martin) to the current ASAE contretemps, there’s the initial, “I’m outraged! Who’s with me?” moment.

And the “rabble rousing” portion is vital, because you have to figure out how big your cohort is.

But you have to move on to campaign stage, or you just get mired in complaining.

There are two key questions any protest group must answer:

  • What do we really want? (aka, What would fix the problem or compensate for the harm?)
  • What are we willing to give up to get it?

Then you have to calculate your “n” to figure out how many supporters you need before it’s worth the institution’s time to pay attention.

So using the Carville/Rove situation, let’s look at some examples:

Small “n” resolution: Let’s say the group of displeased members wants, in the future, for keynote speakers to be selected by a representative group of members, or at least for that group of members to provide a list of choices or to vet ASAE’s list of choices. Since that would come at virtually no cost to ASAE, the group of members wouldn’t have to risk/threaten much, and the “n” required to support the proposal in order to get the institution to pay attention would be relatively small.

Large “n” resolution:  Let’s say the group of displeased members wants ASAE to provide an alternative keynoter or at least space and promotion if the disaffected group secures an alternative keynoter (maybe someone like Gwen Ifill?). That’s a significant cost, in money, hassle/logistics, and damage to reputation, so the group would need a large “n” that’s willing to threaten/risk something fairly major, like paying for the keynoter themselves, or canceling registrations and demanding a refund, in order to get the institution to pay attention.

But in the end, what each person has to ask her/himself is this: how much does this mean to me? Am I willing to die on this hill? And then put up, or shut up.

What Do You Mean You Don’t Want Me?

Last week, the ASAE annual meeting proposal notices came out. Some of us got in, some of us didn’t, and some got a little of both.

Now there are half joking – but that also means half serious – conspiracy theories floating around about certain people or groups being intentionally excluded.

I think we have a mote and beam problem here.

How many of our organizations are open about our selection criteria for our conferences?

  • Does being a frequent presenter count for you – or against you?
  • Do we consider old scores?
  • What does having a “name” in your field get you?
  • Are there unwritten rules?

It doesn’t have to be this way.

sxsw takes an interesting approach: people vote on the sessions they want to see (ASAE has incorporated elements of this in the past, too). Sure, that can turn things into a popularity contest, but popular vote isn’t the whole story, and it helps attendees feel connected to the event.

What can you do at your organization to be more transparent about why people are accepted or rejected for volunteer service, conference presentations, magazine articles, etc.?


Are Some More Equal Than Others?

Yep, it’s another post about Joe Gerstandt’s awesome How to Fly Your Freak Flag session as #ASAE11.

One of the exercises consisted of Joe reading a variety of statements and asking us to stand up, purely voluntarily and only if we wanted to share that information about ourselves, when any statement that was true about us was read.

Some of them were fairly obvious, about gender and race/ethnicity. Some were less obvious, like being raised in a rural community or by a single parent.

One of the statements he read was: “I have a disability.”

I thought about it for a few seconds, and stood up.

No, this is not going to turn into some heart-warming “coming out” story. I’m a GenXer – I don’t do heart-warming.

I don’t have depth perception, which people who know me well tend to be aware of. Thing is, I never had it in the first place, due to some serious eye problems I had as a baby/toddler. So although people who lose their depth perception later in life, particularly if it was *after* they learned to drive, tend to see themselves as disabled, that’s not an identity I generally claim. But in fact, I do have a non-apparent disability. And it felt a little scary to stand up in a crowded break out session room and claim that.

And it got me thinking: are some types of diversity easier to own in our world?

Example: in the association world, there are lots of fabulous – and fabulously out – gay men in prominent positions, both paid and volunteer. But how many out lesbians can you think of in power positions in associations? I can’t think of many. Doesn’t that seem odd, given that association work is largely female-dominated?

What about people with disabilities that aren’t visible? Hell, what about people with disabilities that *are* visible? I’ve worked in plenty of ADA-compliant buildings in the past 14 years, but I’ve never, to the best of my knowledge, worked with a person who had a disability that required ADA-covered accommodations. Several years ago, I worked on the floor *above* a disability rights organization, so I shared plenty of elevator rides with people in wheelchairs, but none of them were coming up to my floor to work for my organization.

