The Time Is Now

Climate change and sustainability are increasingly in the news and showing up as a key topic for the association industry. Association execs are realizing that climate change is not just a moral imperative, it’s a business imperative.

To quote ASAE from their well-attended webinar on this topic back in May: “Either as part of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) initiatives or looking at impact and legacy, associations are increasingly grappling with the role sustainability plays in supporting their work and advancing their missions.”

In The Time is Now: Association Resilience and Adaptation and the Anthropocene Climate Disruption, Shelly Alcorn and I provide a brief overview of data on climate change, address the psychological barriers to action humans face, and bring to bear the concepts of resilience (preparing to bounce back from challenges) and adaptation (learning how to live and work differently) on the specific effects the climate crisis will have on associations’ internal operations, member-facing programs, products and services, and on the professions and industries we exist to serve.

Our goal is to help associations better understand how this “wicked problem” is going to affect our industry and begin preparing to better respond to the challenges that will face us all in the coming years.

The whitepaper also includes:

  • Case studies with the American Association of Geographers,, and the Strata Community Association (our first international case study!).
  • A sidebar on climate change and US national security.
  • Stories of positive change to inspire you.
  • A series of thought questions for you to use to spark discussion with your team.
  • An extensive list of resources in case you want to dig deeper on any of the topics addressed.

I’ll be blogging about the whitepaper more in the coming days, highlighting some of our major findings, but in the meantime I invite you to download your free copy at – we don’t collect any data on you to get it, and you won’t end up on some mailing list you didn’t ask for. We just use the as an easy mechanism to count the number of times it’s been downloaded.

However, Shelly and I realized that there’s potentially something much bigger here. We’re hoping to put together a true Community of Practice of associations who are ready to lead change. When you download your copy, you’ll have the option of taking a three question survey and sharing contact information if you’d like to be kept in the loop about that.

Get your copy at

And don’t forget to check out some of the other FREE Spark collaborative whitepapers, too, on topics ranging from content curation to digital transformation, blockchain, DEI, lean startup, member-centric engagement, and more!

Association Meetings in a Post-Roe World

On Tuesday, October 11, Shelly Alcorn hosted Joan Eisenstodt and me on The Phoenix Cast for an important conversation about association meetings in a post-Roe world.

Just as meetings are starting to recover from pandemic shutdowns, new (and old) laws are putting pregnant attendees at significant risk.

The key thing I think associations need to take from our conversation is that choices about where we host our meetings could be putting pregnant attendees at SIGNIFICANT risk if they have a medical emergency related to pregnancy during the event.

In the immediate term, association execs and boards need to talk that through and make a plan for your next event.

In the longer term, we need to talk, as a community, about what this means in terms of equity of access (or lack thereof) for attendees.

We also need a plan as an industry to respond to this. As we saw back in 2016-17 when we came together to respond to the rash of transphobic “bathroom bills,” there is strength in numbers!

Most of all, DO NOT ignore this situation.

Edited to add: ASAE has recently released a decision guide to help association executives think through implications of our choices in conference location decisions. Learn more about it and download the guide here

What Should We Do to Get Ready for Blockchain?

One of the key elements of blockchain networks is the network. This technology is a system-level technology. What that means is that its true power lies in the network effect, in the system. Any one application can have positive (or negative, or both) impacts, but disruptive change will come about as different applications begin to interact with each other.

In a practical sense, to quote Blockchain for Associations: Separating the Hype from the Promise, that means:

…blockchain-related changes that come to your particular profession or industry are likely to happen not at all and then all at once…

If you do only ONE thing as a result of the white paper and this blog series, it should be to educate your senior paid and volunteer leadership. When the time comes that the network effect hits the profession or industry your association serves, you will need to be nimble enough to make rapid decisions. You can’t wait until then to start your educational process.

Where do you start?

Of course, I’m going to say: download the whitepaper, read it, assign your board to read it, make it an agenda item at your next board meeting, assign senior staff to read it, and make it an agenda item at your next senior staff meeting. Remember, it’s completely free, and you won’t be asked for any information or put on a mailing list.

The whitepaper itself includes advice for next steps after that, ranging from more detailed takes on everything I’ve covered in the past few posts to a substantial reference list to discussion questions to inform your conversations with your paid and volunteer leaders to information about where you can set up sandboxes.

I’ll close with one more quote:

Blockchain is likely to disrupt association operations, just as the arrival of the internet and social media did. Does that necessarily mean that blockchain will put associations out of business? Well, no.

However, it is going to change some fundamental things about the way we operate, and now is the time to start educating yourself as to how.


How Will Blockchain Affect My Members?

As you may recall from my previous post on my new whitepaper, Blockchain for Associations: Separating the Hype from the Promise, my co-author Shelly Alcorn and I think that this is the REAL question association execs need to be asking ourselves right now.

