Down with Budgets!

And I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Example one: a recent discussion on the ASAE Collaborate executive list about trying to balance the annual budget cycle with making room from innovation.

Example two: this week, Jeff De Cagna did a webinar on his new e-book Associations Unorthodox. It focuses on six radical changes Jeff recommends associations make to position ourselves for the future. Shift #3? “Eliminate budgets.”

The problems with budgets (at least as we currently construct them) include:

  • They’re mostly backwards looking, based entirely on what happened last year, plus or minus a few percentage points.
  • They’re constructed and approved sometimes as much as 18-24 months before the money allocated it actually going to be spent.
  • They treat estimates like certainties, and then allocate every penny of expected revenue.
  • We use them to evaluate staff, holding our teams to meeting our budgets to the penny, and evaluating them on how well they do.

Extra revenue or less expense is always OK, of course, but extra expense? Even for an amazing opportunity or really important strategic investment? Well, you’ll just have to wait until the next budget cycle comes around. 18 months later, when you can actually spend the money, the opportunity has flown.

Why do we act as if budgets are set in stone? Why don’t we treat them as an estimate that’s open to revision based on changing circumstances? Or, as Jeff suggested, allocate some buckets of money to be spent on our organizations’ top strategic priorities, then leave it up to the staff and volunteer leaders responsible for those priorities to figure out what are the best investments in programs, products and services to meet those priorities?

Of course, that requires that you have ways of measuring the success or failure of what you’re doing other than “we met/didn’t meet budget this year.”

Did I just answer my own question?


A World Without Boards

A million years ago back in Dallas (actual time: just over a month), Jeff De Cagna, in his unsession on Associations Unorthodox, has asked us to think about radical questions to ask.

Now I love the idea of a radical question. One of the focal points of my consulting work is that asking the right question is as important as getting the right answer, if not more so. Too often, we ask the wrong question, come up with a truly genius answer, and then end up frustrated when it doesn’t fix the problem. And then we kick ourselves for coming up with a bad solution, when that wasn’t the problem at all. We started in the wrong place, so it was going to be virtually impossible for us to end in the right one.

Anyway, here’s what I came up with:

Here’s my radical ?: are boards the best way to run our orgs? What would the alt be/look like? #asae12
— Elizabeth Engel (@ewengel) August 13, 2012

Now, as my wise friend Leslie White, the excellent risk management consultant, points out: assuming your association is formally incorporated (which about 99.876% of us are), you are legally required to have some sort of board.

(Thanks, Leslie.)

So I guess my real question is: why do they operate as they do?

I know not all boards behave badly. But over the years, I’ve seen personal agendas, ego-based posturing, arrogance, cluelessness, personal aggrandizement, meddling with issues outside their ken, lack of willingness to take appropriate responsibility, and lack of willingness to ask difficult questions, all to an alarming degree.

And I don’t just blame the individual board members. We, as association professionals, do a poor job of properly training and preparing them for board service, and then setting and enforcing boundaries. It’s no wonder they have a tendency to run wild.

The reason it becomes a big problem is that the board has a lot of power.


It’s not for legal reasons.

And I’m not saying that no board should ever fulfill the common responsibilities of financial oversight and planning and managing the chief staff executive. I’m just asking why we act as if they have to.

I don’t have an answer to the question of a world without boards – or at least, pace Leslie, where board service is dramatically different.

But if we aren’t being well-served by the model (and some of us plainly aren’t), why not look for an alternative?

We Are STILL Doing It That Way

Or, to quote Marshall Goldsmith: “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the long-term prospects of associations recently. Will we survive the changes – technologically driven, generationally driven, ecologically driven, socio-economically driven, etc. – occurring in our global society? If so, how?

Thus it seemed like a good time to take a second look at We Have Always Done It That Way For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, a group of “Five Independent Thinkers” (whose names you probably recognize) got together in 2007 to address the pressing need for change in associations.

The Thinkers address a total of 101 issues that need to change in the ways we:

  • Think
  • Lead
  • Manage
  • Execute
  • Work Together
  • Involve Others

Five years later, what has changed?

I would hope, for one, that you’re no longer storing information like social security and credit card numbers in your association management software. I think most associations are now involved in social media at least to some degree, even if not very effectively.

But I still see a world where strategic planning and strategic thinking are conflated, where we operate in silos fighting over turf and resources, where we do a poor job of reaching out to new audiences (including the elusive “younger members”), where it still takes us too long to make decisions, and once those decisions are made, too long to act, where we never kill hoary old programs (no matter how useless they’ve become), where new ideas (because that’s what “innovation” is) get routinely shot down, where we’re still doing form-based annual reviews, where we’re unable to have honest exchanges.