Or think about religious minorities for a minute. Many organizations are open to our Jewish colleagues taking vacation days to celebrate their holidays, but what about other religious minorities (or at least minorities in the US)? We’re within the last few days of Ramadan this year, and summer is a tough time for Ramadan, because that sunrise to sunset fast lasts a LONG time. Are our associations open to making accommodations in work schedules or responsibilities for people whose energy levels might be low by late afternoon because of religious observance?

I quote my esteemed colleague Jeffrey Cufaude: “We have got to start walking the talk on diversity.” Also: “You won’t get different results for diversity & inclusion if you don’t even ask the question as a part of your regular work.”

Are you asking the question yet? If not now, when?

Are You Ready to Fly?

Without a doubt, the best session I attended at #ASAE11 was Joe Gerstandt‘s How to Fly Your Freak Flag.

Aside from the awesomeness of the topic, Joe’s presentation style fit his message to a T.

His basic point is that the pressure on humans to conform to whatever group we’re in is enormous, but conformity makes us “radically incomplete.” Sure, staff members who hide key aspects of themselves in order to fit in are easier to manage, but doing that is ultimately unhealthy. And when our people are holding back important elements of their real selves, they’re almost definitely holding back characteristics, skills, and behaviors that would be good for our organizations.

Illustrating his point about how difficult but ultimately positive opening up is, Joe led us through a series of exercises where we gradually revealed more about ourselves to a gradually larger audience.

He walked us through:

  • Writing our own obituaries (surprisingly difficult)
  • “Who am I?”
  • “Why am I here?”
  • “What is my gift?”
  • “Is there any evidence?” (my favorite of the questions)

In the end, while we’re never EXACTLY the same person at work and in our private lives, we have to be comfortable with where we draw the line. Are you comfortable with that place in your own life? If not, what are you going to do about it?

Dare to Think BIG

During Jeffrey Cufaude‘s ASAE11 Ignite presentation on living a sustainable life, he quoted Mary Catherine Bateson: “we’re living longer but thinking shorter.” And I got thinking about the concept of thinking small.

Associations are under tremendous pressure right now. The economy is not getting any better. Social media, to quote Jamie Notter and paraphrase Clay Shirky, is kicking our asses. Generational shifts are battering our traditional membership and leadership models. Peak oil and global climate change are beginning to affect our society in countless ways, one of which may very likely be to cripple our traditional educational and networking models. What volunteers are looking for, and the hoops they’re willing to jump through in order to get it, has changed in ways that render traditional board and committee service models obsolete. Information is no longer scarce, and even the most backwards and self-delusional associations can’t pretend to hold a monopoly on it any more.

Everything in our environment is whispering: “Protect your ass. Guard your turf. Trust no one. Rock no boats. Prepare for the worst.”

In other words: “Think small.”

Sure – think small, and watch your organization die.

Now, as Jamie has pointed out, your association – my association – has no inherent right to exist. And if the best thing for your profession/industry/community/audiences is for your organization to die, then get on with it and decrease the surplus population.

But if you do believe that your organization brings something useful and good to some group of people, now is exactly the time to think big, take chances, rock the boat, make change, and see where it can take you.

It’s easy to be afraid now – a lot of shit is going down. But if we can get past the fear and be courageous and willing to take risks, we have HUGE opportunities to do better by our members, our professions/industries, our audiences, and maybe even the world. As my good friend Catherine says: “What are they going to do – take away your birthday?”

At the end of his Ignite session, Joe Gerstandt asked us: “Do you approach life from fear or from love?”

It’s time to choose.

#ASAE11 – Tips for First Timers

#ASAE11kicks off in just over a month (damn! already? where is the summer going…?), and I saw a recent tweet asking for tips for first-timers, so I thought I’d share some of mine:

  • Follow the back channel (#ASAE11) – it really will help you keep up on what’s going on, both the published stuff and the unpublished/spontaneous stuff.
  • Don’t overschedule yourself – there’s a lot going on. You are going to miss some stuff. Make peace with that in advance.
  • Do your prep work – check out the preliminary program before you arrive (on the plane is OK) and set a draft game plan for week
  • Have a second option – you might find yourself in a session that’s not that great. Make sure you’ve already thought about what else you might want to do so you don’t feel stuck.
  • Don’t be afraid to approach people – it’s really hard to come to one of these things for the first time alone. You literally feel like the only person with no friends. But (a) I guarantee there are others in the same situation who would appreciate some outreach and (b) we’re association people. We are professional networkers who generally speaking like other people. It’s totally cool to walk up to a group you don’t know and join their conversation. Nervous? Look for me – that’s why my photo’s attached to this post.
  • Have a good time, but not TOO good a time – nothing sucks harder than a hangover at a conference. I know from experience, and it’s a mistake we all make, but hopefully we only make it once.
  • Feel free to tag along – there are a lot of events you might not have been invited to, just because people don’t know you yet. I’m specifically thinking of the vendor events on Sunday night. It is totally OK to tag along with a group you just met that’s going to XX or YY vendor’s party. They WANT to meet you and they WANT you to have a good time.