The tricky part is that now we’re getting into particular professions and industries, which means that the questions, problems, and answers differ.

Realizing that we couldn’t take on EVERYTHING, Shelly and I identified the following professions/industries and related questions as key areas in which to demonstrate the potential of blockchain technology:

  • Education: How can we quickly and cheaply verify credentials with 100% certainty?
  • Engineering: How can we accelerate the construction process while also reducing risk?
  • Government: If someone loses her documents or her papers are destroyed, how can she prove who she is?
  • Law: How do we ensure that contracts are executed correctly, that all parties understand them, and that they remain safe and secure?
  • Supply Chain: How can we be certain of the provenance of goods while also reducing the time (and associated costs) of getting them from point A to point B?
  • Real Estate: How can we make it easier to buy and sell property while also ensuring ownership records are correct and current?

To learn the answers, check out the full whitepaper, Blockchain for Associations: Separating the Hype from the Promise, downloadable for free at, no divulging of any information about yourself required.

Should Associations Care About Blockchain?

And if so, why?

Blockchain for Dummies offers some qualifying questions when you’re trying to figure out whether blockchain is an appropriate solution for your association and for which projects:

  • Do we need to track transactions that involve more than two parties?
  • Is the current system overly complex or costly, possibly due to the need for intermediaries or a central point of control?
  • Can the network benefit from increased trust, transparency, and accountability in recordkeeping?
  • Is the current system prone to errors due to manual processes or duplication of effort?
  • Is the current transaction system vulnerable to fraud, cyber-attack, and human error?

Now, that probably sounds like every single thing you do.

But wait! There’s one more question you should pose to yourself, suggested by CompTIA in their Harnessing the Blockchain Revolution report:

Are there non-blockchain solutions that are available and effective?

In the VAST majority of cases, the answer to that is: yes.

The one exception Shelly Alcorn and I identified in our new whitepaper, Blockchain for Associations: Separating the Hype from the Promise, is credentialing.

Credentialing (degrees of all types, licenses, certifications, certificates, digital badges) is possibly, next to cryptocurrency, the most mature application of blockchain technology (and it’s certainly far more beneficial from a social good perspective). People earn credentials, but, with current technology, the issuing institutions own those credentials for verification purposes. That leads to all sorts of “friction”: slow, expensive processes to verify credentials, faked credentials, challenges dealing with non-traditional or micro-credentials.

Credentials that are on the blockchain cannot be faked, cannot be altered, and are owned by the person who earns them for verification purposes. Status updates are immediate and transparent, whether that’s about earning, maintaining, or even losing a credential.

For instance, I’m a CAE. But how can you know? I can claim it, but without the issuing institution (ASAE, in this case) confirming, you can’t know whether or not I ever earned it and, even if I did, whether or not I’m maintaining it. (I did, in January 2004, and most recently renewed this past fall, but again, how can YOU know?)

Now for something like a CAE, you might look at that and say, “So what if Elizabeth never got around to submitting her renewal paperwork last fall, lapsed, and hasn’t updated her LinkedIn profile yet? Nobody’s dying on the operating table here.” But what about a medical license? Or an industrial refrigeration technician certification (they’re the nice folks who keep our food supply chain operating, and they work with ammonia-based refrigeration systems that, if things go wrong, can kill people)?

However, the crux of the blockchain matter for associations, as Shelly and I see it, is less “how is blockchain going to affect associations?” and more “how is blockchain going to affect association members, in their professions and industries?” Which will be the topic of my next post in this series.

To learn more about this technology and how it’s going to impact our industry in the coming months and years, check out the full whitepaper, Blockchain for Associations: Separating the Hype from the Promise, downloadable for free at, no divulging of any information about yourself required.


What IS Blockchain?

At it’s most basic level, blockchain is a ledger-style database.

“Wait a second!” you might say. “There are PLENTY of database options out there. Why do we need ANOTHER one?”

Blockchain allows two people who don’t know or trust each other to exchange value over the internet without the involvement of a third party. It keeps a historical, time-stamped record of transactions involving things that are valuable. Those valuable things can be physical objects (like a diamond or a head of lettuce) or intangible items (like an ebook or electronic music file).

It addresses two key problems in any value exchange:

  1. It prevents double-spending.
  2. It provide immutable verification of the transaction.

And again, it does this without involving a third party intermediary, which means the transactions can happen faster and at a lower cost.

To learn more about how the technology actually works, via a clever (if I do say so myself) analogy about two people going to a ballgame together, check out the full whitepaper, Blockchain for Associations: Separating the Hype from the Promise, downloadable for free at, no divulging of any information about yourself required.