I don’t think it’s just associations. But I see it here because this is where I am and have been for 15 years.

How do we pick up our heads out of plodding along doing the same old thing and making the same old mistakes every day? How do we get to the place where we’re agile enough to respond to, and even anticipate, the changes in our professional/industry environments and the larger world in such a way that our audiences (which don’t have to be narrowly confined to “members”) literally can’t make it without us, not because we have some sort of Svengali-like golden handcuffs but because we’re so in tune with what they need to be successful and we provide it so quickly and well, our associations are vital partners in those audiences’ success?

I don’t have the answers. But I’m at least willing to engage in the conversation. Join me?

Big Questions for Associations – Part 3

This is part three (aka “the conclusion”) in the series inspired by Jeff De Cagna’s March breakfast briefing on associations and mobile technology. Read Part 1Read Part 2.

Question 3: How will we manage the change from a pre-set package of options (membership) to an individually negotiated exchange of value?

In other words, we’re moving from “you can have any color you want as long as it’s black” to a world of mass personalization.  And many of us don’t do a particularly good job at the whole “value proposition” in the first place.

This idea has actually been around associations for awhile, in the guise of “cafeteria membership” (if you follow that link, you’ll notice the article is dated 2002).  The thing is, cafeterias generally have a limited set of options.  Is “print journal” versus “no print journal” really a meaningful choice?

On the other hand, we’re also constantly exhorted to focus on our “core competencies” as organizations (often with the implied “and outsource everything else” trailer).  Don’t try to be everything to everyone – just know what’s really important to your audience and do it better than anyone else.

Another thing we have to contend with is the whole membership model – i.e., you have to be a member to get X at all or to get X at a reasonable price.  But what I’m not actually a participant in the profession/industry, and, as an interested onlooker, all I want is X?  Is it really OK to price gouge me?  Or totally deny me access?

This becomes an even bigger deal as associations start promoting what we do through social media channels, with the potential of LOTS more people finding out about the good stuff we offer (positive)…and then not being able to participate (extremely negative).

We recently ran into this at NACHRI, when someone forwarded a potential tweet to that week’s editor about an upcoming webinar that was free, as long as you’re a NACHRI member, but not available at all to non-members.  You couldn’t even see information about the webinar if you weren’t a member.  And it was a topic with potential wide interest, if it “got out.” After a fairly lengthy internal debate, we opted to create a landing page outside our member wall (and notice the fortress terminology there, and don’t pretend you don’t use it at your organization, too) with information, rationalizing that anyone who was really interested enough to register (which required membership) probably had an affiliation with one of our member hospitals anyway.  We haven’t gotten complaints (that I’m aware of), but it’s only a matter of time.

But shouldn’t our offerings stand on their own two feet?  If people want something, they’ll pay for it.  If they don’t want it enough to pay for, then maybe we should stop doing it.  I realize there are limits to this line of thinking (witness all the people who bitch & moan about taxes and the federal government, yet keep using the police, the fire department, public roads and bridges, public water and sewage systems, public education, etc.).  But if a program can’t support itself, unless it genuinely is for the good of the profession, the industry or the public, maybe it’s time to kill it.

The comfortable thing about the membership model – and the reason so many of our organizations are loathe to even consider alternatives – is that, with very few exceptions, it provides a steady and reliable source of revenue that allows us to keep on ignoring those sacred cows.  Thing is, they aren’t going to die on their own.  And this problem is just going to get worse.

I don’t have an answer to this. But I do know that, particularly for individual membership associations (and trades, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that we’re immune), we’re already past time when we need to figure out how to let our audiences have it their way.

Big Questions for Associations – Part 2

Part two in the series inspired by Jeff De Cagna’s March breakfast briefing on associations and mobile technology.  (Read part 1 here.)

Question 2: How will we balance the need for greater intimacy with privacy concerns?

Oh boy, is this one HUGE for healthcare associations – actually, for healthcare in general.  You think you have privacy concerns? Under the rules of HIPAA, if any Protected Health Information is inappropriately shared (even if it was inadvertent), each instance can carry fines of up to $250,000 and/or 10 years’ imprisonment.  YIKES!

And yet healthcare organizations are managing to be active (quite active) in social media spaces, sharing their most compelling and inspiring content – patient stories.  How are they pulling this off?

