Big Idea Month: What if associations offered no agenda at its next staff retreat other than “show up and talk about how we can be better?”

My third entry in the Acronym Big Idea Month rodeo:

What if the only thing associations focused on was “how can we be better?”

Or, to quote Jeffrey Cufaude from the December 8 #assnchat, what if we had “calls for ideas” just like we have calls for papers/presentations?

I think this gets to some of the other questions, like what if we forgot about petty internal politics and focused on the mission, what if we weren’t afraid to share new ideas, what if we removed “we have always done it that way” from our vocabularies?

Anyone who knows me knows that this is what I try to do, and I know a LOT of others in the same boat – you can find us without looking too hard (the association blogger community, association geeks on Twitter, the YAPstars, etc.). And we’re all tempted to think that other people think/reason the same way we do. But that’s demonstrably not true. Particularly not in this case, or “petty internal politics” would be an oxymoron.

So the question becomes: if “Ideas BAD!” is the focus of a sizable contingent of the association professional world (hell, of the world in general), AND we accept the premise that people act in ways that make sense to them, what’s going on here?

No, “my colleagues are all crazy” is not an acceptable answer.

And those of us on the side of “Change GOOD!” *need* the answer, because we have to persuade at least some of the “Change BAAAAAD!” crowd to at least not oppose us if we hope to accomplish anything other than a big ole headache from whacking our heads on our desks repeatedly.

I think – and I certainly could be wrong – that it comes down to fear. But I think it’s more than the traditional flip “they fear change” answer. Because that begs another question: why does this person fear change? What happened in her/his past to cause this? Did she have an idea – or multiple ideas – that were shot down in their infancy? Did he get to implement an idea that failed, and then get punished, or just totally hung out to dry? Did she have a great idea that was implemented and worked, only to see someone else hog all the credit?

I’m not saying that you’ll be able to somehow fix those past bad experiences. This isn’t therapy, and sitting around singing Kumbaya gives me hives anyway. But if you can get some idea about what’s happening in your detractors’ heads, you can think a little more constructively about what might help them be more comfortable with what you’re proposing than “very well, then let it be war between us!” And that’s when you can finally get some of those great ideas off the ground.

Big Idea Month: What if associations decided that sometimes, telling a member ‘no’ is an acceptable practice?

Post two in my contribution series to Acronym’s Big Ideas Month:

What if (perish the thought!), we actually told members NO?

I actually suspect that most associations already do this, but we do it in the wrong way. We say “no” all the time. Only it’s called, “That’s against association policy.” Which, aside from “we’re out of bourbon,” might be my least favorite four words in the English language.

You know what “that’s against association policy” REALLY means?

  • “I’m only line staff – I’m not actually empowered to decide anything.”
  • “I don’t want to/feel like it.”
  • “Member service isn’t my job.”
  • “Some day, far in the dim, dark past, someone decided that we don’t that. I don’t know why. Just because.”
  • “We have always done it that way.” (my least favorite seven words in the English language, other than “by the way, also out of chocolate.”)

Members are absolutely not always right – they know the industry/profession, you know how to run your organization – but what if every request was considered on its merits, rather than whether or not it’s “against” some random policy that some person put in place some time ago for reasons known only to him? What if ALL levels of staff were allowed, even encouraged, to make decisions? What if we really measured what we’re doing on “does this serve the members?” (Not just *this* member, all members – which can help resolve conflicts when a member asks for something that would be bad if universalized.)

Giving every staff person the ability to make decisions implies that sometimes she might say no. Which means it’s really important to know how to say no in the right way. “No.” “Why?” “Because I said so.” Not the right way to handle members. “We can’t do X (and there better be a reason other than “Because you were mean to me and I don’t feel like helping you”), but we do want to make this right. What about Y instead?” Or “what else can we do to make this right?” Get the member involved in producing a solution, and you’ll get her mind off the fact that you just said no to what she asked for and on to the fact that you’re working with her to resolve the situation. Detractors can become your most passionate fans/evangelists *if* you handle them right.

Big Idea Month: What if associations required every staffer to cold-call one member each week just to connect and listen?

I’m just a little late to the party, but I’ll be devoting the next 3 (edited 12/23 to add: nope, FOUR) Tuesdays to musing about questions from the awesome list at Acronym in honor of Big Idea Month.

So what if EVERY staff member had to talk to members on a regular basis?

Despite the existence of the idea “Membership is Everyone’s Business,” too often, it’s really not. Membership retention, for most organizations, is the business of the membership department. If retention goes down, the membership staff gets blamed, even if the reason people are leaving is because, for instance, the receptionist is rude. Or they hate the monthly magazine. Or they’ve decided to focus their energies on their local chapters. Or they’re organizing online. Or the annual meeting’s too expensive. Or whatever.

(And, while we’re on it, why are we always so concerned with affixing blame? It’s pointless. It stifles innovation, because people think “cover your ass” not “come up with and try amazing new idea.” And it wastes time and mental energy that would be better spent FIXING the PROBLEM. But I digress…)

I was hired for my first association job as Director of Member Services and Technology not because I knew anything about associations or management, but because I was from the profession, and the executive director figured I’d empathize with the members. And she was right. And that was great, as far as it went. Which was to one staff person. Not far enough, by a long shot.

We all talk about the idea that we exist to serve members, meet their needs, etc. But most of us have no freakin’ clue what those things are. We do annual satisfaction surveys and listen to and repeat conventional wisdom and swear that we’ve been doing this long enough to know every little thing about our members, their industry or profession, and what’s best for them.


You know the easiest way to find out what people want and need? Ask them. And not in some “1-5/very dissatisfied-very satisfied” BS survey, either.

“Hi there,. This is Elizabeth calling from NACHRI. If you have a few minutes to chat, I’d love to find out what’s going on in your children’s hospital and general area, and if you have any questions or comments about what’s we’re up to here at NACHRI.”

What do you get? Information, sure, but also connection. Community. A source of new ideas. The feeling that the association cares about me. Early warning of problems that might be cropping up, whether in your industry, or related to your association.

And, more importantly, it’s unfiltered. This is not meant to imply ill intent to your CEO or membership staff (the only people who commonly have contact with members). But everyone filters information they receive through their own mental maps. And someone with a different map might interpret the same data differently.

How would your association benefit from deep understanding of your members, their needs and wants, and industry or profession spread widely across the entire organization? What could you do with that? Would your members think different about the association when the renewal notices show up or when they arrive at your annual meeting if they felt connected not only to other members through the agency of the association, but to the association itself through contact with staff?