Blockchain for Associations

In the spring of 2018, I had the opportunity to attend one of my favorite conferences in the association year: digitalNOW. At that event, among all the cutting-edge content, I heard one word over and over: blockchain. Two things quickly became apparent to me: one, it was an emerging trend associations should pay attention to and two, nobody seemed to really understand it all that well.Image of cover page of whitepaper

  • What is blockchain?
  • How does it work?
  • How does it relate to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies?
  • Are there other applications of the technology?
  • What does it all mean for associations?

Those are some of the questions Shelly Alcorn (Alcorn Associates Management Consulting and Ubiquity University) and I seek to answer in our new collaborative whitepaper, Blockchain for Associations: Separating the Hype from the Promise

The whitepaper includes an interview with Tim Haynes, founder of Signal and Story, who you may have heard speaking on blockchain at ASAE’s 2018 Tech Conference last December, and a case study from Central New Mexico Community College, which, under the direction of CIO Feng Hou, has been at the forefront of student-owned and -administered credentials maintained on the blockchain. It also includes an extensive bibliography for those who wish to REALLY geek out.

I’ll be blogging about the whitepaper in the coming days, highlighting some of our major findings, but in the meantime I invite you to download your free copy at – we don’t collect any data on you to get it, and you won’t end up on some mailing list you didn’t ask for. We just use the as an easy mechanism to count the number of times it’s been downloaded.

The complete whitepaper team – Shelly Alcorn, Tim Haynes, Feng Hou, and myself – will also be participating in SURGE Co-Creation, a free interactive virtual conference on May 1-3 hosted by You can find out more about the event as a whole and our session at (You can also register, which is required, but is, as mentioned above, free.)

And don’t forget to check out the other FREE Spark whitepapers, too:

Happy Fabulous Five, Spark!

Floral design - Flower

Today marks five years since I launched Spark Consulting. As I look back on the past five years, I have much to be grateful for. Leading that list is all the people who’ve contributed to the success of this Big Hairy Audacious Goal.

First, I have to thank all my wonderful clients. Spark would not exist without each and every one of you. I particularly want to thank the American Chemical Society, my very first client, for being willing to take a risk on hiring the new kid in town, and Ross Simons for making the connection between a brand-new consultant and her first lead. Over the years, many of my clients have referred me to their colleagues and/or hired me again for additional projects. I can’t express how grateful I am for their confidence in me and my work.

Back in late 2011, I was working for the Children’s Hospitals Association. I’d been there for a few years and was starting to think about my next move. At the time, I was thinking it would be my first CEO position, leading a small association. I’d been in the biz for 14 years at that point, had my CAE and an MA, had worked in a wide variety of functional areas in association management leading a variety of different types and sizes of teams, and had even served as an acting CEO for a small association. I started applying for those types of positions, despite the fact that when I mentioned I was looking for my next gig, the nearly universal response was, “So you’re launching your own consulting business, right?” I want to thank Shira Harrington (Purposeful Hire) for being the one who helped me understand that being a consultant would be a better path for me.

Maddie Grant, Lindy Dreyer, and Jamie Notter came over to my house on a cold winter afternoon and helped me figure out what I wanted to call this new consulting business, how I wanted to frame the work I wanted to do, how brand Spark and myself, and brainstormed my clever URL (in which a discussion about “GetMeJamieNotter” led to “GetMeSpark”).

When I was starting out, I was fortunate to be invited to join a Mastermind Group that served as my kitchen cabinet, pushed me to define my goals, and helped me think through how to overcome the barriers to achieving them. Leslie White, Peggy Hoffman, Shira Harrington, KiKi L’Italien, and Sohini Baliga kept me on the right path during those critical first two years.

One of the most useful things I learned studying for the CAE 14 years ago was to know what you are – and aren’t – good at, and make sure to surround yourself with great people who know and can do what you can’t. I’ve been fortunate to work with four outstanding vendors on the tasks I can’t do for myself: Bean Creative for my website, ImagePrep for all my graphic design needs, Andrew Mirsky (Mirsky Law Group) for all my contracts and other legal needs, and Moran & Company for bookkeeping, accounting, and tax advice and planning.

My original career goal, back in college, was to be a university professor. I’ve always loved research and writing, particularly long-form essays. One of the most personally and professionally fulfilling things I’ve been able to do since launching Spark is the Spark collaborative white paper series. I now have the freedom to research and write, diving into topics that interest me and that I think are important for our industry.

I’ve been fortunate to work with a host of fantastic contributors for the nine existing monographs: Jeff De Cagna, George Breeden, Tom Lehman, Jamie Notter, Leslie White, Peggy Hoffman, Peter Houstle, Anna Caraveli, Guillermo Ortiz de Zarate, Shelly Alcorn, Polly Siobhan Karpowicz, Tracy Petrillo, Sherry Marts, Joe Gerstandt, Jess Pettitt, and Joan Eisenstodt.