Plays Well With Others: Tips

Layla, Lynn, and Elizabeth’s ninja tips for engaging your audiences:


  • Don’t auto-post everything to everywhere, but do learn how to selectively auto-post in your chosen platforms.
  • Check out the administrative interface of every platform you use – you’d be surprised at how much information is available on things like which links got clicked, who likes you, what they’re doing, etc.
  • Use URL shorteners and your regular web analytics tool to track how effective your posts are. (Are people clicking on what you want them to click on?)
  • When people contact you (@ replies, direct messages, posts to your FB page’s wall), respond.
  • Don’t forget about direct mail, which is still the most effective way to reach people, and email, which is still the most effective online way to reach people.
  • Figure out ways to reward your most ardent supporters, and make sure they’re ways that are meaningful to them.
  • Don’t ask LESS of social media in regards to ROI than your other communications channels…but don’t ask MORE, either.
  • Make sure more than one person in your organization knows something about your chosen tools – you don’t want everything to come to a screeching halt if s/he chooses to leave.
  • Dial back your efforts on the platforms that aren’t helping you meet you goals, so you can dial up your efforts on those that are.
  • Regularly revisit your goals to ensure your tools and efforts are still meeting your needs.
  • Follow thought leaders to keep up on the newest tools and new features your existing tools may have added.
  • Promote your top social media outlets in your e-mail signatures and business cards to drive visits and use.
  • Tag your items using searchable keywords and include those in descriptions whenever possible. That’s how people will find your stuff online.


  • Understand Twitter’s #hashtag power – they spread your words far beyond your followers – and use a tool to track how far your tweets spread.
  • Use general hashtags (#nonprofit, #marketing) to help your tweets get more exposure.
  • BUT don’t use more than 2-3 hashtags per tweet.
  • Use a real picture of yourself for a personal account and a logo for a branded account.
  • If it’s taken you a while to respond, RT the original tweet in your response. It will help give the person you are responding to context.
  • Check the trending topics every time you log into to Twitter to see if there are any ties you can make to the association’s content.
  • Thank those from your target market (i.e. potential or current members) for following you.
  • Create a general hashtag for the profession or trade and use it religiously when you have any content that relates to the profession. Avoid weird spellings or shortenings if possible to make it easier for them to appear in Twitter searches.
  • Identify in the Twitter bio which employee(s) monitor the Twitter account to give others a sense of who they are talking with.
  • Don’t forget to brand your Twitter background. Use it as an opportunity to inform other Twitter users about your other channels or as a place to promote upcoming events.


Meeting Formats: Everything Old Is New Again?

Last week, I was invited to participate in an upcoming session at ASAE on “creating provocative and edgy learning topics and formats” for the 2009 AM. Aside from some momentary uncertainty about whether I’m really sufficiently creative, provocative, and edgy to be able to contribute in a meaningful way, I figured, what the hell, right?

I almost immediately stumbled onto this debate on Acronym about whether we’re really ready for creative, provocative, and edgy meeting formats. Apparently, for many people, the answer is an emphatic, “NO!”

On the other hand, we just got back the evaluations from the September CAE Immersion Course. They were generally good (Go CAE Action Team! Y’all rock!), and, as I reminded all the domain presenters, when reading the comments, don’t take any of them too much to heart – there’s always someone who LURVES you and someone who HAAAATES you. Focus on the overarching themes. (Does everyone say you talk too fast? Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know I do – I’m Northeastern city girl. Y’all are just going to have to keep up! But I digress….) I’m sure you can guess where I’m going:

One of our most prominent overarching themes was the need for MORE INTERACTION.

Adult learning 101, dontcha know?