NACHRI member (of course!) Children’s Hospital Los Angeles provides a great example.  As reported by the Care Networks blog, CHLA uses a 3 step process:

  1. Review their policy on how your story may be used
  2. Review their HIPAA compliance policy
  3. Submit your story through their simple online form (which is then reviewed by staff before being used)

Why does this work so well?  CHLA is completely up front about how they will – and won’t – use patients’ information, they get a positive affirmation from those patients that the patients are OK with playing by CHLA’s rules, and then they let the patients speak in their own voices.  The result?  Transparent, authentic awesomesauce.

How does your organization go about demonstrating that you REALLY know your audiences without being that creepy marketer who seems to be stalking people?

Big Questions for Associations – Part 1

Back in March, Jeff De Cagna did a breakfast briefing on the future of mobile technologies for associations.  At that time, he raised a series of questions I’ve been pondering since.  I haven’t come up with any answers, so I thought it might be time to take my musings public and hopefully spark a conversation about these issues.

Question 1: How do we connect with stakeholders who have public, digital and highly networked relationships?

This one has been particularly on my mind this summer.  After a LOT of back and forth, NACHRI has finally officially gotten on FB ( and Twitter ( At the same time, we’re in the midst of launching a white label social network on the Higher Logic platform, which will include their mobile app next spring.  And we have a fairly robust YouTube channel, plus two blogs.  Big changes, and some of my colleagues are more than a little nervous.

The larger social media environment for children’s hospitals is in flux as well.  On the one hand, there are plenty of children’s hospitals with substantial social media presence.  On the other, the actual people who run the children’s hospitals, not so much.  On the third hand (and thanks for letting me borrow one of yours), the current generation of administrators is starting to retire and we’re struggling to connect with the next generation.

Right now, I would say we’re still in the experimental stage with a lot of this.  Although we experimented with Twitter during our spring conference, we didn’t officially start tweeting consistently and with a process until about a month ago.  The FB page didn’t go live until around the same time.  We’re in the pre-deciding what metrics will even be meaningful stage.  Hell, we’re in the pre-deciding which platforms will be meaningful stage.

In the meantime, our next generation of administrators is out there.  We want to reach ever more deeply into our member hospitals, and those staffers are out there too, as are the people we’re trying to affect around policy, both legislators and grass-roots activists.  And in the end, as our tagline Champions for Children’s Health suggests, it is all about the kids.  And they’re DEFINITELY out there.

How do we find them?  Cut through the clutter?  Become the “curators of information” Jeff’s been encouraging associations to be? Provide – and show that we provide – value? How do we broadcast the good our hospitals do while still respecting HIPAA regulations (something with which all health care organizations struggle)?

How is your organization addressing the public, highly networked nature of the relationships with and between your target audiences?

I really don’t know the answers, but I DO know that we’re at least now in the game, and that’s a start.

I’ll be doing a series of posts about this for the next few weeks, so check back and offer your thoughts.

Handling Information Overload

I’ve been thinking about information overload for the past month or so.

It started with Jeff De Cagna’s breakfast session on Solving 21st Century Problems back in early March.

Then the #assnchat for March 16 focused on this topic.

Then I read this fun piece by Garrison Keillor in Salon.

And, in thinking about it, I realized that I actually do a pretty good job of this. I’m not always totally on top of every latest rumor about every bleeding edge technology or device. But I’m reasonably well-informed about most things related to social media and association management, while still being productive and successful in my job, spending a fair amount of time volunteering for ASAE and other groups in the DC community, writing this blog, writing an active and well-syndicated NFL blog, preserving time to read non-work-related stuff, having a life outside of all that and unplugging on a regular basis – all WITHOUT a smart phone.

In short, I have some tips to share for managing information overload.

My number 1 tip may be the hardest to replicate: be a fast reader who has good recall. I was already pretty good at this, but I got REALLY good in grad school. I do NOT recommend starting grad school just to acquire this skill. That’s like cutting off your arm to cure a paper cut. But anything you can do to speed up your pace and increase your retention will help. Yes, that means practice, and it also means focusing on one thing at a time.

That brings me to tip 2: multitasking is a myth. Music (preferably without lyrics) in the background while you’re writing? Sure. Skimming the headlines on the elliptical machine? You bet. Repeated cycling back and forth from working on next fiscal year’s budget to answering your email? Not so much. Every time you force your brain between disparate tasks, you lose momentum. That’s disastrous, particularly for tasks that require “flow.”

Tip 3: know and use the difference between “reading” and “skimming.” That rapid pace deep retention reading I do? I don’t use it for everything. I don’t need to devote that level of energy to my morning WaPo, or most magazine articles, or some emails, or most tweets, or some blog posts. The trick is to be able to QUICKLY identify which level of attention/retention is required and choose appropriately. But be a voracious reader and skimmer – you never know where your next great idea will be coming from.