I also want to thank the many association executives who were willing to share the stories of their organizations’ work, struggles, and triumphs in the case studies that illustrate many of the concepts the white papers discuss.

Thanks also go to Alison Dixon (Image Prep), who’s done all the beautiful layout and graphic work on the white papers, and to copy editors Ed Lamb and Joe Rominiecki, who’ve done their level best to save me from my typos and grammatical errors.

The association consulting community more broadly has also served as a tremendous source of inspiration, help, and advice over the years. Many association consultants have generously given of their time and expertise to answer my questions, point me in the direction of resources I need, or just generally help me to buck up when things aren’t going as I’d like them to with the business. We may be competitors, at least on occasion, but we are a community and we help each other out, and that’s priceless.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I have to thank my spouse, Jim. When I came home from that fateful lunch with Shira nearly six years ago, I was nervous. As far as he knew, the plan was to land a CEO position, with the attendant salary, benefits, and security. I knew I was about to announce that I might want to throw all that over in favor of the risk, excitement, and uncertainty of launching my own business. This change in direction would have a dramatic effect on him and his life as well, and I didn’t know how he’d respond.

When I told him what had happened over lunch and what I was thinking, he responded: “I think that’s a great idea. I think you’d be a terrific solo consultant. You should definitely do that.”

“Well damn,” I thought. “If he’s that confident, what in the hell am I so worried about?”

Five years later, here we are. It’s been a thrilling, challenging, amazing, terrifying journey so far. I can’t wait to see what the next five years bring.

Photo by Peedee on Unsplash

Letter to ASAE – ASAE’s Response

ASAE has officially responded to those of us who expressed concern about the association industry response to the 2016 Presidential election.

Thanks to John Graham and Scott Wiley for allowing me to publicly share their response to the letter that was published on this blog on November 21.

Click through to view the PDF of that communication.

My thoughts:

  • I appreciate the fact that ASAE took the time to respond officially.
  • I also appreciate the fact that ASAE’s response includes a re-statement of the association’s commitment to diversity and inclusion,
  • I commend ASAE for their ongoing work lobbying against the “bathroom bill” in Texas.
  • I am disappointed that ASAE did not address any of the specific requests the author group had made, such as calling on Donald Trump to renounce his divisive rhetoric and the attacks on various groups that have been made – and are continuing to be made – by his supporters, appointing an ombudsman to address questions about issues that might arise from Mr. Trump’s divisive policies, and instituting a more transparent process for forming advocacy and public policy positions.

Should ASAE wish to pursue any of these requested actions, I believe I speak for the entire original author group when I say that we stand ready to assist in any way that we can.


Where are the YPs?

“How can I recruit young professional members if there are no young professionals entering our industry?”

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot recently, not least of which because I have a client that is in this EXACT situation. Their industry is blue collar, but it is also one with excellent career and salary prospects and a clear educational track. That track just doesn’t happen to include college.

Associations Now recently profiled an initiative by the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association focused on exactly this: recruiting young people into the industry.

I’d guess that PHCC and my client aren’t the only associations struggling with this.

One of the things that basic math tells us is that associations are in for a bit of a rough patch related to membership. The fact of the matter is that GenerationX, currently in their prime career and, thus, association membership target, years, is a smaller cohort than the retiring Baby Boomers and up and coming Millennials. And while the internet didn’t kill membership for the Xers (in fact, Xers join associations at higher rates than Boomers), we’re in the middle part of the narrow part of the hourglass. Which puts pressure on associations to hang on to retiring members longer and recruit young members earlier than we historically have.

On the “hang on to them longer” front, we are assisted by the fact that Boomers are retiring later, and far more partially, than their Silent Generation forebears. While what Boomers are looking for from their memberships and what they’re willing and able to contribute as members of our professional communities may shift, they aren’t hitting 65 and bolting out the door, gold watch in hand, to move to Florida and fish full time.

On the “recruit them earlier” front, though, we’re having more trouble, not least of which because, for some of us, young people aren’t showing up to our professions or industries in the first place.

What can we do about that?

Associations have enormous untapped advantages in filling the workforce pipeline for the professions and industries we serve:

  • We have direct connections to, and existing relationships with, employers, so we know what they need in entry-level and junior workers.
  • We own non-college certification and credentialing. No other sector has as much experience with this as we do.
  • We’re lightening fast, at least compared with hidebound higher education.
  • We know how to educate non-traditional students in non-traditional settings.

To learn more about what you association can do to help create your universe of future members, check out The Association Role in the New Education Paradigm, the latest Spark whitepaper, co-authored with Shelly Alcorn, CAE, Alcorn Associates Management Consulting. It includes case studies of associations that are doing good work in educating the next generation of professionals in their industries, and practical steps you can take right now to position your association for success in this critically important arena.

Get your free copy today at