Interaction is good – interaction is bad. Expert talking heads are good – expert talking heads are bad. PowerPoint is…no, I can’t even write that. PowerPoint is pretty much universally evil in my book.

So what’s really going on here?

I quote from adult learning pioneer Malcolm Knowles:

Adults have accumulated a foundation of life experiences and knowledge that may include work-related activities, family responsibilities, and previous education. They need to connect learning to this knowledge/experience base. To help them do so, draw out participants’ experience and knowledge which is relevant to the topic.

Which I think is the key. Interaction is good if expectations are properly set (i.e., make sure the session description includes “highly interactive” if that’s what the session is going to be) and if interaction is relevant to the topic.

Look, if I’m going to a presentation by Larry Lessig on copyright and fair use, I don’t really want to chat about my experiences on this topic – I want to listen to him (not least of which because he’s a really good presenter). On the other hand, if I’m trying to help a room full of 100 freaked out association professionals learn how to think like ASAE wants them to think in order to pass the CAE certification exam (like the Chief Staff Executive of a large national association that always follows best practices, in case you were wondering), I better give them some time to practice what that feels like, by working through situations and scenarios that are representative of what might show up on the exam.

So if we threw out everything about conferences as we currently know them, what would your ideal conference look like?

ASAE AM Conversation: The Lunchtable Twilight Zone

As you’ll note if you read Confessions of a Justified Meeting Attendee, I mostly avoided the ASAE Exhibit Hall. However, one day, I made the mistake of having lunch. No it wasn’t the food – I mean, it was typical conference food, but it was edible. And I wasn’t assaulted by exhibitors pushing troll bobble heads or anything.

But I had two of the strangest conversations of the entire meeting in the space of 10 minutes.

And I hang out with the YAPstars, so my standards for what constitutes a strange conversation are pretty forgiving.

After collecting my pasta and Diet Coke, I sat down at a table occupied by a couple health care association execs. Now, for those of you who didn’t see me, I was rockin’ the badge flare: CAE pin, Future Leaders pin, Decision To pin, ASAE Volunteer pin, and about a mile of badge ribbons, including “I Wiki” and “I Blog.” So these execs proceeded to tell me that their organizations had decided that they weren’t going to do online education because they “believe in face-to-face networking.” First of all, I hadn’t said anything more than, “May I join you?” and “I’m Elizabeth. And you are?” But whatever. What I don’t understand is why it has to be one or the other. Why can’t you have some face to face events for people who like that, can afford it, and can get time away from their other responsibilities, supplemented by some online events for people who prefer that method of learning and interacting? I think it’s pretty unlikely that these execs had done a survey of their entire universe of constituents (because non-members take advantage of our educational programs, too), gotten a 100% response rate, and not had a single person indicate any interest in virtual events. But I could be wrong. I also don’t understand what it was about my very existence that caused them to attack the idea of online ed so energetically, but maybe I put out a subtle pro-virtual education vibe.

But the really weird conversation happened about 5 minutes later.

A prominent speaker and ASAE meeting perennial joined us next. Without even introducing himself (because of course I would know who he was) or asking my name (probably because he didn’t consider it important), he asked, “Are you attending my session tomorrow?”

“That depends – when is it?”

“8:30 am.”

“Sorry, no, I’ll be presenting on wikis in the Social Media Lab then.”

“Oh, you mean that Facebook stuff.”

“Well, the Social Media Lab has had sessions on a variety of technologies – blogs, Twitter, virtual worlds, social networking tools. My session is on wikis.”

“I was on a conference call, and I asked if anyone had generated any business from Linkedin. Silence. Not a word. Heh-heh-heh.”

“Um, that’s not really the point. I’m a consultant, and I wouldn’t expect someone to want to hire me just because she saw my profile on Linkedin. It’s about keeping track of people you know professionally, and, increasingly, about getting work-related questions answered.”

“Oh, so you can use it to launch your Amway business by annoying people you worked with 10 years ago? That’s my profound thought for the day.”

And then he split.


(And keep in mind, this guy has spoken at every ASAE conference I’ve attended for at least the last 8 years.)

But that’s not the point. The point is this: what do they have in common? Narrow vision. Thinking inside the box. Refusing to look at things differently, even if someone else does the heavy lifting for you. Lack of innovation. Lack of willingness to explore potential. Fear. Of change, of the unknown, of not being in control.