Tip 4: choose what you pay attention to carefully. Social Media Today just wrote about this under the guise of trimming your lists. But the point is: only pay attention to what you’re really paying attention to. No matter how “famous” the person is, if you’re not getting anything out of following them or reading their blog, cut ’em. Be ruthless. You’ll never get to the meat if you’re inundated with fluff.

Tip 5: have a solid information organization system. Mine’s basically 3 pronged: my totally old skool, no-wifi, no email Palm Pilot (feel free to mock me, but I think, used properly, it’s the greatest productivity tool ever invented), my bookmarks, and my relentlessly pruned and managed RSS feed. It’s not fancy, it’s not necessarily the latest technology or gizmo, but it enables me to keep basically everything I need to hand. It’s supplemented by a carefully chosen group of Google docs (not everything, just the really important stuff), and, again, carefully chosen tweeps to follow. I don’t need to be in touch with everyone, and I prune for value all the time.

A few more:

Only touch things once to the greatest degree possible. Your Outlook inbox is not a filing system. Neither is a giant pile o’ papers on your desk. Neither is an about-to-topple-over-and-crush-you-in-the-middle-of-the-night stack of books and magazines next to your bed. If it’s quick, deal with it now. If it’s not quick but important, put it on a relentlessly pruned, SMALL pile to deal with as soon as you get a block of time (and keep a list of your priority items and make sure you know when your next block of time is coming – and the one after that). If it’s FYI or for future reference, file it IMMEDIATELY. And when you *have* a block of time, don’t futz around on Twitter. Twitter’s for “I have 5 minutes between finishing this task and my next meeting.” Likewise, when all you have is 5 minutes between finishing this task and your next meeting, that is NOT the time to start writing the organization-wide marketing plan for next year. Fit the tasks to the time you have.

Set boundaries. Does technology really “set us free”? I’m not sure that it’s progress that Dad can email from the Blackberry while on a conference call while pushing Junior on the swings, particularly given what we know about our lack of ability to truly multitask. With very few exceptions (you’re a doctor or Barack Obama – and if so, thanks for reading, Mr. President!), no one’s life is dependent on your being accessible 24/7. Trust me – you’re not that indispensable. None of us are. And constantly checking up on your staff (which is what refusing to be offline EVER is all about) tells them that you don’t have confidence in them. Is that really the message you want to send?

Does that message (that it’s OK to set boundaries) have to come from the top of your organization? It certainly helps, but in my experience, no. You *can* set your own boundaries, particularly if, when you’re on the job, you’re 100% on, and you’re clear about when you are and aren’t available – and if you really feel that you can’t set boundaries in your current organization, you might want to look for another job.

Related to that, beware false urgency. Just because Twitter and FB and email and smart phones make it possible for me to answer you in 30 seconds at any time of the day or night doesn’t mean that you actually need that. Have you ever noticed that if, say, you’re somewhere without Internet access for a few days, when you return to your email, there are THOUSANDS of messages? And if you start at the end of the various chains, you notice that 80% or more of the “issues” resolved themselves? There’s a lesson there.

Own your life (work and otherwise). Own your time. Make conscious choices about how you want to spend it and what’s important to you. Put down the iPhone every once in a while. Set your priorities and don’t let yourself be distracted from them by what’s new and shiny. It’s trite, but no one ever said, on her deathbed: “Why did I spent all that time with my friends and family? Why didn’t I spend more time on my Droid?”

Edited May 25 to add:  Amber Naslund (aka @ambercadabra) has a great blog post about how she keeps herself organized and together in 10 relatively simple (but not necessarily easy) steps.

BloggerCon and BloggerUnCon

This year was my first BloggerCon. It was also the first year that BloggerCon was part of the official program. So it was kind of a mixed group: long time bloggers about associations like Jeff, Mads, BMart, and JNott (aka McLovin), new bloggers about associations like, well, your truly, and lots of people whose organizations are blogging or thinking about starting blogs about the profession, industry, or issue they represent. So it was a pretty mixed bag.

A few thoughts:

  • This session really demonstrated to me the importance of the social aspects of social media.
  • The typical question about moderating came up. Andy couldn’t be there, since he was giving his own session at that time, so I represented and brought up his/RIMS‘s practice of allowing members to self–moderate through “mark as inappropriate.” The truth about moderating is that pretty much any level of control from absolute to wild west free-for-all can be appropriate, as long as you’re consistent and have a reason for choosing what you choose. (But personally, I’m in favor of writing a strong disclaimer and then letting the chips fall where they may.)
  • I kind of feel like we should be past the “what is all this stuff?” questions at this point. But as was demonstrated in all the social media sessions (including many of the Social Media Labs), we’re not. Educate yourselves people!
  • Participants also asked if an organizational blog won’t result in diluting attention and interest in the organization’s other properties. And the answer is really no. Different audiences are going to want to get information in different formats. If you, as you should, think of at least 3 ways to use anything you write/produce, this is just one more method to get the word out. And it can provide nice cross-promotional opportunities.
  • Voice is key. (This came up in my Social Media Lab session, too.) Your CEO/ED doesn’t need a blog just to have a blog. Only start one if you can make the commitment to write frequently and authentically. Having your PR firm write pieces “from your CEO” is going to come off as fake. Sometimes it’s more useful to see what’s already out there – like maybe some fab member blogs on your profession or industry – and link to them rather than trying to force the creation of community where it doesn’t naturally exist.
  • And it’s OK to mix up format of your posts. It’s not the same as writing articles. Some posts can be be long, some can be short, some can be links, whatevs. They key is QUALITY CONTENT. If you can make it good, everything else is icing.

BloggerUnCon was a completely different experience. It wasn’t part of the official program, and it took place in the out-of-the-way CAE Lounge at the end of the program day on Monday. The information was only in the association blogosphere, too, so it was mostly the people doing the heavy lifting of association blogging. I definitely got the sense that this session was more like previous years’ BloggerCons.

Bob Wolfe kicked us off with a really great question: Why do we blog?

The answers were fascinating.

  • Ben talked about starting his blog to help him when he was studying for the CAE in 2004. Then he realized that he was helping other people, too, and just kept going. And helping people.
  • Matt spoke about how much he enjoyed hearing about other young association execs’ experiences and wanting to contribute to the conversation.
  • Jeff launched his blog as the original Principled Innovation website, after he’d been running the business for over a year, in order to “initiate the converation I wanted to have with the association community about innovation.”
  • Jamie indicated that blogs are better than resumes for getting a sense of who a person really is, as the cleverly named Get Me Jamie Notter would attest.
  • Bob himself pointed out that “thought leaders blog.”

In fact, several people mentioned the importance of blogging in creating a personal brand as an association professional and as a source of professional opportunity. It’s about creating a personal body of work.

Shifting employment patterns means that there are increasing opportunities for those thought leaders who work in or with associations to create and market personal expertise and a personal brand while still keeping their day jobs.

That was a huge driver for me in starting T4P. When I found out with 3 weeks notice that I was going to be laid off this spring, I considered – briefly – kicking off my own consulting firm. And I realized that I wasn’t known in the association community, at least not well enough to start consulting on my own without having to KILL myself to get clients. It was a real eye opener. (Also, I really, really love to write. And have for a long time.)

The conversation then shifted to the idea of voice, audience, and focus. What are you writing about and for whom? The participants had a variety of focuses (focii?) within the association space, but the common theme was the idea of the conversation, and participating in it.

We then drifted into a discussion of some of the technical details of the newly-launched A List Bloggers, in preparation for our plans for (association) world domination, before talking about what role we can – and should – play in convincing The Powers That Be of the power of social media.

The problem is, we aren’t where they are, and we’re not speaking with them in ways they understand. Which I think is a really valuable lesson in member engagement. You can’t expect people (CEOs/EDs or members) to come to you, and you can’t expect them to speak your language.

We have to learn to use terms that are meaningful to the people we want to convince – things like “engagement,” “community,” “collaboration,” and “attracting younger members.”

Even the medium of a Social Media Lab or socnet sessions may be the wrong way to go about this. What we need is to get social media experts on panel sessions about board relations and advocacy and creating vital educational experiences and recruiting and engaging members. Which is why every social media session ends up being a 101 session on “this is a blog, this a wiki, this is a social network” and it’s really, REALLY hard to focus the conversation on the “so what?” We have to get out of the social media ghetto and into the executive suites, the membership departments, the publications areas, the meetings teams.

As Ben put it, “It’s a simple calculation: engagement increases the likelihood of renewal. Renewal increases the likelihood of creating organizational evangelists. And virtual communities are an increasingly popular form of engagement.”

So I leave you with a question: what would your organization look like if your individual staff members didn’t focus specifically and exclusively on your journal, or getting out the renewal notices on time, or managing the membership database, or creating press releases, or your legislative fly in day, but instead worked as fluid team of engagement specialists on increasing engagement in your organization, your industry, your profession, for your entire universe of constituents? What would that world be like?